Who could have seen this coming? When At The Drive In announced that they were breaking up 17 years ago they seemed like the last band that would ever get back together. I mean, was anyone actually fooled into thinking their split was temporary by them calling it “an indefinite hiatus”? From the outset, they were divided into two factions that could never be fully reconciled. On one side you had Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez: the afro-sporting, experimental pair who grabbed all the attention by going absolutely ballistic on stage. And then there were the other guys, led by guitarist Jim Ward, who didn’t seem to be much different from the rest of the second-wave emo scene that their fans were a part of. They may have been the more conservative, and frankly unexciting wing of the band, but they kept Cedric and Omar from musically jumping off the deep end.
This constant tension that at the same time made them both fascinating and accessible was their inevitable downfall. When they disbanded at the peak of their popularity, right after releasing their classic Relationship of Command in 2000, it made perfect sense to those who knew the band’s history—they had already imploded multiple times because the two sides had different goals.
Both sides went on to form new bands that were almost stereotypes of their respective differences. Omar and Cedric formed the prog-influenced Mars Volta, allowing them to dive into the unfettered experimentation they always desired, for better and for worse. The other three founded Sparta, an easily digestible emo band that personified what Omar described as Jim’s “candy-coated way of doing things.” Ouch.
Yet here we are, 17 years after the release of Relationship of Command with the new At the Drive In album, in•ter a•li•a. And despite Jim Ward’s decision to not partake in the reunion, fans of the band have been understandably excited. After all, you’d think a new album would be interesting if only because Cedric and Omar were the type of people who would never take part in a reunion for the cash or the nostalgia—or so it seemed.
But when the band released three songs as an early teaser for the album it became clear that in•ter a•li•a wasn’t going to be the boundary-pushing record fans were expecting. Instead, for the first time ever, they were making a musically conservative album, trying to capture the sound that originally made them famous. And this isn’t conjecture or a coincidental return to old habits. This was a conscious decision by Omar, who’s said in recent interviews that he didn’t want to deviate to far from the ATDI formula. As he put it recently, “Metallica can’t put out a reggae record.” I get the logic, but I’m floored that its coming from Omar, especially at this point in his career. It goes against the entire spirit of the band.
We see this attempt to capture their old sound mostly in Cedric’s vocals. When planning the album, Omar reminded Cedric that when he was in At the Drive In he sang much differently than he did afterwards in The Mars Volta, reminding him that, “It was much more spitfire, all these words close together.” But this was only really true on the the aggressive Relationship of Command —it ignores Cedric’s interesting melodic side that he showed on earlier works like In-Casino Out and the Vaya EP.
But because Omar wanted to to return to the height of the band’s popularity, which undoubtedly is Relationship of Command, we get verses full of those “spitfire” vocals on seemingly every song. And it’s a shame that Omar pushed him in this direction, because this vocal style doesn’t work this time around. Not only does it get really repetitive, Cedric’s voice just isn’t the same, which should be expected after so many years of grueling Mars Volta shows. His voice is now much more limited and he’s no longer able to capture the frantic aggression that made him such an astonishing singer on Relationship of Command. This issue could have been avoided altogether if Cedric just stuck to his current strengths by just singing on the album. After all, he sings on most of the choruses throughout the new album and it works quite well. But instead, he tries to force his Relationship of Command style and it just doesn’t work. It really hinders the album from coming anywhere near the band’s previous heights.
Although fans have been exaggerating the importance of Jim’s absence, this is where the band could have used him most. His backing vocals were always a memorable part of At The Drive In, and he could have really helped give this record some much-needed vocal dynamics that are sorely lacking here.
Another downside of this vocal change, albeit a relatively minor one, is that Cedric’s lyrics, which have always been pretty ridiculous and distracting, are much more intelligible this time around. As before, it’s best to just look at them as the same quasi-ridiculous ramblings Cedric always gives us and try to ignore them as much as possible. It’s not like they ever really contributed to the band’s appeal in the first place. However, doing this is more difficult this time around, and when he sings lines like, “singing cannibal hymns at the bourgeois,” I can’t help but think he sounds like a clownish Jello Biafra impersonator.
Unfortunately, Cedric’s vocals aren’t the only thing that Omar took an unnecessarily conservative approach with on this album. Musically, it appears that Omar selectively chose a few songs from Relationship of Command, like ‘Patter Against User’, ‘Rolodex Propaganda’, and ‘Cosmonaut’, as being emblematic of the band’s style in general—so pretty much every song is the same loud and aggressive style and they can’t help but blend into each other. Omar seems to have forgotten that in the past the band was able to balance out their aggressive side by peppering in experimental ballads throughout their records. But perhaps it’s for the best, because the single ballad on here, ‘Ghost Tape No. 9’, doesn’t work at all.
However, once you get past the mediocre vocals and the fact that all the songs sound the same, you’ll find that in•ter a•li•a is actually a pretty decent album. Interestingly enough, as much as Omar is to blame for pigeonholing this current iteration of At The Drive In, he’s the one who actually makes this album enjoyable. You can tell how much his days in the Mars Volta have improved his guitar playing, which is absolutely unbelievable throughout the album. The rhythms and changes on in•ter a•li•a are much more complex than anything the band has previously done. There are twists and turns everywhere, and we find the group dabbling in chaotic time changes for the first time ever. This is especially true of the first three tracks, which absolutely kill—the choruses are particularly catchy and the assassin-like guitar playing is more reminiscent of bands like Refused and Glassjaw than the somewhat sloppy playing found on the band’s older material. After these first three tracks, the monotony of the album starts to bog down the listening experience, but the energetic, fantastic playing from the band still hits hard enough to make in•ter a•li•a an enjoyable record.
This album could work as an entry point to the band for many younger fans of Rise Records, At The Drive In’s current label, and current post-hardcore music, who didn’t get to experience the group In the first time around. For modern day fans of emo and post-hardcore, which have been heavily shaped by technically proficient, metal influenced bands like Circa Survive and Coheed and Cambria since At The Drive In’s original breakup, these genres have evolved to line up much closer to in•ter a•li•a than the band’s earlier material. We often forget that Relationship of Command was for all intents and purposes a relatively basic album. What makes that record sound so left-field is Cedric’s all over the place vocals and Ross Robinson’s infamously loud production. But for newer fans of emo and post-hardcore, I think they’ll be able to relate to in•ter a•li•a more than the band’s earlier material that was shaped so much by the simpler, second-wave emo scene they came from.