June 22, 2008

Describing The Mars Volta

Posted in Music tagged , , at 10:00 pm by Andrew McMillen

I saw The Mars Volta perform at the Brisbane Convention Centre last night. I’d elected to review the show for FasterLouder a month ago. In the weeks leading up to the show, the enormity of my task became apparent. That is, to describe the performance of an eight-piece experimental, progressive rock band in a few hundred words.

I should point out that writing about music is not new to me. I’ve been paid to do it for a year. I’ve written about some popular international acts, both at festivals and in separate shows. Of all my writing, I’m most proud of my Laneway Festival review for FasterLouder in March 2008. A dozen acts and the vibe of the festival itself covered in 2300 words.

Last night was different. For the first time since reviewing The Drones in October 2007, I was a little afraid of the task before me. I was nervous before that show because it was my first 500 word feature review. I’d never written that much for Rave Magazine at the time, though I’d previously written 1900 words for FasterLouder when covering Pig City in July 2007. In retrospect, my trepidation before The Drones was entirely baseless.

Returning to The Mars Volta. I’d been aware of them for several years and made a few attempts to dig their style, but only made a concerted effort in late 2007 when it dawned on me that Relationship Of Command by At The Drive-In might just be my favourite album. The creative brains of At The Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, formed what is now known as The Mars Volta following the demise of ATDI in 2001.

Their reputation precedes them. They are well-known for their explosive and lengthy shows comprised largely of improvisational jam sessions. Their music is rooted in progressive rock with elements of jazz and funk, though it is difficult (and erroneous) to pin them to any specific genre.

I sat watching them for two and a half hours, almost entirely transfixed on the band. I took no notes. I went out after the show, but my mind was filled with the sounds and images of their performance even when I awoke the next morning.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Someone once said that – probably not Elvis Costello, though it’s generally attributed to him.

I’m well aware of the responsibility that a music reviewer has when describing a concert. I’m well aware that this responsibility is very often tied to appearing pretentious. The opportunity to embody a voice who is (often) perceived as an authoritative figure within the music industry – that is, a critic – is not, and will never be lost on me.

I value the opportunity to critically reflect on the music of bands just as much as I value the perks. I don’t have to pay for shows. But I’m responsible for the words that appear above my name. I always endeavour to write what I would like to read as a music fan. I am my own quality control. I can’t submit poor copy because I won’t let me.

I struggled with the task before me today. It took 800 words and several hours for me to describe The Mars Volta in the live environment. References to the crowd and myself were minimal because neither of those responses mattered during this show. It was entirely about the music they created on stage. That we were present to witness their creation was something of a happy coincidence.

Okay, that previous statement was entirely bullshit. I jest, I jest. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that they’re people who like to get paid, just like the rest of us.

Anyway, I’d like to think that I painted an interesting picture, but the brush is now out of my hands.

So, how did I do?

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