"This is dedicated to all the people who want us to keep making the first two albums over and over again," singer-lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala snapped at the audience last night, deep into the second hour of the Mars Volta's 160-minute concert at New York's Terminal 5 — before giving the sold-out crowd a long scorched-earth blast of "Drunkship of Lanterns," from the band's 2003 debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. And even with a new album of heavy complexity, The Bedlam in Goliath, about to fall like a ton of Rush and manic-Hispanic Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez — the Volta brain trust — opened with a near-twenty minutes of "Roulette Dares," from that first album, and finished with a tangled quarter-hour of "Day of the Baphomets" from 2006's Amputechture.
But in the half of the show from Bedlam, the Mars Volta — an octet on stage with two keyboard players (one doubling on percussion), a second guitarist and a saxophonist who blew a combination of King Crimson's Ian McDonald and, on his soprano horn, hellbent Captain Beefheart — "were most shocking in their outbursts of heavy-metal classicism and iron-girder melody. "Goliath" came with a Black Sabbath-like death-march riff and dramatic, staccato chorus, not to mention a racing instrumental bridge that brought back fond memories of Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man." "Ilyana" was damn near pop in its curvature — Bixler-Zavala singing through an octave divider that made him sound like his own duet partner — and rare straight talk: "If you could see/Where I've been/You'd touch/The hand that's touching sin."
The overload, at such crushing volume, could be counterproductive. At points, the live Volta sounded like an eight-man quartet, with Bixler-Zavala's high-frequency vocals, the guitars and drummer Thomas Pridgen's constant hyper-speed rolls and cymbal crashes obliterating everything else in the mix. And the band did not take advantage of the radical possibilities of quiet, leaving Bedlam's "Tourniquet Man," the record's spectral-crooning miniature, and the alien-kasbah vapors of "Soothsayer" out of the set. But the best part of "Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus" from 2005's Frances the Mute was not the fury but the brakes: the extended, hypnotizing slowness of the middle jam, nothing more than one repeated riff over which Rodriguez-Lopez soloed as if in an agitated trance.
The Mars Volta's records are a convincing advertisement for their uncommon brains. What you don't get is the physical delight Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez bring to the overload: the former's spasmodic James Brown-style footwork and clambering atop congas, amps and even his guitarist; the latter bouncing non-stop on the balls of his feet as he fires soprano needles of distortion. There were virtually no breaks in the action last night — Rodriguez-Lopez often kept soloing between songs — and there was no encore. There was no need.