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If you never saw At the Drive-In, the combustible El Paso band who promptly combusted after arriving late on the í90s neo-punk scene with an ethos and a couple of Afro haircuts seemingly borrowed from the MC5, youíre not totally out of luck. Thereís a new Drive-In anthology, This Station Is Non-Operational (Fearless), that offers a taste of what you missed on a bonus DVD. And the Drive-In kids split into two camps, with the Afros taking the name the Mars Volta and the other guys going with Sparta. Iíd have picked Sparta out of the gate because I saw some History Channel documentary about just how hardcore the Spartans were. That the Volta boys opted for cryptic, even pretentious album titles ó 2003ís was De-Loused in the Comatorium, this yearís is Frances the Mute (both Universal) ó didnít help their case. Same can be said for the way they organized Frances ó itís a five-song full-length with titles like "Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus," a few of which are broken up into sub-songs like "Sarcophagi" and "Tarantism" and "Facilis Descensus Averni" and "Multiple Spouse Wounds." Mostly, though, the tracks run together into one epic opus. But reading the book by its cover is a basic rock-and-roll no-no. And Volta did get the Afros: guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

A week ago Tuesday, the Mars Volta, who have grown into a powerful yet nimble seven-piece with the ability to produce anything from a Fender-Rhodes keyboard breakdown to a flute solo, brought Frances to an Avalon that was filled to capacity. With no support act because, well, they didnít need one, Cedric and Omar led the charge on stage and began to work the crowd into a frenzy. As the stage filled with ambient guitar feedback, bass drones, crashing cymbals, and a whole lot of hair, Cedric just stood there bracing himself for an onslaught. It came quickly, as a complicated groove took over, Omar fiddled around with a slithering riff, and Cedric unleashed the first of many Robert Plantian howls. The band seem to have been caught in a time warp thatís sent them back to pre-í72 days of chops and blooze robbers like Led Zep, only without all the metal baggage that became part of that scene. Thereís still a little MC5 in the way Omar works free-form Coltranisms into his guitar excursions, and even a little Miles electric band in the texture of the keybs. But this is hard rock with an overload of punk intensity replacing any metal.

Songs ó and even after peeking at a set list Iím not going to name íem because for the first 45 minutes the band segued from one to another ó ebbed and flowed from raucous jams to spacy refrains, and the lyrics drifted from English to Spanish and back again. They played for almost two and half hours, wearing out a number of fans who sat resting in Avalonís hallway entry and leaving me with the impression that great things often come of disappointments like the break-up of At the Drive-In.

Two nights later at the Orpheum, Trent Reznor introduced his latest version of Nine Inch Nails to a capacity crowd that had waited six years for a new album ó With Teeth (Interscope) ó and tour. Reznor had a determined warm-up act in the Dresden Dolls, the Rumble-winning duo whom both he and Perry Farrell have taken under their wing. Singer/pianist Amanda Palmer has a background in performance art, and she and drummer Brian Viglione appeared undaunted by the prospect of playing for NIN fans. They also had a few tricks up their sleeves: a fiery cover of Black Sabbathís "War Pigs" and a moving rendition of Radioheadís "Karma Police." Yeah, they were on home turf, but Viglione got the crowd to clap along to the beat of "War Pigs," and I didnít hear a single "We want Trent."

The Reznor who followed was not the Reznor of six years ago. As he recounts in a Spin tell-all interview, heís emerged from years of substance abuse a happier man. With Teeth is a return to form ó a cross of sorts between the industrial synth disco of "Head like a Hole" and the dark, tortured abyss of The Downward Spiral. But he looks as if heíd been working out at the Glen Danzig Gym for Aging Goth Misfits: he even had the free black wifebeater you get when you join ó all the better to show off those pumped-up biceps. Is there steroid testing in rock?

The set drew from all over the NIN map, with Trent taking special care to choose the most soul-defiling cuts, especially the ones with Nietzschean references to the death of God. That stuff is easier to take from a guy who looks as if he were in the midst of a downward spiral than it was from a seemingly well-adjusted Reznor. "I want to fuck you like an animal" was funny coming from someone who didnít look as if he had the strength to: put those same words in Danzigís mouth (not that Glen would ever do such a thing) and the effect is quite different. Itís still good to have Trent back among the living. But after Thursday night, I was left wondering whether it isnít time he found a few new topics to hammer away at.


Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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