Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the singer and guitarist behind the beatified post-hardcore group At the Drive-In and the prog-WTFery of The Mars Volta, stormed back into the Observatory as Antemasque Monday night. Now into their third decade together as touring musicians, the pair's idiosyncratic brand of heavy rock is still fresh, thanks in part to a constantly rotating cast of supporting characters.
As The Mars Volta, Bixler and Rodriguez went through drummers at a Spinal Tap-ian rate, hiring and firing half a dozen percussionists over a ten-year span. A year after their debut release, Antemasque is continuing that trend. Dave Elitch, who hit the skins on the band's first album, has been replaced by a much more recognizable name: Travis Barker, of Blink-182, The Transplants, and (as my wife reminded me) reality-TV fame.
Barker has always been a musical force, but he's no longer the guy who mugged for the camera in late-90's MTV staples like "All the Small Things" and "What's My Age Again." In the decade or so since Blink's last release, Barker survived a plane crash, found sobriety, released a solo album, and collaborated with artists ranging from Eminem to Slash as a drummer and producer.
Barker brought a tight, workmanlike foundation to Antemasque's stage act, along with a huge increase in the average number of tattoos per band member. After opening with "Hanging in the Lurch" from Antemasque's self-titled first album (which ended with Bixler searching for a shoe that slipped off while he flailed around the stage), the frontman introduced the latest addition to their rhythm section. "We just made an album with this cat," Bixler said, before announcing that most of the evening's songs would be new, as-yet-unperformed tracks from that record, tentatively titled "Saddle on the Atom Bomb."
Antemasque rolled out at least eight new songs from the new album and even threw in a cover of Joe Jackson's 1978 hit "One More Time." Bixler worked the crowd like a standup comic, saying that one of the new tracks was an homage to the movie Annie Hall, "inspired by the Puerto Rican Woody Allen," gesturing to his guitarist. The singer hasn't lost his taste for cinematic, sci-fi tinged lyrics, introducing two other new songs as "The Mothership" and "Let the Right One In," which shares its name with a 2008 Swedish vampire film. One track was so fresh that Bixler said "we don't even have a name for this song, that's how early this shit is."
The new material fit a pattern established by the first batch of Antemasque recordings – surprisingly straightforward rock songs free of At the Drive-In's punk constraints and The Mars Volta's overwrought bombast. The meandering, jazz-infused jams that used to fill the latter band's two-plus hour live shows were limited to a few minutes during the closing song, an extended version of "People Forget" from Antemasque's debut. Barker's eyes were locked onto Rodriguez-Lopez during the improvised section, which felt like the only moment of the show that wasn't tightly rehearsed.
Rodriguez-Lopez's creative projects often become family affairs, and Antemasque is no exception. Omar's brother Marfred, who took Flea's place (yes, that Flea) on bass during the band's first visit to the Observatory last year, returned to bring the low end Monday night. The show's opening act, Eureka the Butcher, is another Rodriguez-Lopez brother, Marcel, who also played percussion and keyboards in The Mars Volta. Marcel apologized for his late start – "I just got off a plane, I barely made it here," he said – and managed to fit in about 20 minutes of lurching electronic beats before calling it a night.