An in-depth look at The Mars Volta’s masterwork, “Deloused in the Comatorium”.
The masters of maniacal musical moods and mystical bilingual lyrical manifestations have been defunct since 2013 when group leaders guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala announced they had broken up. The quite literal nail in the coffin came the following year when keyboard wizard Isaiah ‘Ikey’ Owens died of a heart attack while on tour with Jack White. His passing quelled rumours of a reformation for some time but in the last few years, the rumours have intensified. The duo has been far from estranged. In 2014 they released the sole record from Antemasque with longtime collaborator Flea from the Chili Peppers on bass and Volta touring drummer Dave Elitch. From 2015-2018 they reunited their original band At the Drive-In, touring extensively and releasing 2017’s in•ter a•li•a. In addition, Omar’s solo projects often included former Volta bandmates and Cedric’s Zavalaz project included Mars Volta bassist, Juan Alderete. Tragically, on January 13, 2020, avid cyclist Alderete sustained a serious brain injury as a result of a bike accident near his home. He was wearing a helmet but was still in a coma for four weeks and continues to work towards rehabilitation. Donations to the GoFundMe page to cover his extensive hospital and rehabilitation bills can be made here.
With this teaser driving rumours of a reunion into overdrive, will the incendiary bass player be included in the reboot? Who could possibly fill in for the lunatic energy of the inimitable Ikey Owens? No one has been able to do progressive rock like The Mars Volta. Will they be back to fill that giant void? A new album? Future touring plans??? Oh, the suspense!!!!
One other prediction is that the group’s catalogue will FINALLY be openly available on vinyl. Recently, Omar sold the rights to his work to Clouds Hill Notes with whom Rodriguez-Lopez has worked closely and has released solo work. The teaser included art from their debut full-length Deloused in the Comatorium and a phrase from lyrics off of their debut EP Tremulent. A strong hint at reissues to come. For a band like Volta, so steeped in 60s and 70s sonics and aesthetics, with densely packed analog compositions sprawling out over multiple LPs, it’s insane to think that they’ve been so reluctant to widely release their oeuvre on vinyl. Deloused is one of those records that only exist in a scant few first pressings and demands several hundred and into the thousands for a copy if you can find it.
EDIT: IT HAS NOW BEEN ANNOUNCED THAT THE MARS VOLTA WILL BE RELEASING AN 18LP BOX SET OF ALL STUDIO ALBUMS AND EPS ALONG WITH UNRELEASED MATERIAL FROM THE DELOUSED IN THE COMATORIUM SESSIONS. OUT APRIL 23RD.
Today, we’re going to break down the grandeur, brilliance, and impact of that first Long Play.
I’m going to begin by temporarily breaking that journalistic fourth wall. I LOVE this album. I’ve loved it since the moment I heard it. I remember the moment I heard the first note so vividly. We were piled into a truck on the way back from a trip to the music store. A new guitar, new pedals, skins and sticks. Everyone filled their boots. We were auditioning new keyboardists and this one applicant came along for the expedition. He slapped in the CD and proclaimed “you guys GOTTA hear this. Blow your fucking minds”. And goddamnit, it did. He cut right to the goods: ‘Drunkship of Lanterns’. BA-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW. DUNH-NEH DUN-DUN BRAAAAAANG!!!!! Omar’s twangy fanfare intro was pure cowboys vs. indians melee. Half spaghetti western, half Santana. The frantic band made a mad dash beneath R-L’s bombastic intro, galloping like marauders in the dry desert night. Bixler-Zavala entered the fray like hopping into a double dutch rope, nimbly inserting his avant-garde pastiche of lyrics to the darting campaign. A massive battle erupts, horses clash, bodies are hewn, and a great escape into the night ensues. This has nothing to do with the lyrics. This is just the feel of the song. Wild west psychedelia.
Needless to say, we hired this keyboard player! However, in true musician’s timing, his girlfriend got pregnant two weeks later and he had to bow out.
When Deloused in the Comatorium hit the industry in 2003, rock was still firmly entrenched as one of the major forces in popular music and everyone was voraciously looking for the next big thing. Indie had filled one void but the lazy slacker vibe didn’t scratch that itch for violent spontaneity, rabid catharsis. Blasting out of the lauded post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In, The Mars Volta was turning everyone’s heads. The ferocious live performances filled with vast swaths of mind-shattering improvisations coupled with Bixler-Zavala’s heaven-piercing wail garnered them comparisons to every group at the top of the virtuosic list from Rush to the Who. Most glorifying, many named them to be “the next Led Zeppelin”. In many ways, they accomplished that and more.
For the uninitiated, Deloused in the Comatorium is a highly psychedelic concept album in which the protagonist Cerpin Taxt enters a week-long coma induced by morphine and rat poison. In that span, he explores the untold realms of consciousness which manifest in a collage of fever dream imagery. It is based on a short story written by Bixler-Zavala and sound manipulation artist Jeremy Michael Ward and alludes to the death of B-Z’s friend, artist Julio Venegas. In a sad turn, Ward would also succumb to an opiate ending with a heroin overdose just a month before the album’s release. The record featured a murderer’s row of gifted performers with Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala being joined by Owens on keys and drumming powerhouse Jon Theodore (who now bashes the tubs for Queens of the Stone Age). Ward would contribute a great host of effects and sound manipulation which were crucial to the elaborate soundscape of the album before his passing. Red Hot Chili Peppers members Flea and John Frusciante would add their talents to the effort with Flea playing bass on pretty much the whole record and Frusciante adding guitar and synth to the saga of ‘Cicatriz ESP’. Lenny Castro gave the songs a lift with his propulsive percussion and ubiquitous bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, NIN, Air) played upright bass on the cornerstone ballad ‘Televators’. This chaotic riot of sound and fury was helmed by industry guru-king Rick Rubin which is perhaps why despite having wild fanciful departures throughout, the record maintains a concise, directed vision.
The long meandering rise of ‘Son et Lumiere’ is mystifying and electrifyingly anticipatory beyond most any other recording of songs. Stray rays of sunshine appear in the form of glistening swells, the guitar zig-zags, surveying the land like a prowling snake. Whirs and whizzes from deep in the cosmos pour in and course through the veins. Then the band hits. Brash, brazen, sputtering and jabbing before erupting into the tumble down the rabbit hole of ‘Inertiatic ESP’. Bixler-Zavalaz cries ‘Now I’m lost!!’ into the swirling pandemonium. Severed limbs and spirit animals surround. ‘Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)’ pushes the trip to an increasingly feverish clip. Rodriguez-Lopez playing pierces the veil and connects neural pathways that have been evolutionarily covered in cobwebs. “Cranial bleeding/Leeches train the living/Cursed are those who speak its name/Ruse of metacarpi/Caveat emptor/To all that enter here!” Cedric warns of the perils ahead. The band slips masterfully between spastic post-hardcore insanity and gentle textural intricacy, demonstrating the height of their dynamic prowess.
A stint in the reverie’s waiting room, ‘Tire Me a Las Aranas’ winds the tension with demented plucked strings before the explosive ‘Drunkship’ sets sail. The track is a feat of prog-rock frenzy. Every stop is pulled out, every fuse is lit. The track detonates like a bazooka hitting a barge of fireworks. It is one of the finest progressive rock pieces ever written.
The fallout comes in the form of ‘Eritarka’ a gut-wrenchingly beautiful tale of dissociated longing and paralyzed disbelief. The obtuse surgical references are given a glowing poeticism. There’s one earth-shattering note that Omar hits three minutes in at the mid-song crescendo that seems like it tears a hole through to a parallel universe. Cedric existentially muses: “They used to have pulses in them/But impulse has made them strong/Evaporated the fur, because it covers them/If you only knew the plans they had for us/Gotta be a way of getting out/Are you just growing old?”. The lines, though shrouded in delirious psychedelic extrapolations, cut to the core of the very real pangs of the regret of missed opportunity.
‘Cicatriz ESP’ is the Marianas Trench of the record. A vast set-piece two-thirds of the way into the trip. A rock-steady groove is locked down tight by the Theodore-Flea combo. Cerpin Taxt rebels against the confines of his world decrying “I’ve defected!” despite learning little about the way to escape his demise. The prolonged instrumental section lets R-L fully stretch his legs weaving a complex, cascading flow of unbridled transcendent creativity. The vast soundscape creation can only be matched by Led Zeppelin’s epically extended live jams on tracks like Dazed and Confused. After drifting down to the furthest depths, seemingly beyond the reach of light, the band catches a tide! The slightest hint of a drum roll from Theodore builds and builds to a ferocious eruption. Rodriguez-Lopez is shredding at full Carlos Santana on acid at Woodstock levels while Castro lets the congas fly furiously.
The reverse trails of guitar and drums further disorient on ‘This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed’. Taxt pleas for someone to avenge his name if he fails to return to the other realm. The bubbling volcano of a track eventually bursts, clearing the way for the emotional lynchpin ‘Televators’. The murmur of creatures is disturbed by a serene aura, sombre acoustic guitar, and the ancient rooted texture of the standup bass. The superficially morbid lyrics relating this man to a fish on a hook take on an arresting romanticism when painting a picture of the finality of death. “Mark these words/One day this chalk outline will circle this city/Was he robbed of the asphalt that cushioned his face/A room coloured charlatan/Hid in a safe/Stalk the ground”. Cedric sings the words with such mournful grief. Like a Norse funeral hymn, shaking his fist at the creator, or lack thereof.
The finale ‘Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt’ is a mad dash for the light at the end of the tunnel. Flea’s bass is pert and alert, chopping it up with Theodore in a way that he never would with the Chili Peppers. Omar’s guitar nimbly slithers throughout the verses and clangs like a warning bell in the choruses. The band’s stabs and Bixler-Zavala’s bellows become strikingly urgent. For a moment, the cacophony parts and we’re left with the gorgeous Mellotron of Ikey Owens. A brief sliver of clear sky amidst the chaos and a compelling moment of reflection when faced with the final demise. Like the best score to a movie death scene. Boromir struck by three arrows. Then the world starts to disseminate. The corporeal confines that Taxt has been cased in fall away. The question is posed to go back or pass on and our protagonist chooses to leave the material world. Volta muster all their strength to set it all ablaze to a cataclysmic end.
Deloused in the Comatorium is The Mars Volta’s masterpiece. It compiled all the elaborate textural layering that they had been setting aside from their punk project and ramped up Cedric’s unhinged pyretic patchwork lyrics. To capture their vision, they brought in some of modern prog’s greatest talents reigned in my master producer Rick Rubin. This is all to serve a story that reaches far, far into the subconscious. Levels that we don’t perceive on a daily basis but are constantly coursing through our minds and bodies. It’s a tale that could only be told with The Mars Volta’s unparalleled phantasmagorical flair.
That’s why Deloused in the Comatorium is one of my Top 5 albums of all time.