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The 11 best songs by The Mars Volta

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite songs by The Mars Volta, ranked

Peer through the veil into The Mars Volta‘s 20-year prog rock reign and you’ll find a world that feels more like alchemy. Mutter a few of their songs — Cotapaxi, Ambuletz, Asilos Magadelna, Cerulea — and it feels like conjuring a spell in an ancient tongue.

The lucid and occult world building behind Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s dynamic and chaotic signature sound has lead the band to become one of the most influential alternative rock acts of the 21st century. Their return in 2022 after a decade-long hiatus brought their excitement back to life, and with news of UK shows in June, we took on the task of ranking their best 11 tracks of all time.

11. Since We’ve Been Wrong

(Octahedron, 2009)

Let’s take it easy to start with, shall we? Though far more famous for their loud and labyrinthine songcraft, towards the end of the noughties the band began to create more space for dynamics, letting the melodies bloom. ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’ is a perfect example of this, and though originally meant for The Bedlam In Goliath, actually foreshadows the development of this shift found on later releases Nocturniquet and The Mars Volta. This track has a ‘Hotel California’ kind of wistfulness, like someone strumming alone on the veranda of an El Passo cabin.

10. Vermicide

(Vermicide, 2006)

The Mars Volta aren’t always ones for following traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structures, often opting for chapters or linear stages thanks to the huge influence of cinema on their music. But ‘Vermicide’ is all about the chorus. The awaited cymbal hits echo, and Cedric’s imposing vocals are delivered like a Shakespearean actor performing a slow and painful death. (In a good way).

9. Wax Simulacra

(The Bedlam In Goliath, 2008)

Forget choruses, this one is all about the intro. There are probably more ambitious tracks on this mighty, ouija board inspired album – ‘Goliath’ could have easily taken this spot – but this plosive and polyrhythmic drum opening from Thomas Pridgen (one of his first contributions to the band) is absolutely mind blowing.

8. Blacklight Shine

(The Mars Volta, 2022)

Many fans had long believed a Mars Volta return was off the cards, despite the various At The Drive-In reunions. But in June the pair broke their ten year hiatus with ‘Blacklight Shine’, a surprising but stirring easy-going number that leant heavily into their Latino roots, most notably Omar’s Puerto Rican heritage. Cedric’s high-pitched vocal line in the chorus is playful and almost childlike, floating eerily above the bouncing and pulsing of the busy percussion.

7. Drunkship Of Lanterns

(Deloused In the Cromatorium, 2003)

Wedged right into The Mars Volta canon, ‘Drunkship Of Lanterns’ is a grizzly tale as part of the Cerpin Taxt concept that guides Deloused. There’s an anxious shuffle that weaves together the warbling, noodling and shifting jazzcore mayhem.

6. Citcatriz Esp

(Deloused In the Cromatorium, 2003)

In case you were wondering what the ‘Esp’ part means, that features in a couple of Mars Volta tracks, it stands for “Ectoptic Shapeshifting Penance-Propulsion”. Obviously! This lore is probably one for another day, so instead just enjoy the tightly locked-in rhythm that punctuates much of this track and give yourselves up to its harmonious maelstrom.

5. Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus

(Frances The Mute, 2005)

Be warned: if the gorgeous acoustic opening of ‘Cygnus… Vismun Cygnus’ pulls you closer like the call of a Siren, begging to be turned up, then put wax in your ears. Within seconds of this 13-minute epic you’re dropped into a cacophonous, chaotic sprawl where you don’t know where to turn.

4. Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)

(Deloused In the Cromatorium, 2003)

There’s just an undeniable heft and gravitas to ‘Roulette Dares’. The track sees some of The Mars Volta’s most impressive musicianship – from Omar’s dramatic and decisive riff that cuts open space for one of Cedric’s most recognisable choruses, to the dreamlike ending that you wish would carry on floating for eternity.

3. L’Via Livaquez

(Frances the Mute, 2005)

That muted, machine-like drum sample at the beginning is muffled, as if heard from outside a rehearsal room. Curiosity brings you closer, and then the door opens… This rollicking showstopper is truly The Mars Volta giving it everything, but to go one step further they even recruited legendary salsa pianist Larry Harlow and Red Hot Chilli Peppers guitarist John Frusciante for some hallucinatory guitar solos that kept many a kid up all night on Guitar Hero World Tour.

2. Cassandra Gemini

(Frances The Mute, 2005)

Now, the original plan had been for ‘Cassandra Gemini’ to be 32 minutes long, “Something deformed and out of control. Something enormous and violent, a whole album fitted into one composition,” as Cedric told Verbicide in 2006. But, so the story goes, the label wouldn’t give the band an album-sized budget for a 5-track release. And thus, this prog rock giant would be cut into eights. The whole track makes this second spot, but we’ve included the first chapter for the drop into the most addictive moment in the band’s discography. TLDR: 2.20.

1. Inertiatic Esp

(Deloused In the Cromatorium, 2003)

“Nooooowww I’mmmmmmmm lossssssssst,” Cedric’s vocal soars on this cosmic waltz before falling down to a deep and muddled earthiness. And yet, this scratchy and muscular track is somehow the easiest to follow. It’s a testament to the band’s visceral virtues that underlie all their cerebral spangles. To enjoy at its fullest, this track must be played after the tense cinematic ‘Son et Lumiere’ that precedes it. See you on the other side.

The Mars Volta play Glasgow, Manchester and London 16-18 June 2023, buy tickets here