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A 37-track introduction; Omar Rodriguez Lopez finds his groove on the road less traveled

On April 16, Omar Rodriguez Lopez will celebrate Record Store Day by dropping a four-record set, "Telesterion," on the public. The 37-track collection is meant to be an introduction to the musician's vast body of work for the uninitiated listener.

Talk about diving in at the deep end. Ah, well. Subtlety has never been this musician's forte.

As a founding member and principal songwriting force with both At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta, Rodriguez Lopez -- who brings his Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group to the Town Ballroom at 8 p.m. Thursday -- has been at the forefront of one of the more exciting pop music subgenres to have emerged over the past 15 years.

Calling what Rodriguez Lopez and his cohorts create "pop" music is a stretch, really. That, for example, the Mars Volta's "Octahedron" or "The Bedlam in Goliath" might haunt the charts during the same epoch as efforts by Jay-Z or Rihanna is a bewilderment to many, and the source of a subversive thrill to others. Yet, somehow, the strange, often aggressively avant-garde, and even more commonly grandiose and epic music that emerges from Rodriguez Lopez's head has found a sizable, multinational audience.

Rodriguez Lopez, born in Puerto Rico and raised in El Paso, Texas, found a creative counterpart from the beginning in singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala -- who has worked with Rodriguez Lopez in At the Drive-In, Mars Volta and the new ORL Group. Immediately, the two began to caress a shared vision of a sound that incorporated the far-flung harmonic and rhythmic intensity of progressive rock into elements of heavy metal, Latin music, jazz fusion, "math-rock," punk and psychedelia.

Not exactly a recipe for guaranteed commercial success, but even as the duo's first incarnation, At the Drive-In, crumbled under the weight of musical ego and drug abuse, Rodriguez Lopez and Bixler-Zavala emerged with their vision intact.

The Mars Volta -- the moniker a mix of references to the Italian film director Federico Fellini's tendency to refer to an abrupt change of scene and setting as a "volta," and the duo's own love for science fiction -- hit the ground running with 2003's "De-Loused in the Comatorium." By the time they had dropped 2005's "Frances the Mute," the group had secured a rabid following, which was essentially a 21st century version of the freak-collectives who had followed the likes of Yes, early Genesis, Gentle Giant and King Crimson in the 1970s. These were listeners averse to the white-bread tendencies of the musical mainstream. Since little has really changed (technological advances notwithstanding) in the 30-odd years that have passed between the release of, for example, King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic" and "Octahedron," it is not surprising that a new generation with similar proclivities would glom onto the Mars Volta.

Long, ambitious songs with ample displays of instrumental virtuosity, abrupt shifts in meter and key, and otherworldly lyric imagery were routinely embraced as opportunities for aural freakouts by fans who were more than comfortable proclaiming the Mars Volta their band.

Always a volatile ensemble, the group saw members come and go, as new musical romances were engaged, only to blossom and burn out. At the end of the day, however, Rodriguez Lopez and Bixler-Zavala emerged from the car wreck relatively unscathed, their musical partnership proving to have been built to last. This should be no surprise to anyone who checked the caveat that appeared in the liner notes to a number of Volta albums: "The partnership between Omar Rodriguez Lopez & Cedric Bixler-Zavala is the Mars Volta. These compositions are then performed by the Mars Volta Group."

If we take them at their word -- and history suggests that we should -- then the current manifestation of the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group is really just a continuation of the Mars Volta ethic. Even a cursory listen to "Un Escorpion Perfumado," the album Rodriguez Lopez released in December, bears out this reading of the At the Drive-In/Mars Volta/ORL Group progression as an example of conceptual continuity.

Whether you buy into such high-falutin' exegeses, it is an indisputable fact that Thursday's show will be a high-volume affair not for the meek of mind or the faint of heart. To paraphrase the acknowledged father-figure of "conceptual continuity in rock," Frank Zappa, these guys don't mess around.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

Remaining tickets for Thursday's Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group gig at the Town Ballroom are available through Tickets.com. Learn more about the artist via www.rodriguezlopezproductions.com.

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