Formed in 2001 after the break up of singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and keyboardist Marcel Rodríguez-López’s former band At the Drive In, The Mars Volta rode into town on a wave of progressive sonic experimentation. Their music was too left field to make them marketable, but even if they were too niche for radio, their willingness to push the boundaries turned them into the darlings of the critics and the heroes of anyone prepared to leave their preconceptions at the door and approach their music with an open mind. If you’re ready for some unbuckled rock & roll, these are the top ten The Mars Volta songs to take for a ride.
10. Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)
Kicking off our list of the 10 best The Mars Volta songs of all time is Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of). The song got its first airing in 2001, when, along with Cicatriz ESP, it was released as the band’s first demo recordings with bassist Eva Gardner and drummer Blake Fleming, both of whom had departed by the time the band came round to releasing their debut album. It reached a wider audience with the release of De-Loused in the Comatorium in 2003. Like the rest of the album, it’s a rush of ideas and different styles, some of which sound jarring at first, but get better and better the more spins you give it.
9. Viscera Eyes
Compared to the warm reception that greeted their first two albums, the response to Amputechture was more muted. Praised in some quarters for its broad themes and tight focus, and criticized in others for its self-indulgence, it’s the musical equivalent of marmite. Speaking to Geek Monthly, Cedric Bixler-Zavala described it as the band’s most misunderstood record,” commenting “If we had children and they were our records, Amputechture would be our autistic child. We’re very overprotective of it because it doesn’t function in the real world but it does other things that most humans can’t do. That’s why we really still love it because it’s elicited such a strong reaction in the fans.” Misunderstood or not, it’s still home to some epic songs, including the brutal Viscera Eyes, a song that might well be one of the freakiest and heaviest singles ever released.
8. Inertiatic ESP
De-Loused in the Comatorium is widely regarded as one of the band’s best albums, achieving sales of over half a million despite almost no promotion, ending 2003 on multiple “Best of the Year” lists, and drawing rave reviews left, right, and center. One of its highlights is album opener Inertiatic ESP, a song that, while brief by the band’s standards, still manages to encompass enough of their sonic weirdness and vitality into its 4.24 minutes to let listeners know what kind of ride they’re in for.
7. Drunkship of Latterns
Another gem from the band’s 2003 debut De-Loused in the Comatorium next, this time in the shape of Drunkship of Latterns. As Louder Sound says, the band’s song titles are as off-the-wall as their music, especially when they start making up their own words. But while you might not find Drunkship of Latterns in a dictionary, you will find it on almost every list of the band’s best songs, not to mention Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
2006’s Amputechture might not have wowed the critics as much as the band’s previous releases, but even the most misunderstood The Mars Volta album still has its moments of stone-cold genius. Meccamputechture is one of them – with a title that makes a portmanteau of Mecca, amputate, technology and architecture (because why not?), a low bass riff that will give you goosebumps, and an electric mix of free jazz and old school dub, it’s a song that shouldn’t work on any level, but somehow manages to work on them all.
The Mars Volta has always been a band that likes to laugh in the face of expectations, and in 2009, they decided to do something they’d been threatening to do for years, but which no one believed they ever would – drop a pop record. Octahedron might not be pop in the usual understanding of the word, but as Planet Sound says, it’s probably their most chilled out and approachable album to date, proving that they could slow it down as much as shred it up and still stay as compelling as ever. On the emotional Teflon, guitarist John Frusciante shines, carving out his own space next to Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals without threatening to overwhelm them.
4. Wax Simulacra
In January 2008, The Mars Volta dropped their fourth studio album, The Bedlam in Goliath. Described by Sputnikmusic as “the most energetic and fun album The Mars Volta have put out to date,” it’s riddled with gems. Wax Simulacra, the album’s lead single, is one of the sparkliest… and, at 2:39 minutes in length, one of the shortest songs in the band’s canon. It didn’t break into the charts, but it did manage to pick up a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 51st Grammy Awards.
Next up is another treat from The Bedlam in Goliath, the titular Goliath. Despite being an epic 7 and a half minutes long, it’s one of the most radio-friendly and approachable prog romps in the band’s catalog, with a laser tight focus, a giant earworm of a chorus, and enough seductive funk to get your foot tapping. It might still be a wild ride, but it’s one that even the non-believers could hop on board for.
2. The Malkin Jewel
An esoteric concept album inspired by the children’s nursery rhyme Solomon Grundy and the Greek myth of Hyacinthus isn’t going to be for everyone, and Noctourniquet certainly isn’t a record that makes any attempt to pander to the masses or convert the uninitiated. Neither does its lead single The Malkin Jewel, which may explain why it failed to chart. But persevere. It may take a couple of listens, but its exceptional songcraft and jagged blend of raw emotion and technical brilliance will get you in the end.
1. The Widow
Rounding off our list of the 10 best The Mars Volta songs of all time is The Widow, a highlight of the band’s seminal second album, Frances the Mute, and the only single in their history to ever make the Billboard Hot 100. The single was short, radio-ready, and catchy… great in its own way, but if you want to hear the song in all its glory, stick to the album version, with features a cacophonous outro of organs and electronic programming that will blow your mind clean away.