The last time The Mars Volta played London, it was a little hard to locate their sixth member. Onstage at the Mean Fiddler, the Volta looked like a kinetic, expansive five-piece: singer, guitarist, bassist, organist, drummer. But at the back of the dancefloor lurked Jeremy Ward, working a desk of effects units. When Cedric Bixler Zavalas' voice echoed, or multiplied, or gained a harsh robotic edge, or when the band suddenly became transformed by dub science - that was the work of Ward.
He may not have been the most obviously integral member of The Mars Volta, but Jeremy Ward significantly contributed to the critical air of otherness which made the band seem so special. Then on May 25, a month before the release of this much-anticipated debut album, Ward was found dead in his LA apartment (Causes are unknown at time of writing: early reports suggested his death was drug-related).
'De-Loused In The Comatorium', then, emerges as something of a memorial to Ward, to the adventurousness which he helped propagate in his old friends Bixler and Omar Rodriguez when they abandoned the relatively staid - if frequently magnificent - At The Drive-In. With horrid irony, it's an album that was actually 'conceived' as a memorial, for another old comrade from El Paso, Julio Venegas. Venegas was an artist who committed suicide in 1996, having first flirted with death by overdosing on morphine and spending a week in a coma some time previously.
It is that week in a coma that 'De-Loused' loosely dramatises, the "dreams oceanic" that Bixler imagines Venegas experienced. Plainly, it's no ordinary post-punk record. Faint hearts may quail, but The Mars Volta have fashioned an hour-long concept album that retrieves the concepts of ambition, complexity and fearless pretension from prog rock, then gives them a hardcore overhaul.
There are moments, of course, when it all seems preposterous, but Bixler's passion - coupled with the drive and imagination of his band - ensure the whole thing is an unusually consuming experience. Yes, he sometimes sings like Jon Anderson, but when his band are making like a Latino-jazz-space- dub mix of Led Zeppelin and Fugazi, forgiveness comes easy.
This is not an album to listen to casually. It insists on taking over your life for an hour, demands a level of concentration rare in rock, amply repays multiple plays. As a result, it's tough to pick out those obvious radio hits America may demand, the presence of producer Rick Rubin and half of the Red Hot Chili Peppers notwithstanding.
In time, though, it all starts to make sense, and the mid-album passage from 'Drunkship Of Lanterns', through 'Eriatarka', to the extraordinary 'Cicatriz ESP' emerges as one of the most remarkable sequences of music made this year: great ecstatic riffs and choruses that constantly mutate into new ones; drift-and-skronk movements that represent an unusually fine appropriation of perilously fashionable early '70s Miles Davis; and, poignantly, quite brilliant digi-dub interludes where choruses of ghosts and insects gnaw away at the very fabric of the songs.
This is what Jeremy Ward did - carve a new dimension for an already strange and beautiful band. And so 'De-Loused In The Comatorium' isn't just an odd and fine album, but a celebration of Ward and Venegas, of their tragically lost talents. Serious, moving, disorienting, riveting.