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Tunes for the Anxious

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It’s impossible to be indifferent to El Paso-raised musician Omar Alfredo Rodriguez-López. The sheer scale and inscrutability of his music demand that listeners choose a side, with songs often clocking in at eight or nine minutes, going through dozens of meter changes, and having names like “Inertiatic ESP” and “Tetragrammaton.”

Take The Mars Volta, Rodriguez-López’s most successful project, a band that crams Santana, Rush, Fugazi, Mexican cumbia and Miles Davis into a dissonant, virtuosic blur. To fans, the group’s mingling of punk energy with technical proficiency is cause for worship. Young musicians fill YouTube with home videos trying to play along to their songs. Those who prefer their pop with a little less tension and a little more release will be forgiven for running for the door, or at least the volume knob.

One thing everyone can agree on is that Rodriguez-López possesses a work ethic that would shame a Puritan. Since appearing on the national radar in 1996 with At the Drive-In, a post-hardcore quintet from El Paso that had a modest radio hit with 2000′s “One Armed Scissor,” Rodriguez-López has released no fewer than 30 records, including six this year. He writes the music, produces the records and plays guitar (in 2003 Rolling Stone called him one of the 100 best guitarists ever). Like his music, Rodriguez-López is a study in ambition and apprehension; you get the sense that he’s terrified that he might die before saying everything he has to say.

This is definitely the case with his 13th solo album, Xenophanes, to be released in the United States on Nov. 10. Like most of The Mars Volta’s work, Xenophanes is a study in overload, with jerking odd-time drum rhythms, salsa-tinged bass lines, Cecil Taylor-esque piano cascades, and electric guitars prodding one another into a din. Rarely does the music fall below fortissimo or take a moment to breathe, not even when Rodriguez-López is singing. Most musicians will drop an instrument or two during a verse to focus on a vocal melody, but not Rodriguez-López. Everything is always in, always loud and always technically overwhelming, all that rhythmic dissonance attempting to capture and translate some spirit of the modern condition. Or at least strangle away any unpleasant silence.

Not that Rodriguez-López’s interest here is modernity, at least not conceptually. Xenophanes is named for the Greek philosopher, poet and critic from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., who taught that the universe is changeless, eternal and endlessly recurring. Inspired by these ideas, Rodriguez-López composed a concept album about a woman who goes through a spiritual cycle of life and rebirth over and over until her ego is burned away and she realizes the true metaphysical nature of existence. Far from being a sonic representation of spiritual equanimity, Xenophanes—sung entirely in Spanish and bookended by what sounds like tribal thumb pianos filtered through distortion pedals and then dissolving into digital squalls—sounds more like world music for a new age of anxiety.

Yet even in anxious times, there has to be a place for calm. Eventually, walls of sound become indistinguishable from noise. Rodriguez-López has mastered the art of sonic excess; it may be time for him to explore the other end of the spectrum, to turn down the volume and face the silence at the center of our modern madness.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.