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CD Review
Mars Volta- Scab Dates
by Arya Chowdhury
Staff Writer

  The Mars Volta have definitely carved themselves a unique niche in modern music, as evidenced by their studio output thusfar in their career. While many compare their efforts to singer Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist/principal songwriter Omar Lopez-Rodriguez's former band, At the Drive-In, I personally think that the similarities chiefly end with the aforementioned members as well as their onstage energy. In fact, from their first EP Tremulant through to their latest studio offering Frances the Mute, the Mars Volta seemed to lend itself more to 70's progressive rock and jazz pioneers like King Crimson, Yes, "On the Corner"-era Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. In fact, many facets of the band recalls the 70's, from the analog musical gear they use to fashion their eccentric yet compelling sound to Omar's choice in shooting tour footage strictly on analog film rather than a digital medium.

  So how does such a band fare in translating this sound to a modern concert audience? Their latest live release Scab Dates suggests quite well and sometimes more engaging than their much-lauded studio recordings. For instance, "Concertina" becomes a more galvanized beast with a menacing phase effect on the bass guitar and guitar volume swells during the verses which then crescendo into the cathartic choruses. Also, keyboardist Ikey Owens is featured much more prominently on this release, which allows the compositions to bubble with many an organ run that makes you wonder, "Oh, why didn't they turn him up in the studio?" Each song takes a more kinetic urgency, in stark contrast to what many cite as overindulgences such as the many ambient or downright white noise-y passages that weighed down Frances the Mute. In fact, in their place is alot of jamming, as evidenced on "Haruspex". OK, they throw some craziness at the very beginning and end of this release, which is indeed a little much.

  However, for all the chances they take, there are some setbacks. For instance, on this version of their epic "Cicatriz ESP", you get the sense that Cedric's voice is really straining to hit the high notes, and some of Omar's memorable guitar melodies in the verses get garbled by overuse of effects. That said, bassist Juan Alderete and drummer Jon Theodore definitely step up from the more tame studio version by dictating the dynamic ebb and flow of this song into an ultimately inspiring jam. So while the studio version is certainly not improved upon in this version, this version becomes something quite different, as entire new sections are added and stretched without feeling forced. Extra cool points awarded to Cedric for quoting David Bowie's underappreciated song "Ashes to Ashes" (OK, I suppose they escape the 70's every now and then).

  While this album is a wonderful demonstration of how this ensemble presents itself live, it would probably not be a good introduction to the band in itself; I would personally tout "De-Loused in the Comatorium" as their most accessible, coherent release. Also, the absense of accompanying visual footage is most definitely felt, as DVDs of the band show their mercurial stage presence. While this CD is assembled from various shows, it does capture the band's strengths and weaknesses well and will only serve to add to their building legacy as a band that refuses to conform to anyone's expectations.
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