The Weight Out Of Living: At The Drive-In Retrospective
August 28th, 2012. A recently-reformed At the Drive-In, post-hardcore cult darlings since the turn of the millennium, are playing to a sold-out Brixton Academy. Guitarist and founder Jim Ward called it "the last show of the Relationship of Command tour." According to Drive-In evangelist Mike Diver "a lot of lumps formed in a lot of throats." This was a happy occasion, then. A band returned to finish what they started, for everyone who wasn't there the first time around to finally experience what they never got to see, but so badly wanted to. Innit nice.
Half a year later, and Transgressive have re-released two of the El Paso punk act's records – debut full-length Acrobatic Tenement from 1996, and 2000's gold-plated classic Relationship of Command. For the vinyl-hungry among Drive-In acolytes, myself included, this news is manna from heaven. At the time of writing, there is a single lonesome LP copy of Relationship listed on eBay, from a seller in Japan. The fifteen listings of the record on Discogs range from €79.00 to £150 in price, all non-inclusive of shipping. Acrobatic Tenement, meanwhile, has not seen release on the grooved circle until now. You can practically hear the phlegmy sniggering of vinyl archivists, the dry whisper as they rub their pale palms, in the knowledge that these records, too, can at last be theirs. A reformation, rereleases; the Texan ambassadors really are spoiling us. Right?
Of course, At the Drive-In's return hasn't been without critique. That show in Brixton elicited the full spectrum of reaction from its attendees (and indeed from those absent), the negi corps citing disparate factors for their ire: the Academy's notoriously divisive sound, the motives behind the show, the subdued comportment of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, whose earlier million-volt stage antics had been dialled back to restrained at best, and downright uninterested at worst. There was a lot of embarrassed foot-shuffling when it came to light that the man's mother had recently died. In an interview with Cleveland Scene, though, the guitarist didn't sound overjoyed about those shows regardless, comparing himself to an actor who's gotten too close to a self-destructive role, and looking forward to moving on. I won't deny the wholesale goosebumpery I experienced from a shaky video of 'Enfilade' at the Academy, but to see the guitarist cruelly slopping out 'One Armed Scissor' like it had never meant anything to him ever, that felt horrible. The mantra of 'Ebroglio' put into practice – it's all a façade, but nothing really matters now. So were Ward's words a reflection of Rodriguez-Lopez' opinion, that the shows were just "to close the chapter on that era," or did they imply the start of a new one?
Ward, perhaps characteristically, is the only band member quoted as speaking up on the rereleases: "It was interesting to revisit the recordings that bookended the first chapters of our band," he says. "The earnest and pure excitement of the beginning and the level of craftsmanship we achieved by Relationship of Command leaves me nothing but proud. I am happy these records have found their way to continue to feel new as people discover music they love and embrace our work." Omar stated quite the opposite to Alternative Press in 2010, that Relationship of Command is a record that he still cannot listen to. Funny he should highlight Andy Wallace's mix as a sore point, a mix that goes teeth-first for the throat where the 600-buck recording of Acrobatic Tenement doesn't even fizz with garage-band charm. But then, Rodriguez-Lopez' obtuseness and his opposition to his counterpart in Ward, these are things that made At the Drive-In as earth-shattering as they would become.
I've always been one of those reductivists who hears, in The Mars Volta and Sparta, At The Drive-In split down their logical middle into two exact halves, one personified by Jim, the other by Omar. Sparta have never been subject to the acclaim heaped on their drummer and frontman's previous outfit, and not without reason – 'Cut Your Ribbon', as decent a rock song as it is, cannot touch the transcendent six-string spasms of 'One Armed Scissor' in terms of jerky electric thrills. Sparta are saddled with 'easy' just as the Volta can't escape 'difficult', the implicit value judgment being that there's more artistic worth to the latter. But to discount the former is to discount the chunky, careening hookiness that makes At the Drive-In such an addictive proposition. Jim Ward has a way-underestimated knack for wringing rock-solid slabs of delicious overdrive from his instrument, and a feeling for chord sequences that turned 'Invalid Letter Dept.'s slow-melting notes (I've never heard a guitar approximate a Dali clock as much as these) into the more trad, but no less affecting 'Cataract'. Ward's enthusiasm about the re-release of Acrobatic Tenement is unsurprising – he's all over this record, not yet a base coat for Omar's envelope-wrecking expressionist hijinks (Rodriguez-Lopez handled bass duties at the time), and as such, Jim drives these songs. His choppy work gives 'Ebroglio' (our first encounter with Julio Venegas, whose life and death would resonate through Cedric and Omar's work past De-loused in the Comatorium seven years later) most of its considerable elasticity and tension, while the plangency of his guitar on 'Initiation' foreshadows the tenderness that made 'Hourglass' a highlight on In/Casino/Out. The way he lets his clean chords on 'Ticklish' hang loose before slashing them out nervous and tight and having them explode in tactical shards of searing distortion, all these things make the song the album highlight that it is.
That the two guitarists on Relationship of Command didn't possess a united vision for their band is common knowledge now. Omar says as much in that AP interview, but perhaps the best documentation of their differing attitudes is the now-infamous Later… performance, Omar using his guitar as an instrument of sabotage while a stubborn Jim ploughs on regardless. There're a bunch of reasons that At the Drive-In's swansong exists in such a different universe to their debut, and one of the biggest is Omar's heartstopping guitar work, part John McLaughlin, part Guy Picciotto, the way it's so utterly in opposition to Jim's low-end and so much more electrifying for this. Cedric once said somewhere that Relationship was a straight-up Fugazi rip (for all my trawling I cannot for the life of me remember where, but here's what proof I have), and while At the Drive-In's debt to their forefathers is more obvious in the songs on Tenement, Michael Azerrad's description of the DC legends' guitars, that Picciotto's Rickenbacker "cut through Mackaye's chunky chording like a laser beam", is a near enough perfect description of Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward on Relationship. Witness Ward's punk charge on 'Pattern Against User', hefted bodily along by the explosive barrage of bassy ordnance from Paul Hinojos' Stingray, Rodriguez-Lopez arcing like plasma across it all. The way Omar flickers wonky Morse code through Jim's distorted fog at the start of 'Arcarsenal', the way his hatred of his instrument came to be used for such beautiful ends; the wanton wreckage of 'Sleepwalk Capsules', the unsettling, alien approach he first exhibited on 'Rolodex Propaganda' (which made a particular reappearance for 'Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt'). Buddies or not, Ward and Rodriguez-Lopez transcended At the Drive-In's punk lineage with their tradeoffs on Relationship of Command, jettisoned doctrine and came out swinging. Without one or the other, I'm convinced that the record wouldn't have smashed into that sweet spot between reckless invention and honest-to-goodness tunesmithery. It's not there on Acrobatic Tenement, it's not there on The Wiretap Scars, it's not there on De-loused in the Comatorium. I have not (well, maybe once, but more on that later) heard a record before or since that throws me around in the way that Relationship of Command does.
At the Drive-In's creative peak isn't predicated entirely on the serendipitous fallout of these two opposing forces. Acrobatic Tenement, for all its frayed nerves and scrappy mania, is also devoid of another key component that makes Relationship of Command such a thing of beauty. We heard the possibility of At the Drive-In really grooving on 'Alpha Centauri', on 'Chanbara', but before this, At the Drive-In counted neither Paul Hinojos nor Tony Hajjar among their ranks. Drums on Acrobatic Tenement are ably and forgettably handled by Ryan Sawyer, and Rodriguez-Lopez's basslines are largely unremarkable, bludgeoning, punkish things, though he plays a key role in building up 'Ebroglio', and carries 'Initiation's verses. But the rhythm section of Relationship seethes with its own vitality, quite apart from the guitars' more obvious attack. For all the blips and smog that open 'Arcarsenal' it's really Hajjar's song, flurries of precise, breakneck battering that give direction to the murderous stabs of guitar. Where he gets his most obvious moment in the sun opening 'Quarantined', it's Hinojos, not Ward or Rodriguez-Lopez, giving us whiplash in the weird, truncated swing of 'One Armed Scissor's verses. The two of them define 'Enfilade' and forcibly distance it from any preconceptions of rock rhythm. That leering, reptile slink at the song's centre, Hinojos socking in the groove over Latin percussion as alien to post-hardcore (or whatever) as Hajjar's tripping nods to two-step that propel the rest of the song. Bass and drums are too easily relegated to the realms of the indistinct in rock music, Acrobatic Tenement a case in point. But on Relationship of Command, Hinojos and Hajjar are essential, eschewing a boring, lumpen formula for something more hip-shaking.
And the words. Oh lord, the words. That intoxicating tumble of imagery that comes on like Cedric's hunted through the duskiest of library stacks, formal documents, idioms and signpostage, and kidnapped his favourites, suturing together unlikely bedfellows to bizarre and brilliant effect. Diver, again, has always been keener than most to get to the writhing, juicy centre of the frontman's luxuriant wordiness – "surely the wordplay of Cedric Bixler," he asks in his 2011 reappraisal of Relationship for Drowned in Sound, "is capable of summoning myriad magnificent images to the mind's eye: some shocking, some stunning, but everything so real one could almost reach out and touch the oil." He's right – it's the lexical equivalent of the rushing mess of light and limbs and monochrome bokeh and indifferent skylines from the original 'One Armed Scissor' video, thrilling and unpredictable and relentlessly visual. My mate Louis, not a man prone to flights of fancy, once told me that Cedric's sneering "have you ever tasted skin?" on 'Arcarsenal' conjured up for him horrific images of the shock-haired frontman dragging his tongue lasciviously across a steak cut from human flesh. I too can no longer listen to this song without the picture flashing across my brain, like Tyler Durden's spliced-in nanoseconds of porn, and from this I know one thing: these are as psychoactive as words come.
For me, Bixler's key weapon is the value he places (whether he means to or not) on the element of emotional surprise. Tracing things back to Tenement, the singer's trademark tonguetwistery is muffled and unrefined, but still wholly evident, if you listen for it. At one end of the scale sits something like 'Schaffino', on which the singer moulds entries from a dictionary of medical terms around romance, or the oblique, Naked Lunch-style sexuality of 'Paid Vacation Time'. We're also treated to glimpses of more traditional emotion, though – the refrain of 'Starslight', that "you know your insides true/better than I do", or the palpable fury of Bixler "kicking in windows" on 'Ticklish' are rendered doubly affecting for their being half-obscured in impossibly bright verbal surroundings. It's a technique that carried right through to Relationship of Command, embodied for me by 'Quarantined'. The song came close to the end of a record's worth of weapons-grade surrealism, and suddenly amid the psychedelic storm Bixler yells out "push becomes shove/days become months/and I seem to have forgotten the warmth of the sun" – which I took to mean, the world has been turned inside out, and I have been cast adrift with it, helpless. Whatever the lines mean, they floor me every time. That strings of supposedly unrelated words can make us feel this paranoid, this dizzy, this desolate, is just as powerful as the thunderstorm call and response of the El Paso band's twin guitars. "Is this the comfort of being afraid?" asked Bixler-Zavala on 'One Armed Scissor'. I know my answer.
Thirteen years ago, things didn't look fantastic for rock music. Relationship came out the same year as Chocolate Starfish, as Hybrid Theory, as The Sickness. I was thirteen then, and my decision that my future lay firmly in the guitar happened to coincide nearly exactly with the release of Relationship in September of 2000. Never having enough for CDs, I spent all my money on magazines, and this is where I first heard the band, 'Incetardis' on a Rock Sound cover-mounted disc. I hated the song's wilful otherness, and I hated 'Pattern Against User' only a little less when I heard that a few months later, still bombarded with hype from a press engorged on the band's energy. When they split, I paid no attention. But things started changing. Thursday barrelled their way into my consciousness thirteen months later with 'Understanding in a Car Crash' (which invented and immediately bettered a whole wave of emo before it had even started), a frenetic anthem whose tragic subject matter held an inescapable allure for fourteen-year-old me. Casting around for literature, I often found that At the Drive-In were the reference point. Things got serious in 2003 with The New Romance and A Song to Ruin, two records that took over my life that year. Listening back, I can easily hear Ward and Rodriguez-Lopez in the jagged interplay of 'All Medicated Geniuses', Hinojos and Hajjar's combined menace opening 'Charlie and the Propaganda Myth Machine'. I can now state categorically that Billy Talent's debut, also out that year, would not have existed without Relationship of Command. But back then, all I had was the name as a reference point. At the Drive-In. That weird band I didn't like, until idly watching TV on an unremarkable day in 2004 or 5 and 'One Armed Scissor' flashed across the screen and it all made sense. By 2007 I was a Drive-In devotee and watching Meet Me in St. Louis, a band who often drew comparisons with the Texans for their feral stage presence, their relentless forward surge, Toby's cut-up and often unfathomable approach to lyrics, those same glinting moments of human feeling strewn amongst the debris. The one album they left the world with, Variations On Swing, means just as much to me, if not the world at large, as Relationship Of Command.
These are not bands I'd expect the members of At the Drive-In to listen to, or even to be aware of. At the most cringeworthy (tell me the guitars on Taking Back Sunday's 'One Eighty By Summer' don't sound like Jim Ward), it's debatable whether the band's influence was always positive. But it was there regardless, and now everyone wants to know what happens next. In January, and apropos of not very much at all, Pitchfork stirred up some rather unfounded 'new album' hype. Rodriguez-Lopez, of course, had already put the unequivocal kibosh on anything of the sort, and since the Mars Volta break at the start of the year, seems content plugging away in Bosnian Rainbows. If you're jonesing for hopes, it's Bixler-Zavala you should be pinning them on, though I wouldn't endorse it. Jim Ward's love for At the Drive-In has never been a secret, so hearing him say to LA Weekly that "the most exciting part to me is that there's not a firm ending to this band," doesn't elicit the same levels of optimism as if those words had come from his fellow guitarist. But Bixler-Zavala's not been all that vocal on the subject in the past. Where he and Rodriguez-Lopez have previously presented as an inseparable unit, the frontman came over all soppy for the Drive-In in his Volta breakup letter, proclaiming his love for the band, and maybe having a little dig at his erstwhile bandmate's recent performances. It's that sea change, rather than anything else, that should leave fans expectant. But I'm not holding my breath. I'd venture to say that if there is any creative future for At the Drive-In, it'll be without Rodriguez-Lopez, which would be strange after his profound positive effect on Relationship of Command. Without him to reign in the overblown U2isms of the more recent Sparta output, who knows whether new material would be as electrifying and singular as we so badly would love it to be? Or would Bixler-Zavala fulfil this role, spiking Ward's keenness for the straightforward with hallucinogens? Questions are all I have on At the Drive-In's future. I don't need them answered, and if they ever are, I won't go sleepless waiting.
Because in the middle of writing all this I step from a train to a concrete platform in a grey suburb, part of a cold tide of commuters all wrapped for winter, though it is nearly April. Breaking loose from the seething mass, the chords at 2:44 in 'Cosmonaut' burst like shrapnel into my consciousness. This is my favourite part of my favourite song by At the Drive-In, the most locked in this band of such disparate parts ever sounded. Hajjar, Hinojos, Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward gather and fuse into a single deadly rhythm, jagged and jubilant and unstoppable, Bixler stutter-screaming in animal fury over the top. I am reduced to the mass and consistency of a shriveled leaf in the biting wind, rendered powerless, whipped around and carried away and stripped of all worry and human failing for a few brief seconds between a train station and a high-rise office block.
Whether they're futureless, whether this was all about the Benjamins, these things matter not. This is my At the Drive-In, and it takes the weight out of living.
Purchase and listen
At the Drive-In have confirmed that their 1996 debut Acrobatic Tenement and 2000's Relationship of Command will be reissued this March. [read more]