Hate 'em for expecting us to glean profundity from titles like "Umbilical Syllables," hate 'em for reintroducing topographic ocean-sized song cycles into your neighborhood Target, hate 'em for uniting grown-up emo kids, jam circuit journeymen, and regular ol' dormrats in a contrived haze of hash-induced camaraderie by the gaudy glow of a laser light show, or hate 'em simply because they're not as good as At the Drive-In. Whoever you are, there's bound to be a posture of hate you can assume at the jerk of a knee whenever you read or here the words "The Mars Volta." Even if their archetypal salsa flourishes, aphasic parables, and pornographically expensive Xeroxes of stale "Smoke that shit up!" signifiers don't immediately get your aesthetic goat, the way in which da Volta bend their muse over and publicly demean her on this live compendium (think a monocle-sporting robber baron shoving his cock into a prepubescent coal miner's mouth, or a frat guy taking the chick with Wish You Were Here painted on her back from his Pink Floyd poster out to his winter social, liquoring her up real good, and having his way with her on a pool table, 8-ball grinding into her coccyx) ought to arouse your superior outrage.
As much as the band's cosmetic qualities offend by hearkening back to the most vainglorious moments of prog-rock's commercial heyday, Scab Dates' formal arrangement elucidates just why the group's acid-drenched shenanigans continually come off as insincere in spite of their insistence on being taken seriously. Guitarist and afro-wearer Omar Rodgriguez-Lopez assembled a year's worth of live recordings into a 12-track, 70-minute mish-mash that plays out like one diplodocus of an extended anthem. In true art-rock fashion, the songs don't end as much as woozily merge into one another. This arrangement alone doesn't damn Scab Dates – but the band's inability to finesse it does. The album is essentially a tried-and-true big-budget rock album gimmick writ large: smother the listeners in a minute or so of formless noise (using the artiest guitar and keyboard settings imaginable, of course), and then snap them out of the doldrums with the sweep of a heroic chord progression. Replicate the seeming formlessness and inscrutability of everyday in-between times, and shovel the antidote down our throats with Ibanezes. But instead of buffering radio-friendly zingers with a couple of minute-long tape loop misadventures like most primetime rock acts do, The Mars Volta pack their melodic passages with endless mazes of warbly, refractive floatsam; for each of Cedric Bixler's fist-pumping refrains, we get minutes of gluttonous psych-outs.
The Mars Volta live experience hinges upon this juxtaposition of hooks and noise, with the noise being their calling card, the flicker that sets them apart from their X radio cohorts. They still maintain the same relationship with noise as the Nicklebacks and Coldplays of the world, though, using it only as a point of contrast. The Mars Volta present us with a taste of the psychedelic, but still maintain an ultimately antagonistic relationship with it. The instrumental jams and ambient interludes only function as means of emphasizing the more conventional pop-rock passages; noise is something to be triumphed over and rallied against in Scab Dates, just as it is in any mainstream rock album. The Mars Volta might peer into the void more readily than The Killers, but they still reject it just as vehemently, always offering the consolation of mirthless post-hardcore or cloying metal god theatrics. This album takes the very thing that distinguishes itself from the proverbial herd and still rejects it as utter shit; mythic escapism wins out over existential probing.
I'm not dismissing the band for allowing mawkish narrative cock rock to trump druggy explorations and ambiguity, though; in fact, I grant them this choice as a valid mode of expression. What makes Scab Dates and The Mars Volta so abominable, though, is the pretense of adventure and experimentation. To all of the artists who appreciate, embrace, and find meaning in noise, be they modern composers, psych-folkies, or maverick techno producers, this collection is an insult, parading psychedelic and avant-garde aesthetics before an eager audience and then trampling them underfoot to preserve the glitz and glamour of the rockist myth. There's no challenge here – just appropriation.
1. Abrasion Mount the Timpani
2. Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt
3. A) Gust of Mutts
4. B) And Ghosted Pouts
9. A) Pt. I
10. B) Pt. II
11. C) Pt. III
12. D) Pt. IV