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Another Mars Volta album, another heady concept behind it, right? Well, yeah, but the story of The Bedlam in Goliath is lighter than the stormy eulogizing of De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute. It starts with guitarist/producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez buying a Ouija-like device called the Soothsayer while in Jerusalem. Like other Mars Volta story lines, from there it's a jagged, opaque journey shrouded in death and the intimation that the band nearly fell apart making the album.
"It makes it easier to sing about the same thing for every song," deadpans lyricist/vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. "But it's not like [the Who's concept album] Tommy, where they give you training wheels and explain everything. Our version of concept albums is kind of fucked."
He's damn right. Whereas most concepts provide an entry point for an album, the Mars Volta's typical narrative functions more as another series of twists in the already dizzying maze of their sound. Bixler-Zavala likens their records to the notorious films of Werner Herzog, in that "every album demands so much of you."
Describing the band's overall trajectory, he cites the plot of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, in which the title character must somehow move a steamboat over a daunting mountain. "We've lost people on the way [over the mountain], literally," he says, a reference both to listeners and to the deaths of band mates Julio Venegas and Jeremy Ward, the impetus for the first two albums' story lines.
The Bedlam in Goliath is vivid and foreboding, drenched in guitar histrionics, dense production and a deep bag of influences, from Latin-tinged punk and funk to mind-altering psych and prog. And on this album more than ever, Middle Eastern influences come into play. "It's something we've always been into," assures Bixler-Zavala. "To play with Middle Eastern scale is very fun and different from Western scale. Plus, it fits with the story line. The heart of it is this tale about honor killings in Muslim society."
The thickly funky "Goliath" recalls Rage Against the Machine, except for its lyrics, which unfold into a disturbingly dreamy noir. "I'm starting to feel a miscarriage coming on," sings Bixler-Zavala at one point. "Ilyena" could be a Prince tune drowning, and there are intense stabs of guitar aggression throughout "Wax Simulacra." The average song length is seven minutes, with "Soothsayer" and "Cavalettas" stretching the furthest, literally and figuratively. If there's a common thread, it's that every sound is charged with frightening voltage, and every lyric is screamed in Bixler-Zavala's piercing falsetto.
"It's not average like everyone else," Bixler-Zavala says, almost defensively. "[Omar] likes to record that tension and anger, and everyone's tense and angry when they're in front of a microphone and paying shitloads of money to be there." In fact, Rodriguez-Lopez usually doesn't allow the band to work on any part of an album outside the controlled studio setting. "He'll let me take a couple of compositions home, but he likes when I improv [the lyrics] and do gibberish [vocal] takes."
Given how arty and adventurous their albums are, it's amazing the Mars Volta have not only survived, but also thrived under the umbrella of Universal Records, reaching a larger audience with each album. "Not everyone can be Fugazi," declares Bixler-Zavala, again on the defense. "There are eight monkeys onstage, and everyone's got families. It makes sense to be in bed with the suits."
Being a major-label band is part of what landed the Mars Volta a slot opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They also count Chili Peppers guitar god John Frusciante as a contributing member, although even that didn't help them cross over into every section of the Chili Peppers' fan base. "It was hard for us," Bixler-Zavala recalls, "playing for that really fucking shitty part of Middle America that's eating popcorn and hot dogs and asking, 'Where's Flea?'"
If The Bedlam in Goliath or any other Mars Volta album seems like too much to digest, Bixler-Zavala suggests it's the listener's lack of imagination. He compares the band to the Blade Runner character played by Edward James Olmos, who speaks a combination of different languages. "If that doesn't happen [to music in the future]," he says, "someone failed along the way. But you can't say it was us."