Icons of Rock: Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez

Back in my youth, when I attended summer camp, my Polish councilor (the lead singer of Polish rock band, Cool Kids of Death) introduced me to the glory, the legend, and insanity that was At the Drive-In. At the ripe age of 13, songs off of Relationship of Command were so cool to me, even though I had no idea what they were even saying. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics and vocal style were unlike anything I had ever heard before, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’ guitar sounded like what I wanted my guitar to sound like: Satan on cocaine. When The Mars Volta took fruition and all my friends began to rave about them, I thought they had taken everything to an all new and even crazier level. Something about the way Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez work as a team is fantastic during this day in age, and in a way, inspirational to create something far greater than anything most people’s ears have ever taken in. Not to mention, they both hyphenated last names. It just seems these two were a match made in rock and roll heaven that is the post-hardcore progressive punk equivalent of Lennon and McCartney.

It seems like an act of the magnitude that Cedric and Omar create could only come out of a place like Texas (El Paso, no less). While bumming around the El Paso hardcore scene, the two met each other when Omar was singing for a band called, Strattled Calf, and met through future At the Drive-In bass player and mutual friend, Paul Hinojos. When At the Drive-In took form, however, Jim Ward was the band’s original guitar player. Together, they formed the band after leaving another El Paso outfit, and recorded to EP’s in the early nineties entitled Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Cajaro!” Both of these EP’s did not contain the riffage of Puerto Rican born sensation Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, because he was busy hitchhiking around the country. Eventually though, Bixler-Zavala called Rodriguez-Lope and told him to return to El Paso and when he did, he became the bassist for At the Drive-In.

The band recorded their first full-length album, Acrobatic Tenement. The album had more gritty, punk sound, almost reminiscent of the Replacements sound, but with Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s distinct vocal style. Their following EP, El Gran Orgo was a bit more melodically inclined, with epic tracks like the tight and rhythmic anger of “Honest to a Fault”, and “Fahrenheit”, a two-minute poetic collision from Bixler-Zavala, complete with shrill and early Rodriguez-Lopez genius. The band then recorded another full length album, in/Casino/Out, which was the climax of the band’s work as a unit. While it still contained their gritty punk sound, things began to sound a bit more polished and intense. The fast-paced and chopped “Alpha Centauri” and clear-sung and beautiful “For Now…We Toast” are included among the tracks recorded on this live-in-the-studio modern day masterpiece.

The reason behind this recording method was because people didn’t think they were capturing the glory of At the Drive-In’s live show on record. Their live show would define everything about them for the rest of their careers. The way Cedric Bixler-Zavala moves on stage, almost hurting himself for the good of the song. He literally hits the deck on numerous songs, only to bounce back up, while throwing the microphone into the air, catching it in time to deliver a chorus. He flails and thrusts in such a way that looks like slam dancing in Hell. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez on the other hand would pound on his strings in such a way that it looked like he could start gushing blood at any moment. Their live show projected them so fast, from touring with the likes of AFI and Mustard Plug, to suddenly opening for Rage Against the Machine. But, it wasn’t until 2001 that everything boiled over.

This moment arrived with At the Drive-In’s final masterpiece, Relationship of Command. The album includes their hit song, “One Armed Scissor”, complete with Bixler-Zavala’s fantastic lyrics and what would become Omar’s signature guitar style. Tracks like “Sleepwalk Capsules”, “Mannequin Republic”, and “Enfilade” capture the fury, the rush and the mayhem within Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar playing, as well as Bixler-Zavala’s ability to scream until his throat went numb. It’s just too bad the band broke up shortly after this album. In their time, At the Drive-In lit a new spark in modern hardcore, by turning it into a more intellectual type of music and it was all due to a combined chemistry and anger between the band’s leading two members.

However, there was no reason to fear because Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala kept at the music industry. It was clear they were destined to continue blowing minds for a living. They formed the Mars Volta shortly after, and recorded the Tremulant EP, which picks up right where Relationship of Command left off. Shortly after that though, they recorded what would go down as the Mars Volta’s masterpiece De-Loused in a Comatorium. While the record contained bizarre, post-modern lyrics, shrill guitar riffs that sounded like a derailing train and hardcore rhythm that seemed impossible, this oddity was a concept album about a man who tries to commit suicide by overdose, has a crazy head-trip while sleeping, and wakes up only to jump off a building since he is so disappointed with humanity. Songs like “Inertiatic ESP”, “Roulette Dares”, “Drunkship of Lanterns”, and “Televators”, all tell this horrific tale through their suspenseful and unprecedented sound. Who else could create a fucking album like this?

As a follow-up, the band released Frances the Mute, where things got much, much more experimental. The band began writing series of songs, increasing the instrumentation to a whole new level (so, so, so many bongos on this record), and creating twelve-minute epics. And for subject matter and lyrical inspiration, the band told the story of an orphan searching for his biological parents, which came from a diary found by their friend in a repossessed car. Songs like “The Widow”, are haunting with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s flamenco style, combined with Bixler-Zavala’s ability to tear it the fuck up. The band also wrote two songs, constructed of various parts under the titles, “Miranda, That Ghost Just isn’t Holy Anymore”, and “Cassandra Gemini”, which ranged up to 32 minutes. It was here the Mars Volta claimed their throne, and the two musicians became icons of modern day music, showing that they could escape the boundaries of what music enthusiasts could perceive as possible.

The problem was that it was becoming too insane for most human minds to handle. Their next effort, Amputechture, was their first non-narrative record, and dealt with themes in current events. With eight tracks, a number of them being about 15 minutes in length, it marked a new style for the Mars Volta, that people did not seem to understand or enjoy. Then came The Bedlam in Goliath, an album I have only listened to once and thought it was too shrill and wild for my brain to handle while I read over biology notes. There was also, last year’s Octahedron took them back to their roots a bit, with shorter and tighter songs. The Mars Volta though have kept their torch lit for the insane live shows that they put on. As a result they are still one of the most relevant and important bands of our time. They still tour, and they still put on a tremendous show, and they are still putting out albums.

Together, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala have been the driving force to keep their bands moving forward, experimenting with new types of sound in their rare brand of post-hardcore progressive jazz salsa punk. They have never been afraid to do anything, both live and in the studio. Nobody can truly classify the music these two have created, and that’s what makes them so iconic. They created something nobody can name. As long as these two keep plugging away at their respected instruments, their station of genius will always be operational.


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