Mars Volta surges on

January 17, 2008|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,SUN REPORTER

Conventional is a term not usually associated with the Mars Volta.

Whether you're referring to its music -- a genre-ambiguous, shattered mosaic of sound, melding psychedelic prog, Latin, punk and acid jazz; its lyrics -- cryptic allusions to surreal and obscure imagery; or its history -- tumultuous, tragic and drug-laden, it's as if the band has little, if any, experience with anything that's run-of-the-mill.

But perseverance is a concept that the eight-member band, coming to Rams Head Live tomorrow, knows a little something about.

The Mars Volta founders and core members, vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and lead guitarist/producer/quasi-maestro Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, have experienced what seems like a lifetime of hardships in their history, including a mysterious and intangible string of "bad luck," during the development of their coming release, The Bedlam in Goliath.

The culprit of the supposed bad luck was a Ouija-style board, dubbed, "The Soothsayer," brought back from Israel by Rodriguez-Lopez. The eerie happenings surrounding the board have subsided ever since Rodriguez-Lopez buried the unexpectedly accursed gift, swearing never to speak its name again.

Although some might dismiss such a story as a strategic marketing campaign for the album, Bixler-Zavala is convinced that something hexlike or otherworldly was responsible.

"Anyone who wants to buy the album is gonna buy it," says Bixler-Zavala in a recent telephone interview. "It's too bad that the idea of witchcraft and sorcery is a taboo subject matter. There are cultures around the world where this is a real concern."

The Mars Volta has come to a sort of crossroads, finding something that's often eluded the band since its inception in 2001 -- security.

Tragedy first struck in 2003 when sound manipulator Jeremy Ward died from an overdose of heroin a month before the band's first conceptual LP, De-Loused in the Comatorium, was released.

Then Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, haunted by the death of Ward, battled addictions to crack cocaine and heroin, not to mention their own personal demons.

What followed was a short period of stability, void of band-altering occurrences. It toured extensively and released its epic conceptual follow-up, Frances the Mute, in 2005, an album that premiered at No. 4 on the Billboard chart.

But trouble was brewing. Longtime drummer Jon Theodore wasn't melding well with the rest of the band. After Theodore was ousted in 2006, the band went through two replacement drummers in a matter of months while supporting the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour.

But drummer woes have since subsided. Though the position was originally a source of difficulty and digression within the band, the current drummer has brought an aura of positive energy.

According to Bixler-Zavala, Thomas Pridgen, a 24-year-old drumming prodigy who joined the band last March, has provided a spark of new creative spirit, reinvigorating the other members (most of whom are in their 30s).

"He's brought a fountain of youth," says Bixler-Zavala. "Past drummers were often like grumpy pastors, but now we have someone young and fresh who speaks. I'm really on my feet with him. I really like the challenge. Now, we all feel his age. We're all smiling, onstage and off. We're never dreading a concert; we're looking forward to it."

But despite Pridgen's lengthy resume, which includes a four-year scholarship to the Berklee College of Music at age 15, fans have questioned his ability to deliver the hard-hitting, groove-laced bombastic drumming of Theodore, an element that defined the band on its previous albums. But Bixler-Zavala is steadfast in his belief of Pridgen, maintaining that Pridgen has "his own form of bombastic."

But Bixler-Zavala, although emotionally affected by the decision to oust Theodore from the band, is quick to pick out Theodore's shortcomings.

"Thomas can last longer," he says. "Meeting someone like Thomas who doesn't rehash anything, it's amazing how he can create. Especially now, I can go on YouTube and compare the two. I can see when Jon Theodore gives up during a set. Jon plays a certain way, sure, but that's boring for Thomas. It's like playing on level 4 of Tetris when you're able to go to 20. Why not go to 20?"

brad.schleicher@baltsun.com

The Mars Volta will perform at 9:30 p.m. tomorrow at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $29.50. Ticket availability may be limited. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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