Photo by Shane Hirschman used courtesy of Wiki Commons
Old punks don’t age particularly well.
At the Drive-In flamed out spectacularly in 2001. Coming off Relationship of Command– the band’s post hardcore collection of controlled chaos – they were primed to become some of their generation’s most influential artists. ATDI’s live sets were legendary, as vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala showed a Popian level of disregard for his own safety; leaping from amp stacks into crowds, winging microphone stands into the clear blue, and eventually injuring himself so badly he had to re-learn to walk. Meanwhile, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez danced with his guitar, stomping pedals and staring at the floor as if attempting to summon an ancient spirit – or possibly Satan Himself. It was full blown rock spectacle that earned the right to jokingly introduce themselves as “Latin Danzig” at certain shows.
ATDI’s music is generally lumped under the “emo” label – a rather indolent attempt at classifying an exquisitely bonkers soundscape. Did their songs chug along to a certain build and release measure derived from post pioneers such as Drive Like Jehu? Sure. Cedric trading howls with guitarist Jim Ward also mirrors the sing/scream dynamic that would define many of Victory Records’ releases during the aughts. Yet when Tony Hajjar’s relentless, crashing percussion mixes with apocalyptic maracas to announce “Arcarsenal”, the music hints at something greater – a cultural fusion of sinister samba and jagged Hellscape distortion, where Bixler-Zavala asks the audience if they’ve ever acquired a Dahmer-esque taste for their fellow humans’ skin.
Then there’re the lyrics – convoluted turns of phrase mostly taken from Ward’s poetry notebook that amalgamate into colorful gobbledygook when you’re seventeen. “It paved a wave of distance / Between a syntax error / From Austin's yellow brick road / This is forever” sounds lovely when hummed in sing-song time with the tune, but if you asked most in-their-prime ATDI supporters to define what “Napoleon Solo” means, they’d probably be hard pressed to come up with a coherent answer. Nevertheless, at thirty-four, the political implications of a Texas/California collective primarily comprised of Latin American members composing a song that seems to revolve around kidnappings (“Hello, Mother Leopard, I have your cub…”) are too great to ignore. There’s a fully baked mysticism to their wordy abstractions that’s purposeful and fitting for a group who named one of their earliest EPs after a character from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Sante Sangre.
It seems oddly appropriate that At the Drive-In imploded right when they were primed to take over the world (or, at the very least, the budding aughts “emo” scene). Their DIY ethos led to recording their first full-length for $600, but also to imploring fans to download El Gran Orgo illegally after they believed Off Time Records screwed them in their deal. The band had broken up previously – just before recording Acrobatic Tenement in 1996 – but the “indefinite hiatus” that was announced in 2001 came after Ward (whose relationship with Rodriguez-Lopez has historically been tenuous at best) again made a grand exit. Rumors of drug abuse swirled and, looking back on the dissolution, Bixler-Zavala told SPIN in 2013:
“We were getting a lot of stupid hype, people were calling [At the Drive-In] the next Nirvana and stupid shit like that. I never thought we were the next anything. We were just a bunch of kids from Texas who knew how to really thrive as the underdog. Then when we got on top, it was a weird thing to deal with.”
Sparta was comprised of Ward, Hajjar, and multi-instrumentalist Paul Hinojos, while Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez formed The Mars Volta – a spaced out, jazzy art prog jam spectacular that continued to showcase the duo’s penchant for aggro stoner theatrics. Reunions occurred – Hinojos replaced Ward’s cousin Jeremy as Volta’s “sound manipulator” in 2009, before Rodriguez-Lopez asked him to leave again the same year – but that nuclear ATDI magic could never be re-manufactured. Relationship of Command was a perfect crystallization of the rough experiments that comprised early recordings, finally capturing that lighting in a bottle knack for destruction that defined their performances. In short, it was separation that accentuated the fact that their last work as a unit may never be topped, so why even attempt to do so?
Perhaps this is why ATDI’s announcement that they were reuniting in 2012 was a total headscratcher, and 2017’s new record (in•ter a•li•a– released on May 5) is downright shocking. It seemed At the Drive-In had been a young man’s sound, giving way to the peyote trip esoterica of Bixler-Zavala/Rodriguez-Lopez’s projects (which just so happened to endure until 2013) and the straightforward-to-the-point-of-boredom punk chorales of Ward’s outfit (which died a merciful death in 2008, only to rise from the ashes for one more song in 2012). The sort of Molotov cocktail energy contained on their last record couldn’t possibly be recaptured by lads in their forties. But a rather raucous show at SXSW and a blistering tease (“Governed by Contagions”, which sounds like it could’ve been a lost cut from the Command sessions) made us all believe the impossible somehow transpired. Had ATDI truly risen, like Lazarus from a spray-painted, reverb soaked crypt?
The answer – as you can probably expect – is complicated. in•ter a•li•a sounds less like an update than it does a revival tent sermon to a devoted throng who’d already follow this faction to Hell and back. ATDI treats pop music history as if it has a pause button, stopping time and acting like there hasn’t been a near twenty-year Malickian gap in-between releases. Don’t get it twisted; in•ter a•li•a is no Thin Red Line, as the boys didn’t experience a “come to Jesus” moment and attempt to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they’ve refurbished it, removed from an epoch that saw groups such as Taking Back Sunday and Coheed & Cambria transmute “emo” into the dirty, corporately funded feast for mopey boys and girls we know it to be now. This is what “emo” could’ve sounded like, had it continued to inform us that its creators have a trigger and will travel – a dangerous concoction of post punk fury, ready to beat down doors and firebomb the houses of it enemies.
Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a modicum of middle-aged weariness to certain stretches on the new record. in•ter a•li•a kicks off with “No Wolf Like the Present”, an uneasy, paranoid buzzer that can never quite get itself fully started. The song strains and flexes, as Rodriguez-Lopez interlocks with Ward replacement Keeley Davis’ axe, and Hajjar beats on his kit like there’s no tomorrow. It’s the teeth-gritting return of a sound that’d been sorely missed, as ATDI’s lesser peers rose to fame in their absence. Yet once the first chorus kicks in, the song seems to step out of time with itself; as if Bixler-Zavala is attempting to keep up with the breakneck pace the band set in their twenties, and are acting like they can catch up to without a few warm up laps in their forties.
Thankfully, this minor hiccup (in a song that’s still undeniably listenable) is more than made up for by a succession of tracks that are straight sweat-stained bangers. “I’ll drop a dime on you first!” Bixler-Zavala warns in “Continuum”, his red-faced yowl cutting through a wave of feedback. What follows is vintage ATDI polyrhythmic heaven, as the front man delivers trademarked “Invalid Litter Dept.” free consciousness poetry through a decimated bullhorn. “Tilting at the Univendor” contains possibly the most colorful guitar part on the entire record, building and building as Bixler-Zavala flips into a Mars Volta routine of vocal gymnastics; his voice expressive and limber before high hats become psychotic disco missiles. The aforementioned single peaks at the four spot, followed by “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress”, which foolishly (but almost successfully) tries to one up its cryptic anthemics: “lobotomize the question of my infinitude” is hollered before we’re informed that there’s “one shot in the chamber” over and over.
This overt anger is what dispels any notion that in•ter a•li•a finds ATDI fronting, but also acts as something of a double-edged sword in the record’s back half. “Incurably Innocent” narrates the struggle of a silenced sexual assault victim; a song premise that’s a tricky tightrope to walk in the first place, but once Bixler-Zavala starts talking about the protagonist’s need to “emasculate the photograph” of their victimizer, the politics become telegraphed in a fashion the band’s hadn’t in the past. “Call Broken Arrow” tries to right the ship, but ends up earning all the wrongheaded comparisons some have occasionally drawn between the vocal stylings of Bixler-Zavala and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha (though it certainly contains the album’s catchiest chorus). “Holtzclaw” and “Torrentially Cutshaw” are both commendable in their desire to keep the energy level high, but you can sense the work’s starting to run on fumes (“Cutshaw” also doesn’t seem to want to adhere to any sort of sonic identity). Thankfully, “Ghost-Tape No. 9” throws in•ter a•li•a back to the In/Casino/Out days of oddball, industrial ballads – a welcome treat for the most devoted amongst the mob.
Record closer “Hostage Stamps” is a spazzy wave goodbye from a group of El Paso ruffians who don’t want to let go of their place within punk history, and that’s perfectly fine. At the Drive-In still sound like the future, even if their aural design is completely rooted in a past that rose from the underground, became popular, and then ended up a punchline. Their songs are reminders that the best art is not easily classified or packaged into three-minute nuggets, ready for easy digestion. in•ter a•li•a is sloppy, tense, combustible, but couldn’t have come from any other band. At the Drive-In’s “vision” was always ramshackle in construction, but true in unpolluted sensation. Theirs is a welcome sound in 2017, when the gallows seem to be constructed in every town square, waiting to hang those who won’t comply. Jam the frequencies with unmodulated transmissions of tapeworm defiance, Latin Danzig have returned to lay claim to a throne while there’s still time to do so.