At The Drive In
It may have been 17 years since their last album and inevitable implosion, but At the Drive In make the turn of the century sound like it was yesterday. Their 2012 reunion as a live act was as welcome as it was unexpected, although even guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez admitted it was mostly for the cash and nostalgia. In that sense their fourth album in.ter a.li.a should be viewed as significant step forward to a genuine rebuild – but nothing was ever that clear cut with At the Drive In. Instead, in.ter a.li.a sees the border town misfits emerging from and yet returning to the desperation and dissidence that hallmarked their nu-metal era heyday.
While 2000’s Relationship of Command is seen as the group’s crowning achievement, they were never really happy with it, lambasting the ‘plastic’ production of Ross Robinson ever since. On in.ter a.li.a the group employed the services of Mars Volta producer Rich Costey with guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez taking more control in the studio. This is also the group’s first studio release since El Gran Orgo not to feature founding guitarist Jim Ward, who opted out of their second wave, with fellow At the Drive In spin-off act Sparta’s guitarist Jim Keeley taking his place.
The first thing you notice on opener No Wolf Like the Present is that At the Drive In seem to have lost none of the frenetic energy that has always characterised their sound. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s spitfire vocals are omnipresent over the gunfire percussion and acrobatic guitar lines meandering through the mix. Bixler-Zavala’s deranged poetry also hits an early vein of form stating “They own your history, and sell it for parts”.
On Continuum he descends from stratospheric Mars Volta operatics into something more akin to a rapid-fire rendition of Invalid Litter Dept. There are the familiar vocal expeditions through submersion in phasers to quick whispering as the band falls into a tense hush around him. The album’s first single Governed by Contagions doesn’t feel like a highlight with its placement as track four, but there’s no denying it’s the first time you feel compelled to sing along to a chorus: “Brace Yourself my darling, brace yourself my love.”
The track probably highlights Bixler-Zavala’s bizarre lyricism better than most on in.ter a.li.a. He laces his delivery with provocative imagery (guillotine claps, cyanide tooth) that amount more to distraction than intrigue:
“Smuggled in their faith like an orbit in decay
Drools the cloying adulation of piss ants
One shot for every snitch leads the needle to the stitch
It’s a homemade remedy to loosen every tongue.”
This has long been one of the aspects that make At the Drive In (and The Mars Volta) a pill hard to swallow. While their firebrand passion is infectious, the meaning underpinning it all often escapes the listener as Bixler-Zavala indulgently forces together miss-matched puzzles pieces of ideas into a picture only he ever gets to see.
But most At the Drive In fans have shown their ability to suspend such misgivings and appreciate the music for what it is. While there were glimpses of greatness on At the Drive In’s first three albums it was really The Mars Volta’s 2003 debut Deloused in the Crematorium that saw Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar mastery properly unleashed on the world. At the time it confirmed his claims that At the Drive In was holding himself and Bixler-Zavala back. But a few prog-concept albums later even the most passionate fans began to lose patience with the Mars Volta’s meandering improvisation and began to crave some kind of structure to pull all the loose ends back together.
In.ter a.li.a at least fulfills some of those wishes. Pendulum in a Peasant Dress is Rodriguez-Lopez and the group’s best example of what the right mix of creativity and discipline can achieve. The fluid guitar riffs seamlessly overlap the vocal changes quilting together the same combination of notes in a complex yet inevitable algorithm. Original drummer Tony Hajjar and bass player Paul Hinojos toy with time-signatures in ways you don’t remember them doing before and you begin to fully appreciate the sheer amount of time and effort that has gone into stitching it all together.
Unfortunately by the sixth track Incurably Innocent the album starts to sound a little tired and repetitive. It could be that the listener has already had their fill of new At the Drive In this millennium, but the remainder of the album doesn’t bring much more to the equation. The closing tracks Ghost Tapes and Hostage Stamps tease you with more subdued openings that have you anticipating something a little more melodic like Invalid Litter Dept but then go back into the same explosive pace of the rest of the album. In.ter a.li.a fails to leave a lasting impression mostly because of its lack of scope. It’s as though every song is modeled on Cosmonaut – which is a great song but only a fraction of what fans loved about the group.
If in.ter a.li.a came out a couple of years after Relationship of Command it wouldn’t have affected At the Drive In’s cult status and fan base much for better or worse. It might have highlighted that they were a band possibly past their peak but by no means at risk of giving away the game. While in.ter a.li.a is certainly recorded better than most of their early work, it’s also about as far from ‘pop’ as they have ever gone except maybe 1999 EP Vaya. While fans might remember thinking Acrobatic Tenement was on the frontiers of art-punk it was still largely built around catchy melodies. It was the vocal hooks that really made old favourites Star Slight and Initiation, not the frenetic musicianship that is clearly in the group’s arsenal today.
Unfortunately that just isn’t something decades of experience, rebuilt friendships, a loyal fan base and good production can fake. Like many follow-ups to iconic and groundbreaking albums such as The Strokes’ Room on Fire and Nirvana’s In Utero, the best tracks on in.ter a.li.a are only about as good as the worst tracks on the album that preceded it. And although Bixler-Zavala’s scatterbrained urgency was often perplexing, you always felt they were a band ‘pushing against’ something even if you couldn’t quite tell what it was. Seventeen years later the intent is still tangible but the modus operandi has digressed to a strange state of obscurity. But while in.ter a.li.a may not enhance the legacy and discography of At the Drive In it doesn’t dissipate it much either which is more than can be said about most iconic acts that have reunited after so many years apart.