When Cedric Bixler Zavala, vocalist for the Mars Volta, does that thing on stage, that thing where he molests his microphone stand while slithering the ground like a snake, and his creative counterpart, guitarist/producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, does that other thing, that thing where he swirls his guitar around his back mid-fret run to work the crowd into a 6/8-propelled frenzy, it's okay if you crap your pants. It's unavoidable. And, anyway, that's why you brought a clean pair to the show, right?
As one of the most explosive live acts currently touring, the Mars Volta has placed such an emphasis on cultivating its live performance (just ask anyone who sat through the band's mind-blowing marathon Bonnaroo set) that the live album is something we all expected. With Scab Dates, the inevitable comes to fruition, but not without testing the patience of many a loyal fan.
Opening with a four-minute collage of field recordings (including a baby wailing) and guitar riffage, Scab Dates launches fervently into De-Loused in the Comatorium's closer, "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt." Aside from Frances the Mute's sluggish attempt at a radio hit "The Widow," "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" is the band at its most straightforward, plunging through the song's major segments in standard time. Even when clocking in at thirteen minutes on Scab Dates, the song never quite hits overkill. However, it fits so perfectly as a closer - its final disoriented lines repeat "Who brought me here?" - that it loses a piece of itself when followed by crowd noise and eventually more songs. Disorientation comes much later with "Cicatriz," which is comprised of five "movements" and is more than forty-minutes long. The song is so engulfing that even if you lose interest for a few minutes (or perhaps ten), upon returning your mind will be blown no matter the entry point - chorus, solo session or noise jam.
Bixler Zavala's vocal ability and Rodriguez Lopez's inventive guitar playing are the obvious focal points, but the band notches its greatest achievements in the supporting cast of musicians, who garner little of the spotlight on Scab Dates. Ikey Owens's keyboard manhandling loses its intense presence without the visual accompaniment of him passionately pounding the keys. The preciseness and power of Jon Theodore's unbelievably controlled drumming gets lost in the recordings, as does Juan Alderete de la Peña's bass, aside from when the compositions become more groove oriented.
Lacking material from Frances the Mute - including "Cassandra Geminni," which has become a staple thirty-minute live closer - Scab Dates does an adequate job of capturing what is best experienced in the flesh. Out of the record's seventy-two-plus minutes, it features only three songs (intros don't count, and "Haruspex" and "Caviglia" are interlude-ish at best). Depending on your enthusiasm (okay, tolerance) for the Mars Volta's jammy tendencies, that will either annoy you or provide an enthralling soundtrack to bong rip after bong rip. Exactly what we expected from the Mars Volta? You're damn right it is.
Video and audio from Frances the Mute