I remember exactly where I was when I got my first taste of the greatest album ever produced, the magnum opus of The Mars Volta’s discography, The Bedlam in Goliath. It was fall of 2007 and I was standing in my brother’s room listening to a poor-quality leak of ‘Goliath’, and despite the grainy sound of a low bit-rate mp3, I felt my skin crawl in awe of the music which infiltrated my soul like a stampede. When the track was finished my brother and I simply looked at each other with gaping mouths and wide eyes. “Woah…Holy shit.”
The album dropped in late January of 2008 and was the progressive rock band’s highest charting release after selling 54,000 copies in its opening week and winning Best Hard Rock Performance at the 51st Grammy Awards. But what struck my brother and I most profoundly was the story behind all the music.
Once upon a time in Jerusalm lead guitarist/producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez walked into a curio shop and discovered an archaic Ouija-style talking board, thinking that it would be an ideal gift for lead singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala. He purchased the artifact whose dark history stretched far beyond their recognition, a decision that resulted in terrible consequences for the band and ultimately the creation of one of the most incredible albums in music history. During their tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers the band would retreat to their bus after shows to sit around Cedric’s new talking board dubbed the Soothsayer.
“We would never dim the lights, it wasn’t some corny Disney version like people might picture. The lights were on, the messages started coming through and I kept looking at Omar like, ‘Are you pushing this thing, or am I pushing this thing?’ I just kept writing down everything that it said because it was 10 times more creative than anything I think I could have come up with,” admitted Bixler-Zavala. “The fact that I was writing everything down is what challenged the spirits that we contacted and alerted them that we had the power of unmasking their anonymity.”
It became a post-performance ritual. The Soothsayer would offer them names: Mr. Mugs, Patience Worth, Tourniquet Man, and Goliath, the talking board’s culminating manifestation. It told stories of a love triangle between a man, a woman, and her mother.
“The spirit, known as Goliath, is a schizophrenic version of three people who were trying to contact us; a male spirit, a female spirit and her mother. The story is of lust, seduction and infidelity, pain and murder. It is a classic scenario of a male character speaking over a female and the female looking for a champion who is brave enough to tell the story,”
In each telling of the same story the Soothsayer revealed more gruesome details. Words and phrases that at first appeared nonsensical began to reveal themselves in what seemed like rare moments of coincidence. Cedric incorporated many of these phrases as lyrics in the working songs. “Never heard a man speak like this man before / never heard a man speak like this man before / all the days of my life ever since I’ve been born / never heard a man speak like this man before” This would become the climactic mantra heard at the end of ‘Goliath’. The band heard the familiar words anew while watching a documentary on cults and learned that it was in fact a lyric taken from one of the many hymns sung by the zealots of Jonestown before they committed mass suicide on November 18, 1978.
Eventually the Soothsayer began to make demands that seemed more urgent with each connection, asking what they, the band, had to offer. It was revealed that Goliath was searching for a surrogate, a host that would allow its return to the physical world. At this point The Mars Volta was faced with a decision: close their union with Goliath, or proceed with the creation of their album.
Goliath’s demands were, of course, unmet by the performers and disaster ensued. Inexplicable equipment failure. Conflicts with the current drummer, Thomas Pridgeon, resulted in his expulsion from the ensemble. Cedric received a severe injury in his foot, the cause of which was mysterious. A reliable engineer lost his composure and abandoned the project, leaving behind mangled tracks. And on top of it all, Omar’s music studio flooded, further impeding the completion of the album.
One day the label on the backside of the board peeled back to reveal pre-Aramaic text:
“We hired two people to translate it because it was in Hebrew and in Latin and sometimes it was in what I think was Aramaic,” Bixler-Zavala said. “One of those translators gave us back our money and didn’t want to talk to us or have anything to do with us again. The other, who was a little more brave, translated the verses for us and it turned out they translated like traditional sing-song nursery rhymes and the more I read stuff and the further I am away from the project now the more I realize that it is a story steeped in the modern day phenomena of honor killings.”
In the end Omar secretly buried the Soothsayer thereby closing the union between The Mars Volta and Goliath, and the album that almost wasn’t came into being. Even today I can hear the creative struggle against these supernatural horrors. I see the story of the Soothsayer’s previous owners falling into madness play out before my mind’s eye and I am entertained, fascinated, and inspired by the notion that there are things in this world that cannot be explained.
Here’s the full album on youtube: