When I was a teenager living in McAllen, the El Paso–based post-punk band At the Drive-In changed my idea of what sorts of possibilities were available to musicians from the border. Years later, I was similarly excited about the Mars Volta, the psychedelic arena-rock group formed by ATDI alums Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and then Rodriguez-Lopez’s current band, Bosnian Rainbows. I even gave a cursory listen to Rodriguez-Lopez’s experimental solo work, which spanned a whopping 26 albums between 2004 and 2013. But I’d avoided his most recent campaign: a series of 12 albums, all of them containing music he’d recorded between 2008 and 2013, and all of them released between mid-July and this month. Giving it a try just felt overwhelming.
In the end, though, the dual siren call of fandom and masochism prevailed, and I spent a recent day listening nonstop to all twelve records. Here’s a partial diary of my slow descent into aural psychosis.
10:00 a.m.: The first track of the first album, Sworn Virgins, is called “Pineapple Face,” which, given Rodriguez-Lopez’s predilection for titling his songs with made-up words (“Inertiatic ESP”), qualifies as downright accessible. So is the music, a kind of goth-rock stomp. Perhaps this whole day will be a lot less painful than I feared.
10:19 a.m.: Pretty sure Rodriguez-Lopez just dropped a Meat Loaf reference into a song , though the lack of a lyric sheet means I’m not 100 percent sure that I heard what I think I did. Still, this would be awfully early in the process for me to start hallucinating.
10:41 a.m.: On to Corazones, which opens with a number called “We Feel the Silence.” It’s a little mellower than the last album but not exactly a sharp departure, which makes me wonder if this entire exercise is going to feel like listening to an eight-hour record in one burst.
10:45 a.m.: Never mind. The next track, “Running Away,” is airy beach-pop that sounds like nothing Rodriguez-Lopez has been involved in before. Soon after comes some gloomy folk, in which he sing-speaks at the bottom of his vocal range as though he’s trying to channel Leonard Cohen. Not everybody is good at everything.
11:49 a.m.: The final track on the third album, Blind Worms, Pious Swine, mixes in a lot of random feedback and ambient noise. Here’s hoping this doesn’t bode poorly for album number four.
11:53 a.m.: Arañas en la Sombra opens with thirty seconds of dogs barking. Uh-oh.
11:54 a.m.: Track two, “Arcos del Amor,” is a bouncy punk-rock tune with Rodriguez-Lopez singing in Spanish. This might be fun after all!
12:31 p.m.: For a while there I completely forgot I was listening to music. Then the record ended with another thirty seconds of barking dogs and some crying babies. I guess that album was fine?
12:51 p.m.: The highlight of Umbrella Mistress is the country-tinged “Blue Pale Queen,” which has pretty melodies, a chirpy piano line, and nice harmonies from Bosnian Rainbows bandmate Teri Gender Bender. Who knew Rodriguez-Lopez was a Gram Parsons fan?
1:39 p.m.: The ninth track of El Bien y Mal Nos Une, “Planetas sin Sol,” is an old-school Rodriguez-Lopez jam—face-melting shredding guitar of the sort that I got tired of by the end of the Mars Volta’s tenure. But after six albums of listening to so many sonic personae, it’s refreshing to hear the Rodriguez-Lopez of old emerge.
1:49 p.m.: Cell Phone Bikini is not a good name for an album.
2:34 p.m.: I just realized I’ve been listening to nothing since Cell Phone Bikini ended twenty or so minutes ago. Well, nothing other than birds chirping and a brook babbling. So much for that! On to Infinity Drips, which is full of Middle Eastern sounds and Teri Gender Bender singing the words “salt the monkey, salt the monkey” over and over again. This may be the one that kills me.
3:11 p.m.: I launch immediately into Weekly Mansions, just to cleanse the palate. So far, we have atmospheric tones loping under industrial percussion on a song called “Essential Punishments,” which is what this is really starting to feel like.
3:41 p.m.: It turns out this is a dance record. Huh.
3:51 p.m.: Zapopan opens with glitchy electronic sounds, stuttering drum loops, and Rodriguez-Lopez singing about a lady who doesn’t love him anymore. Maybe she doesn’t love him anymore because he forced her to listen to eight hours of music that’s been sitting in a box under his bed?
4:52 p.m.: My ears—or is it my brain?—are officially numb. I’m listening to a song off album number eleven, Nom de Guerre Cabal, in which Rodriguez-Lopez screams over an angular guitar riff, and at this point it basically sounds like smooth jazz to me.
5:20 p.m.: The good news: I’m starting Some Need It Lonely, the final album in the cycle. The bad news: it sounds like a bunch of stuff Rodriguez-Lopez’s previous bandmates rejected. Which makes sense: there are very few artists who have twelve good albums in them period, and these twelve albums represent only about a quarter of this guy’s output over the course of his career.
5:56 p.m.: Done. My verdict? There’s maybe one or two albums’ worth of good material scattered among these dozen records. But it would take someone extremely dedicated to listen to these records again, pay close attention, and ferret out the good stuff. And, man, it won’t be me.