“Don’t you pretend that I’m not alive” were the first words whispered by the Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s during the group’s reunion stop in New York City on Sept. 29. The tour, in support of a new self-titled record that marks the end of a decade-long hiatus for the Texas rockers, is a reminder not only that the group itself is back but keenly aware of their legacy as a taut, adventurous live act ready to blend genres at a breakneck pace.
Their first four records, especially their beloved 2003 studio debut “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” have been a gateway for younger generations of prog fans, fresh to polyrhythms and double-digit song lengths. Yet the band’s final two pre-hiatus albums — 2009’s “Octahedron” and 2012’s “Noctourniquet” — felt like a group in need of a break. This year’s comeback album is perhaps their most far-afield, as it’s their approximation of a pop music, with the average song hovering at three minute mark and produced with a flatter palette than previous work.
Despite their mixed studio output, the sold-out Terminal 5 crowd was eager for a show filled with the band’s classic guitar theatrics and noise freak-outs, and were not disappointed. Soulful opener “Vicarious Atonement,” a minimalist, serpentine power ballad that opens their towering third album, 2006’s “Amputechture,” was stripped down in both instrumentation and tempo, with lead guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s dramatic playing setting a push and pull with Bixler-Zavala’s increasingly powerful wail. The drama culminated over an increasing wall of noise which swelled into the intro for frantic “Comatorium” stand-out “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of),” which proved their classic sound hadn’t rusted.
In fact, half of the show’s setlist was devoted to that signature album, yet fan favorites felt reinvigorated thanks to bold arrangements which unveiled new textures. While bandleaders Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez had an undeniable chemistry which gave the songs color as they would improvise new runs and fills, the rest of the musicians — bassist Josh Moreau, keyboard player and percussionist Marcel Rodriguez-López, keyboard player Leo Genovese and drummer Linda-Philomène Tsoungui — kept the groove-heavy base steady.
Their musicianship was jaw-dropping on standout tracks like “L’Via L’Viaquez,” a classic rock collision where a Zepplin-esque rager abruptly swerves, dipping into a Latin jam out of the Santana playbook. Toggling back and forth between the styles could be whiplash-inducing, but there was enough talent and communication on stage to keep the complex song structures crisp and flowing.
The band was so locked in that even slight new songs like “Blacklight Shine” fit comfortably. Yet the indelible moments belonged to the mix of Bixler-Zavala’s wail, Rodriguez-Lopez’s shredding, the rhythm section’s structure and a bed of noise that evoked Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” at its most yearning. In a performance filled with this much life, it was clear that the Mars Volta’s roaring live show has returned fully intact.
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