The "Frances" Era
If the De-Loused era was The Mars Volta searching for what they wanted to be, then the Frances The Mute era is a band grabbing the reigns in full confidence. Lasting only a year, it would cram a marathon of shows around the globe in both headlining and supporting roles. The tour, lasting from early 2005 until early 2006 would be Jon Theodore's last before being kicked out of the band. 2005 would also showcase the first Omar Rodriguez-Lopez solo tour. Setlists were a little rigid, although expansive, running at about two hours if a solo show and an hour during their supporting act run. Even if the songs remained the same, the tour was known for daunting and creative jams, especially during Drunkship of Lanterns, Roulette Dares and Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt. Songs from their new album, Frances the Mute, mostly erred on the side of cosmic improvisations, primarily staying true to their studio counterparts, albeit with some riffing on Cygnus.... Vismund Cygnus and mixing up parts of Cassandra Gemini. This was one of the few tours that had a supporting act, Los Angeles' DJ Nobody.
When the Fistful of Dollars walk on theme played in Brussels on February 22nd, 2005 it had been nearly a year since The Mars Volta properly toured. Frances the Mute had only released the day before in Europe and fans did not have much time to digest the new material coming their way. Fortunately, the European tour gave the committed audience a lifeline, opening with Drunkship of Lanterns (Aside from the Brussels show where Take the Veil opened). The song, running at over 20 minutes each show, delved into haunting and soul twisting jams; often balancing a bludgeoning from the rhythm section and an ethereal aura from Omar, Cedric, and now full-time member Adrian. The Widow, the albums single, would lead into Take the Veil, which frequently featured the Helicopter Jam, which might as well have come with a warning to keep out of reach of children. The Helicopter Jam with its extremely choppy tremolo bass can be heard on their live album Scabdates. Cygnus would go into Roulette Dares, which had not fully reached the prog-metal brutality it would succumb to in 2008, but definitely was now showing teeth. Concertina would give the audience a breath of relief before jumping into the 30-minute closer Cassandra Gemini. Capturing Cassandra live was always a challenge, as the studio rendition was emboldened by orchestral accompaniments that were not brought on stage, as if there was not enough stuff on stage anyway. Despite this, the group presented an admirable take, gussying up the livelier parts with more concert shaking riffing, and shirking a bit on the ambiance that accompanied the later parts of the song.
The month-long European run would conclude in March and by mid-April the band was back in business, doing a solo tour run across the United States. The sets remained relatively similar only augmenting L'via L'viaquez into the set. The North American run is a intriguing part of the tour, not so much for dynamics in the shows, but for curiosities that would be sprinkled throughout. Latin legend Larry Harlow would make a cameo during their two-night residency at the Roseland Ballroom and John Frusciante would present himself at the Greek Theater. Not only that, the band played a secret 35 minute improv set for a small number of select fans at a tiny venue in San Francisco and also showed their humor by opting to play an hour long jam at the KROQ weenie roast; a one of a kind set featuring strange on-stage banter and Cedric typing his lyrics on a typewriter mid-song. The song, titled Abortion: The Other White Meat at the time would eventually be released in 2008 as The Population Council's Wet Dream on 2008's Old Money albeit in an incredibly truncated form. At The Drive-In veteran and brief sound manipulator, Paul Hinojos would also join the band at this time, growing the live band to eight members.
The second leg of the European tour was called off early on due to Omar being ill, bringing the band back stateside aside from a sharp performance at the Fuji Rock Festival. The band would return to the supporting role through late summer until October, opening for System of a Down. The shows, featuring a slimmed down set from earlier in the year, are admirable for cramming a lot of noise in a short amount of time, but pales in comparison to the two hour sets they were regular putting out a few months ago. The second leg of their tour with System of a Down would bring Math Rock luminaries Hella along as well, a wise choice as the bonds made on the tour would eventually bring fans one of the most lauded of Omar releases, Cryptomnesia in 2008 along with the more musically precarious Mantra Hiroshima in 2010. A solo show at the Santa Barbara Bowl would be the capstone to the United States tour, bringing John Frusciante on stage again. It is often regarded as one of the best shows they ever performed but would unfortunately be the last show Jon Theodore would play with the band in the United States.
The Mars Volta, in 2005, were also tapped to curate that year's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, bringing an eclectic showcase including Battles, Blonde Readhead, and The Locust together in one festival. Before that would happen, however, Omar would grab Juan, Marcel, Adrian, and longtime Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark on a two-week tour across Europe which would be the debut tour of the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group. Omar, always relentlessly writing music, decided to bring his non-Volta creations to life and opted to return to his touring roots by packing a van and playing to small clubs. One of these shows would feature avant-garde vocalist Damo Suzuki on the track Please Heat This Eventually which would eventually be its own release later in 2006. The majority of their third album, Amputechture, would be recorded between this time and their tour in Australia and New Zealand.
In late January 2006, The Mars Volta would conclude their Frances The Mute supporting tour with a run of festival and solo shows in Australia. These would be the last featuring Jon Theodore, who was critical in developing the bands iconic percussive sound. The solo sets would see the return of Eriatarka and Cassandra Gemini and the debut of the non-album single France The Mute. Drunkship, still a Hindenburg sized song, would have a radical shift in its interlude jam, sounding far more uplifting than when the tour started which was unfortunately not an indication of things to come.
Shortly after the tour’s conclusion Jon Theodore would be fired from the group. Initial accounts depicted him as lazy, wanting to surf rather than play for the band, but later interviews gave a much softer take, showing that Jon's desperate need of respite and Omar's relentless creative drive were no longer compatible and Omar was not interested in waiting Jon to recover. Blake Flemming, the original drummer from the first demos, would be brought back. Fortunately, Jon's drumming would survive for the third album Amputechture, although curiously lower in the mix. The latter half of the tour also began to showcase a growing rift, notably that "The Mars Volta" only was Omar and Cedric, and their music was played by "The Mars Volta Group". Omar also became increasingly verbal about how he was writing the entirety of every album, despite multiple accounts to the contrary. While it would be a long time before this mentality would doom the band, it set the course for disaster.
Much like the De-Loused tour, there is a large body of fans that argue the Frances The Mute tour is the band at its finest. The group had ironed out its growing pains and was a focused ravenous unit. Supporting evidence includes sets from Berlin, The Santa Barbara Bowl, The Enmore Theatre and their hazy set at Bonnaroo, all of which are regarded as some of the band's best live work. On the other hand, sets rarely varied and while Cassandra Gemini is always a treat to hear it is hard to dispute its 30-minute runtime was a large burden to carry, making the final quarter of the show preordained. Additionally, the addition of Adrian and Paul, while allowing for more sonic diversity, also meant the mixes began to become a little more muddled by the end, an issue that would become increasingly apparent in the coming years. Regardless, the issues are minuscule at best as the Frances The Mute tour is truly some of the best work by The Mars Volta. Classics were given new breaths of air while fans were introduced to new songs, some of which would become staples until the end of the band’s existence. Sure, some of the raw innocence was gone, but in its place was a more mature, focused, and sinister group, assure of itself and ready to snatch life at a moments' notice.