Bugging Out to The Mars Volta's "Deloused in the Comatorium": Prog Review #25

Bugging Out to The Mars Volta's "Deloused in the Comatorium": Prog Review #25

"Now I'm Lost" keens Marcel Rodríguez-López on the chorus of Inertiatic ESP. I share his sentiment.

Deloused in the Comatorium.jpg

After the first two runs through this album, I was tempted to rank it even lower than Wish You Were Here. My first thoughts were that Pink Floyd's crime is merely to be boring. The Mars Volta, by contrast is grating, atonal, without hook or melody, AND boring. To make matters worse, they remind me of the whiny, self-satisfied style of Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and similar bands big at the time. This all gave me good reason to want to hate The Mars Volta that participates in the same sort of vocal theatrics. Discovering that Rodríguez-López fronted At The Drive In before The Mars Volta confirmed my initial distaste for this music. The only At the Drive In song I've heard is "One Armed Scissor" and I find it exactly as unappealing as any Fall Out Boy song.

But repeated listens have gradually revealed more likability, if not depth to the album - the depth was already evident just from the artwork and song titles. The music merely confirms suspicion. My response, that this is difficult but obviously brilliant music, raises the question of whether all that complexity, thought, artistry, and virtuosity is worth the effort. What is the appeal of a band whose music takes an especial effort to enjoy, and even then primarily on an intellectual, not visceral level?

That's the question of progressive music more generally. The Mars Volta, then, epitomizes both what is wrong and oh so right about progressive music. Perhaps the need for mental effort to decipher the appeal is the aesthetic core of prog.

That understanding applies more strongly to modern prog, which is more serious minded in its efforts to spread the gospel of prog by deliberately giving fans difficult music with opaque lyrical themes. At least that, to me, is what The Mars Volta represents. Early prog was experimental and off-putting, a statement against popular forms, but it was also often as much about egotistical musical geniuses dicking around. There's a lot more silliness and accidental successes, a sense of fun, on the golden age prog of the early 70s. Even Pink Floyd had moments of joy in their music, though my impression is that Sid Barrett took that joy with him when he left the band, before they got big.

Deloused in the Comatorium is not the slightest bit fun or silly, thought it is weird. It is a concept album based on a short story, cowritten by the lead singer, which in turn was based in part on the death of Rodríguez-López's friend. The story is a sci-fi-fantasy rendering of a drug overdose and an ensuing coma. Reading this very brief explanation of the lyrics on Wikipedia made me think of the only modern prog band that I would describe myself as being a fan of. Namely, Coheed and Cambria.

Like The Mars Volta, Coheed has based albums on stories written by its lead singer, Claudio Sanchez. In fact, all but one Coheed album lives in this sci-fi world of Sanchez's that is also accessible in comics and a novel. The ambitious lyrical concepts aside, Coheed does not read like a prog band to me. Their sound is easily accessible, with several charting songs (Mars Volta has one) and the ubiquitous "Welcome Home" having been featured in movie trailers and in the video game Rock Band.

This double album by Coheed and Cambria could easily replace many entries on the  Rolling Stone  list.

This double album by Coheed and Cambria could easily replace many entries on the Rolling Stone list.

So, while I have been into Coheed for some time, they have not been enough to make me search out other modern prog bands. The Mars Volta, however, stand as the gatekeepers to modern prog for me. They are one of the most ambitious and complicated-sounding bands on the post-2000 prog scene, and my failure to enjoy their music has made me uninterested in seeing what else is out there. It doesn't help that a lot of modern prog is progressive metal either. Even non-metal bands like The Mars Volta tend to have bandleaders with shrill voices (yes, I know so did Rush and Yes) and heavy, discordant guitar riffs and melodies. Coheed can be described in this way too, but they also embrace pop elements that make them much more pleasant to listen to. There are singable melodies and regular choruses, hooks and riffs that anchor the songs in familiarity.

The Mars Volta is a different animal.

Aesthetically, the album art and themes also tell a different story from Coheed. The latter's music and storytelling are akin to an action-heavy movie that's only a little bit bloody. The Mars Volta is more of a dark psychological thriller. There's a lot less crunch in the guitar, but a whole lot more distortion and subtlety.

The instrumentation and lyricism, and even the emotional highs and lows, are not that different from Coheed, but there is very little of the comforting pop structure here. Deloused in the Comatorium is waves of thumping, thundering, and wailing jazz-rock-metal cresting over lulls of ominous tones and pure effect. The finest example occurs in "Eriatarka", my favourite track, that levels out the chaos with a simpler melody than is typical on the album.

The only major exception to the push of bombast against creepily atmospheric build-ups is on the penultimate track, "Televators", which approaches categorization as a ballad. The pleading vocals play against plaintive guitar distortions, balanced atop gentle keyboard swells, with a little bongo here and there for rhythm.

This entry marks the midway point for my review of Rolling Stone's top 50 prog albums, and there could be no more fitting album. Deloused in the Comatorium is the latest release on the list, representing the only post-2000 band and a younger audience. It's a nice glimpse into how different prog has become, how much more embracing it is of a heavy rock and metal, and less satisfied with extended riffs on simply beautiful atmospherics. The absence of humour is another important loss in the modern prog sound, even if it is offset by drastic improvements in production technology and ambition.

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Another side of modern prog I’m discovering.

Getting into newer prog will take some adjustment in my expectations and a lot more effort when listening to albums. Research helps too. So, I return to the question I posed earlier: is prog worth the effort? There's a status issue here. Liking prog is often a statement about being a musical intellectual, much as preferring classical music can be a signal for general intellectualism. There's a more visceral joy in that too, since we get pleasure from carving out the identities we desire to project.

Less psychologically, though, prog becomes increasingly satisfying with repeated listens. As the strange and difficult become familiar, they become more natural and as impactful as a dance hit that makes you want to move the second the beat drops. The difference is that prog music presents its own path to further novelty. You can discover more and more to appreciate as you dive deeper and deeper into the same songs. More mainstream sounds can offer the same kind of depth, but more often you need to keep on moving on to new music, new sounds quickly to feel and find something exciting.

Returning to the question I keep evading, I don't think I really gained all that much by putting in the effort to enjoy Deloused in the Comatorium. A bunch of bands I like released albums recently that I'm dying to give my attention to, but instead I'm bogged down with this sprawling madness. And yet, I’m now very curious to see what else The Mars Volta has to offer, so I will listen to more of their albums in the future.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  20. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  21. Camel - Mirage

  22. Rush - 2112

  23. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

  24. Magma - Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh

  25. The Mars Volta - Deloused in the Comatorium

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Camel - Mirage

  4. Yes – Close to the Edge

  5. King Crimson - Red

  6. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  7. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  8. Rush - 2112

  9. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  10. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  11. Rush - Moving Pictures

  12. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  13. The Mars Volta - Deloused in the Comatorium

  14. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  15. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  16. Pink Floyd - Animals

  17. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  18. Yes - Fragile

  19. Rush - Hemispheres

  20. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

  21. Magma - Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh

  22. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  23. Can - Future Days

  24. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  25. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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