The Mars Volta have got the dinosaur rock (read: prog rock) niche for the new millennium in the bag‚ that's for damn sure. Many critics loathe them‚ many love them‚ and they've certainly gained a very respectable fan base‚ as this sold-out show certainly indicated. But they've built their reputation on making impenetrable records jam-packed with oft-wank-heavy mixtures of free jazz‚ emo‚ post-hardcore and psychedelia‚ not to mention Cedric Bixler-Zavala's caterwauls that cantilever over their crotch-laden concoction. I'm not trying to be bitter; instead take it this way: for those of you who loved their 2005 release‚ Frances the Mute‚ as many did‚ listen to the half-hour-long closer‚ "Cassandra Gemini‚" one more time and see if you can genuinely prove that this song hardly goes ANYWHERE until the final closing melody‚ which‚ suffice it to say‚ is actually rather gorgeous‚ but not worth waiting 29 and a half minutes for.
But despite their pretentious nature‚ they are one of the most compelling bands out there today. And don't get me wrong-often there are moments of true genius on their records‚ so when I found out they were coming to Higher Ground there was no way that I was gonna pass up the opportunity to take in the Frank-Zappa-meets-Dillinger-Escape-Plan-like spectacle that I figured would define their live show‚ even if it was for 27 bucks.

As luck would have it‚ they pulled most of their material that night from their latest record‚ Amputechture‚ which is the only one I haven't yet heard. Despite that‚ the show was still quite enjoyable‚ if only for Cedric's Latin-tinged heroics. His fro was about three times as big as it usually is‚ and with his sports coat and polka-dotted dress shirt‚ he certainly was quite a sight. His dancing is like an amphetamine mariachi; sometimes he would put his hands on his hips and strut his stuff in a more formidable nature‚ but it all would burst wide open once he switched over to freak-out mode (which was often)‚ flinging his hair about‚ creating a cacophony of curls that emanated in front of the lighting effects. My favorite moment came when he picked up the mic stand with his teeth‚ only to fall off the stage when it fell from the grip of his fangs. He recovered quickly; his head popped up from between the stage and the crowd barricade with the look of a mad man plastered across his face‚ and he quickly gave the front row a taste of his black locks before hopping back up onstage. His microphone seemed to fascinate him the whole night‚ as he pawed at it‚ swung it‚ clawed it‚ licked it‚ and stuck it in his mouth to allow hands-free use. I remember having my eyes closed at one point only to open them and see him straddling the corner of an amplifier on the verge of toppling over. Without a doubt‚ Cedric is a prime example of the fearless front man; while he certainly has all the clichés down‚ such as the microphone antics‚ his dedication to absolutely losing it to his music and disregarding any sense of cool he might have is what makes him so captivating onstage. It was largely thanks to him that I enjoyed their set of songs that I mostly didn't know.

But I can't deny the rest of the band's ability‚ because despite their seemingly narcissistic intentions on record‚ they unquestionably have an incendiary instrumental prowess. Of course‚ playing half-hour-long free jazz explorations live is far more acceptable than it is on record‚ especially when they are played so loud that you can hardly decipher the individual member's parts and the drums hammer down on your brain constantly‚ creating a pulse you have to dance to. Big kudos to their new drummer‚ Thomas Pridgen‚ who seemingly hammered it out nonstop for the entire set. When played at that kind of volume and with that kind of intensity (my ears are still ringing as I write this‚ the day after)‚ it certainly feels like their jams are going somewhere. There was nary a moment that it felt like they were just toying around‚ unsure of what would happen next‚ and if it ever did happen‚ Cedric certainly did his best to keep everyone entertained. The band is now an eight-piece‚ but of course the essence has always laid in Cedric and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez‚ who are the songwriting core of the band. The other six members seemed to form a semi-circle around them‚ creating a jungle of percolating rhythms for Omar and Cedric to tarzan through. Omar's solos are nearly combustible‚ my favorite being on "Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus‚" where he started from almost nothing and continued to ascend and crescendo until one helluva climax.
While their records will continue to give me headaches‚ they are certainly able to translate their beguiling nature into an exhibition of a live show‚ not to mention one that gives you your money's worth; they took the stage at around 9:30 and played straight until about midnight. Multiple times I could have sworn they were on their last song when they would jump right into the next one without pause. We may as well just embrace them for what they are‚ the prog rock pioneers for the new millennium‚ keeping the bombast‚ grandeur and egocentricity of all the best prog alive. Someone's gotta do it‚ right?