At The Drive-In
“ATTENTION ! To whom it may concern: AT THE DRIVE-IN will be breaking their 11 year silence. THIS STATION IS …. NOW ….OPERATIONAL.”
Five simple words that elicited a collective “Fucking YES” from observers when the statement appeared on At The Drive-In’s website in 2012, a confirmation of long-held speculation: this station is now operational. In the year following the release of their masterful Relationship Of Command in 2000, the El Paso quintet dissolved amidst tour fatigue and a more deep-rooted frustration with the artistic constraints of their volatile musical style. While vocalist Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodríguez followed an experimental muse into The Mars Volta, a more prog-indebted beast, guitarist Jim Ward and the rhythm section of Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos solidified as Sparta. The latter bassist would join The Mars Volta for a number of years during their mid-period, a sign that ATD-I still had some kind of kinship, but we all know there’s only one thing that can truly reconcile a band these days.
At The Drive-In reunited – if a mere ten shows can be called a reunion – in 2012 courtesy of that constant band defibrillator, the hoary ol’ festival circuit, but those shows rekindled the camaraderie that made them such a formidable polemic-spitting hydra back in those early days. The ensuing four-year interim, though, has culminated in a notable omission. Absent from In•ter a•li•a and from this incarnation of the band is co-founder Ward, replaced by Sparta’s Keeley Davis in an unexplained parting of ways just days before their 2016 world tour. So, reunion number two brings with it At The Drive-In Mk.II for album number four – still a tantalising prospect for anyone who’s watched their progression since 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement.
It’s reassuring then to get back to the land of loud guitars and nihilistic imagery, where guillotines clap and laugh and Bixler’s pained howl is as vivid as ever in its emo evocations (“There’s a woman eating her newborn under a tractor’s frame/ She says ‘barren are the fields from the nephilim rain’”). All the ATD-I hallmarks are here, albeit in a less sonically sophisticated form – perhaps the breaking-in of a new guitarist has tempered the experimentation somewhat, the soul and intensity not as marked as before. Where Rodríguez and Ward’s guitars prowled around one another with often-startling melodic counterpoints, the interplay with Davis is a bit more straightforward, less raggedly intuitive. It’s not a bad thing, just different.
When ‘No Wolf Like the Present’ opens the album with a dual assault of guitar that’s every bit as hard-hitting as Hajjar’s drums, it’s with an assurance that matches every ounce of bravado that Bixler exerts in his vocal, one that’s been stretched and honed through eleven years with The Mars Volta. He carries ‘Incurably Innocent’ alone for the breathless segment where the instruments cut out, and even seems to slip into a brief Robert Plant falsetto after the treated drum intro to ‘Ghost-Tape No. 9’. On In•ter a•li•a, it’s Bixler’s counter melodies, whispers, and roars that stand apart from the punk rock guitars and punctuate Hajjar’s percussive thump. By the time ‘Hostage Stamps’ closes out the record, it’s the shred of his vocal that resonates.
Where Relationship Of Command was a more refined – if such a word can be used against so hard-hitting a collection – combination of melodic nuances and textures with ATD-I’s more base elements, this takes a more direct approach; forty minutes of throttle that’s more spiritually aligned with their earlier material. In•ter a•li•a feels like an intentional sonic regression back to their post-hardcore roots. The subtleties of noise exploration take a back seat here. This is a band kicking the door back in after a lengthy recorded absence. It’s surely only the first of many from this newly-invigorated, fully operational ATD-I Mk. II.
SEVEN OUT OF TEN