In The Shadow of Goliath.

By Jared Lynch

1: Ouroboros I

We headed east on a bitter winter day, the midwest countryside bleeding together in a monotone of grey branches and apocalyptic cornstalks. This was 2008, and I was 15, and my dad bought us tickets to see The Mars Volta at the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio. When he picked me up that morning I felt like trash, delirious with some flu-adjacent head cold, but buzzing with an excitement that bordered religious zealousness. The Mars Volta had cemented as my favorite band, a sentiment that holds true over a decade later. As we drove across the bloodless landscape the air was cold and clear between the trees, and in that air there brewed a storm of failures, likely banal in origin, but possibly borne of something supernatural, reaching out to sow misfortune. 

Listless, I stared out the window as we trekked the 200ish miles from my hometown, reserving what energy remained for the show. This was the first concert I’d been to, aside from a scattering of Christian music festivals I attended when I was younger and still involved with church. My side of the conversation was flat and narrow in response, my mind swimming with sickness. Instead of talking, I flipped to the back of my CD binder where I kept my Volta albums, the soundtracks to our every-other-weekend commutes, and a common language we still shared. We started with The Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth album, released earlier that year, which still bears one of the most apt titles I’ve encountered, the controlled chaos, whiplash tonal shifts, the vocals like a clairvoyant channeling automatic babble. Singing along, my dad knew about a quarter of the lyrics, and most of those were sort of ad-libbed with words that fit the shape of the sounds. But I didn’t correct him. 

We stopped for lunch at a regional fast food restaurant that legitimately posted bible verses beneath the weekly specials on their roadside marque. Back in the car, the next album in the queue was De-Loused in the Comatorium, my introduction to the band, which I fully rejected when I first heard it. A colleague had suggested the album to my dad, and he immediately understood and connected with the music because he had grown up listening to Pink Floyd, and he was familiar with prog rock. He attempted several times to play De-Loused for me, and the first endeavors were complete failures because I didn’t understand what I was listening to. For context, I was 11 or 12, still deeply religious, heavily involved with the church, and I mostly listened to contemporary Christian music. When I encountered De-Loused in the Comatorium it was an alien aural landscape filled with musical complexities, vocals, lyrics, and concepts that I didn’t know how to navigate. It didn’t make sense to me, so I rejected it. 

It’s difficult to say what changed, but one day the music finally clicked into place, and it was as though I had found something I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for. We were driving down a country road that barely had a shoulder, the light beginning to fade. As the melancholy brooding of “Son et Lumiere” kicked into the shotgun blast of “Inertiatic ESP” it was like a doorway opened. This time I heard it. The music wove a dark narrative in the trees. My reality shifted, and I felt it happen. We listened to the album front-to-back at least three times, and when I went home at the end of the weekend he let me borrow the CD, where it cycled, and cycled, and I copied it into the Media Player on my second hand Windows ME computer, typing the track titles manually because I didn’t have Internet, and the album cycled in my tinny speakers. 

Then down the rabbit hole, scouring Wikipedia when I had Internet access, the band’s website, tangential sites, seeing what there was to learn. It took some time to acquire their small (at the time) discography because I was a preteen and didn’t have a revenue source. I bought an expensive copy of Frances the Mute at the now-defunct F.Y.E. in a shopping mall basement in the nearby city of Fort Wayne. I bought an inexpensive copy of Amputecture at my hometown Wal-Mart on the day it was released. I never returned my dad’s copy of De-Loused in the Comatorium, because that would make my collection incomplete. 

Through their music, I began to understand the depths that music could explore. I also began to develop an understanding of the album as a medium, as a coherent construction, the songs part of a larger narrative. Volta albums tell stories, from the hallucinatory journey of the enigmatic character Cerpin Taxt in De-Loused in the Comatorium, to the journal found in a repossessed car that lay at the heart of Frances the Mute, telling the story of someone searching for their biological parents, to the news stories of possessed nuns that filtered into some of the more frenetic tracks of Amputechture. As I became more immersed in the stories and lyrics, my perspectives on music, creativity, storytelling, and writing multiplied and warped into increasingly weirder realms. I had crossed a threshold. The phantasmagoria blossomed in my imagination and sprouted into a strange, dark forest. 

Tangents aside (for the moment), it’s 2008 right now, and the shadows were growing long as Columbus emerged from the drab flatness. I had little experience with cities, and seeing the expanse of highrises, however abundant, held a sense of magic to me. I still feel that way when I see a skyline materialize on the horizon, or from a plane window, the potentiality and unknown pathways to be woven through the streets and tangle of destinations. We knew our trajectory though, and our pathway there. First to the hotel, and then to the Newport Music Hall for a transcendent experience that we knew would be sacrosanct. 

There was some time to kill before the concert, so I checked the band’s website when we dropped our bags in the hotel room. Maybe it was intuition, but I think it was just a whim to make sure that everything was alright. It wasn’t. 

“It’s canceled,” I said. “The show is canceled.”


He stopped rummaging through his bag for a change of clothes, and stood behind me, looking over my shoulder. The post was made earlier that day, or maybe it was from the day before and I didn’t see it, or didn’t check soon enough. Partway down the tour page was the listing for the venue, and beneath that were the blocky letters of affliction: SHOW POSTPONED. 

So not canceled-canceled, just canceled right now. 

Still, that didn’t feel great. 

Our silent disappointment was a third presence in the room as we wallowed in the newfound misery. There we were, within walking distance of the venue, within hours of what would in fact be a transformative life experience, and suddenly there was an abrupt closing of the door, the momentum diffused into the smoldering rubble of a car accident. Obviously, I’m being hyperbolic. The band had health-related reasons for canceling the show, and absolutely they should take care of themselves. It was difficult not to spy conspiracy in the machinations of the moment, given the energy and calamity surrounding The Bedlam in Goliath. More on that later though. We let the moment simmer, and there was nothing to be done for it. 

Eventually we decided to make something out of the evening rather than mope in the hotel room. After dinner we found ourselves at an AMC on the outskirts of town, waiting in the theater for Cloverfield to start. The only content I’d seen for the film was a short, oblique teaser that featured the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty crashing down like a meteor in the middle of a New York street, so neither of us knew what to expect. Then, to our dismay, slipped between pre-preview advertisements for local cleaning services and car dealerships there was a mysterious trailer for The Bedlam in Goliath. Maybe album advertisements in movie theaters were a trend in the aughts that I missed growing up in a small town, but I’d never seen one before or since. Likely the timing was the result of a well-planned marketing campaign, aligned with the band coming through town, but it felt like a synchronicity, and a bit like salt rubbed into a wound. It was difficult not to spy conspiracy. 

Neither of us commented on it, and Cloverfield started. It was my introduction to found footage films, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My dad nearly vomited from the handheld motion of the camera. He spent most of the time averting his eyes, not from the gore or body-exploding bug bites, rather from the characters walking down the street. By the end we both felt more or less miserable with our physical circumstances in addition to our emotional ones, me with my illness, and him with his nausea. The next day we slithered back to where we had come from, defeated but optimistic about the rescheduled concert. We bided our time, chalking up the experience to a row of bad luck. 

2: Goliath

There are stories rooted in every Volta album. There is context too: stories, ghosts and artifacts surrounding the thing that contribute to its pulse. The mythos surrounding The Bedlam in Goliath permeated long before the album crawled forth from its troubled birth. This is a good story to bring up at parties. It goes like this: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the composer, creative director, and guitarist of the Mars Volta, was visiting Jerusalem where he purchased a ouija-like talking board at a curio shop, as a gift for his friend Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the lyricist, vocalist, and other half of the band. They dubbed the talking board The Soothsayer, and through the board they communicated with a collective of entities that identified themselves as Goliath. 

The band shared a tour in 2006 with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it became an after-show ritual to speak with Goliath. Goliath told them the story of a love triangle between a woman, a man, and the woman’s mother that ended in tragedy and murder. At one point they discovered that hidden behind the labeling of the talking board there were drawings of strange shapes, and poems written in an archaic language that told a similar story. As their conversations continued, Goliath questioned what they had to offer in return for this commune. What had they brought for its appetite? They offered gifts. They offered alcohol. They used some of Goliath’s utterances as lyrics for what would become the album, but it wasn’t enough. The Soothsayer wanted a second chance to inhabit the living, and it wanted them to help it come alive. 

As the line of communication remained open, and the band denied Goliath’s requests, the story that it told became more graphic and violent. Threatening. The Soothsayer made its presence more overt, manifesting misfortune into their reality. When calamity struck it did so in a myriad of ways. First they suffered unexplainable equipment failures. Then their drummer had to leave mid-tour due to severe financial issues, and they had to scramble to find a replacement. Cedric had to have emergency foot surgery, requiring him to relearn how to walk post-surgery. When they began working on the album, Omar’s recording studio flooded, while the other studios in the building were untouched. The original recording engineer suffered a nervous breakdown, leaving behind song files that were chaotic rat’s nests of disorganized tracks.

They finally decided to sever the connection with Goliath. Omar buried the board in an undisclosed location. Cedric asked to never be made aware of its resting place. They found a new team of producers and sound engineers, but even with the board buried and a new cohort assembled, a presence lingered. Tracks would inexplicably disappear from song sessions, and Omar’s apartment building would experience power outages that occurred only in his unit, rendering any home recording equipment useless. The Bedlam in Goliath nearly died in the womb. As aptly stated in several articles and reviews about the thing, it was an album that did not want to be born. In the end they prevailed, shepherding it back from the brink of death, and somehow maintaining their sanity to bring the album into the world. 

Thus was crafted The Bedlam in Goliath, a staggering entity born of chaos, equal parts invocation and inoculation. The album is an attempt to reverse the malignancy brought upon by Goliath by distilling its negative energy amongst the listenership, reducing the saliency. The lyrics of the album are woven with good luck charms, and constructed into a labyrinth of summoning and banishment. To engage with the music is to engage with The Soothsayer, albeit in a small, controlled window of presence. It is a space of commune. To engage with the labyrinth is to entangle with a collapsing ouroboros. It is a haunted place. The haunting has become collective, trapped within the cement husk of its holding. As to how well the maze withheld the malignancy of its origins, that was still unknown. 

3: Ouroboros II 

We headed east on a reserved spring day with a feeling that we’d been here before. The roads we traveled were known, but made unfamiliar by our lingering, unspoken hesitancy. The landscape passed, brighter on this day that tilted a little closer to the warming heart of spring, but disquieting just the same, the wind of fate having already bared its teeth. I don’t remember what music we listened to. Likely the music of our ritual. Maybe not. 

The sun was still high as we arrived in Columbus. We checked the website at the hotel, and it looked like we were still in business, so we walked to the venue, the line wrapping around the block. As happens when we go anywhere, my dad struck up a conversation with the folks in front of us with an ease that baffled me as a teenager, and still eludes me as I creep into my 30s and rarely leave the apartment. They spoke of shared bereavement that the last show had been canceled, but we could hear the band practicing inside the venue, and there was a familiar electricity, the promise of a doorway opening once again into something we knew to be sacrosanct. We bided our time. 

In view of the door, the word spread like contagion. The show was canceled. Again. 

It was difficult not to spy conspiracy in that moment, which was likely banal in origin, but possibly borne of something supernatural. Maybe this misfortune crawled from the depths of The Soothsayer, Goliath broken free of its confinement to become our epidemic. The Bedlam in Goliath was out in the world, its machinations in motion amongst the listeners, steeped in summoning and abrogation. Maybe the spells didn’t work, or there were cracks in the walls of the labyrinth. Maybe the band was trapped in a continuum of misfortune from their entanglement with The Soothsayer. 

Or maybe it was nothing at all. Just bad luck.  

We drove back in silence. 

I can’t be the first person to hold the sentiment that Ohio is a cursed place. 

4: The Clocks are Reversing

We headed north on a clear day in 2008, charting our course from Indiana to Michigan in an attempt to escape the radius of affliction, although maybe we carried it with us within a haunted CD in the back of a binder. We were bound for Detroit because the weight of the second cancellation was too heavy for another reconciliation in Columbus. We went forward into a realm of two possibilities: the show would be canceled, the experience forever trapped within the final resting place of Goliath, or the show would happen. The skyline of the city appeared. We knew our trajectory, downtown to the Fillmore Theater. 

Close to the venue, we drove around until some guy waved us down and showed us a parking spot that he had illegally sequestered with traffic cones. $15 for the spot. Even in my teenaged, small-town experience I knew there was a strong possibility that this situation would end with the car inexplicably missing, vandalized, or ticketed for being parked illegally. But my dad decided to take the risk, and we parked a block from the venue, likely for cheaper than the surrounding garages and lots. The guy put the cones on the other side of the car. We walked up the block to join the line, entering into a cloud that I vaguely understood was marijuana, although it would be years before I had much interest in substances other than soda and sugar. 

We found our spot in line, my dad talking with the folks around us as I looked around at the buildings, amazed that people lived in such expansive environments, the entity of a city a profound mystery to me. I think we were both waiting for the bottom to drop out for a third time, but neither of us said as such, and to our amazement the line moved forward. Then we were at the doors, handing over our tickets printed on scrap paper, and we were in the lobby, and then we were in the theater, standing near the stage that was shrouded with a screen. As the room filled we were surrounded with the sound of our own presence, the collective murmuring of the congregation. As the overhead lights dimmed out, there was a physical shift in the room, the circle of the ritual closing. The stage lights came on enough to see the silhouettes of the band stalk across the landscape, and the screen pulled away. 

None of them said a word. And then there followed the singular musical experience that has shaped what I have sought for in live music. There came the sound, a nothingness of total envelopment, a gospel experience where everything was cleared from my mind except the music, the movement around me, and a sort of blanking out in my mind as the sound took over. The music was a living thing with a constant pulse. Time didn’t exist in that hollowing substance. At some point the ritual culminated, the echoes lingering in the quiet that followed. At the end of the show they left the stage without a word, dematerializing behind the screen, and it wasn’t unwarranted to wonder if the show had happened at all except for the ringing in my ears and the feeling that I didn’t fully know how to process the experience. 

We staggered out of the theater, reeling from the intoxication of the sound. In the lobby we yelled at one another over the hearing loss. Neither could understand the other, but it was a common language at that moment. Outside we rounded the corner, and there was the car, unscathed behind the orange parking cones. And there was our man, leaning against a wall, talking with some folks. He walked over when he saw us, and my dad paid him, and he moved the cones. We drove into the night. Regardless of any tumultuous history that followed, we had this binding experience, knowing that something core had been created, coded in hearing loss and the unbinding of misfortune. 

Beer Engine Literary Refractions Guest Series


Images taken from The Bedlam in Goliath, illustrated by Jeff Jordan.

Lyrics taken from The Bedlam in Goliath, written by Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

Barrett, Adam. “A Review of Frances the Mute.” decomp, Accessed 9 December 2022.

Bixler-Zavala, Cedric. “De-Loused in the Comatorium (Companion Book).” Genius, Accessed 15 December 2022. 

Johnson, Jeremy Robert. “Interview: Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta.” Verbicide, Accessed 14 December 2022. 

Johnson, Jeremy Robert. “The Mars Volta’s Descent into Bedlam: A Rhapsody in Three Parts.” Accessed 19 November 2022. 

The Mars Volta. Amputechture, Gold Standard Laboratories, Universal Records, 2006. 

The Mars Volta. The Bedlam in Goliath, Gold Standard Laboratories, Universal Motown Records, 2008. 

The Mars Volta. De-Loused in the Comatorium, Gold Standard Laboratories, Universal Records, 2003. 

The Mars Volta. Frances the Mute, Gold Standard Laboratories, Universal, 2005. 

Surrette, Tim. “The curse of Mars Volta.”, Accessed 19 November 2022. 

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