Tucked away towards the backend of the 1990s came one of the most unexpectedly profound contributions to the development of an entire future generation of musicians in the form of a five-piece from El Paso, Texas, named At The Drive-In. Although the seeds of post-hardcore had been sewn by some of the genre’s most revered bellwethers around a decade before the band’s debut in 1996 with Acrobatic Tenement, At The Drive-In’s very particular approach has influenced such a substantial number of subsequent post-hardcore outfits that it’s easy to forget about the style’s noise rock roots, as encapsulated by Big Black, or the gritty, DIY attitude employed by the likes of Fugazi. Although all of the aforementioned artists were just as integral to the development of the genre, the way in which At The Drive-In interspersed the commanding propulsion of their melodic punk riffs amidst softer passages of intricate, intertwining noodling struck an uncharacteristic balance between the usual intensity of post-hardcore and a striking sense of dynamism, establishing what became perhaps the most commonly utilised blueprint for the new waves of post-hardcore acts to emerge in the 21st Century. Yet, like many of the most influential bands of the 90s, At The Drive-In’s existence was unfortunately short-lived, with their magnum opus, 2000’s genre-defining Relationship Of Command, being the group’s sign-off record before a supposed “indefinite hiatus”. From the perspective of the music world, this “indefinite hiatus” could have essentially been interpreted as a breakup, given that the post-At The Drive-In happenings of the band’s members highlighted just how divided the group was. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and lead guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López went on to form progressive rock supergroup The Mars Volta, who surpassed At The Drive-In in both their lifespan and commercial success. Likewise, Rodríguez-López has made a name for himself as one of the most prolific acts in modern rock music, having released 48 solo albums as of writing this, including 11 within the span of this year alone, only one of which — Roman Lips –– I have been expeditious enough to cover in a full review. As such, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López, having always been the most rambunctious members of At The Drive-In, represent the energetic and experimental faction of the band, whilst the remaining three members, who went on to form several more accessible hard rock and emo bands like Sparta, Crime In Choir and Gone Is Gone, comprise the counteracting force that arguably kept Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López in check. With all this considered, plus the fact that there had even been some altercations between members, it seemed as if an At The Drive-In reunion was logistically, artistically and even personally removed from the realm of possibility. Yet, the band put aside their differences and reformed for a flurry of festival dates in 2012, although any hopes of a new record were dashed when Rodríguez-López ruled out the possibility of any new material from the group. It seems, however, that At The Drive-In are rather bad at keeping their word, as 2017’s slew of comeback albums has bestowed the music world with in•ter a•li•a, the first record from the post-hardcore flagship in 17 years.
In the case of in•ter a•li•a, the usual complications that come with crafting a comeback record likely took a vastly altered form, in that, with At The Drive-In’s members having grown so far apart, both musically and personally, capturing the cohesion of their original output was surely an arduous task. Initially, the band made the most of the artistic divisions between their members, with these differences counteracting one and another and, if anything, yielding an exceptionally well-balanced sound. Oddly enough, however, whilst in•ter a•li•a undoubtedly has its shortfalls, At The Drive-In’s tightness as a band is arguably not one of them, with the album sounding impressively familiar for the group, despite the amount of time to have passed and, more importantly, artistic growth to have occurred since Relationship Of Command. In fact, on a compositional basis, in•ter a•li•a may adhere relatively closely to the pre-established At The Drive-In formula, but it does this rather well, with there being a great deal of riffs that contain the same semblance of interlocking melodies that has proven so pivotal to the group’s sound and the evolution of post-hardcore in general. This being said, if there is one major ingredient missing from the classic At The Drive-In recipe, it’s the bite that brought the band’s eclectic ear for melody to life so vividly on their most lauded material. With the group being known for exceptionally energetic performances, both in the studio and on the stage, in•ter a•li•a doesn’t quite pack the punch of their prime output, to the point wherein its overall impact suffers substantially as a result. Even in spite of this one major pothole, however, At The Drive-In nevertheless come through a relatively strong selection of songs, some of which even stack up well against their best material in some regards.
In terms of both their songwriting style and presence as performers, the appeal of At The Drive-In has always been very particular, even if by no means inaccessible. The tangled, frenetic fretwork of Rodríguez-López and Jim Ward, the frenzied intensity of Bixler-Zavala’s vocals, and the stark duality of dynamics that were present in the band’s compositional approach all amounted to a definitive, if easily replicable, sound that is recreated relatively well across in•ter a•li•a, even in spite of Ward’s absence, perhaps all except for their aforementioned sense of dynamics. The best moments from the album most definitely capture a great deal of this fine-tuned style, however, at least in its structuring, if not always in its presentation. The crunchy, uber-melodic latticework of Rodríguez-López and new recruit Keeley Davis in the guitar department on the opening track, No Wolf Like The Present, is married with the furious, punctuated and slightly angular drum and bass combo of Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos for fantastic effect, especially as the guitars grow increasingly discordant atop the rhythmic accents of the bridge section, like the rising flames of a burning fury. Bixler-Zavala’s biting, semi-shouted singing is similarly angry, although it must be said that the usual acidity of his clearly punk-inspired vocals feels less natural here, and potentially somewhat forced. This, however, is only a slight nitpick, as the singer still comes through with a causticity that works to bolster his commentary on the treatment of African-Americans by the United States’ police force, which is admirably cognisant, as Bixler-Zavala employs more thoughtful comments than your average “fuck the police”. Instead, his warnings against the distortion of American history are presented alongside rather interesting ideas, such as his allusions to Potemkin village, that amount to some exceptionally substantial and observant remarks on what has become a staple song topic for punk and its derivative forms. The burning political aggression of No Wolf Like The Present is a recurrent theme of many of the best cuts from in•ter a•li•a, with the record’s lead single, Governed By Contagions, being a prime example. The peeling, topsy-turvy riffage throughout the song never lets up, even during Bixler-Zavala’s commanding battlecry of a refrain, which stands as one of the best examples of an instance from the album in which there is a palpable punch to the production. The clashing guitar chords cogently play against the booming bass and drum work, whilst the frontman’s description of the sound of a guillotine as a “clap” is a rather striking analogy for the twisted façade that nations like North Korea manage to force-feed their citizens. From the potent, punctuated catchiness of Pendulum In A Peasant Dress to the emotive heights of Bixler-Zavala’s reflections on sexual abuse on Incurably Innocent to the singer’s verbose freak-outs on Hostage Stamps, the best moments from in•ter a•li•a capture the charisma of At The Drive-In’s initial incarnation so well that it’s rather easy to forget about the 17-year gap separating this album from its predecessor.
As previously alluded to, it’s the lack of much in the way of a strong dynamic quality wherein in•ter a•li•a really feels like a squandered opportunity for At The Drive-In, especially given just how good many of the album’s best moments are. Rather than there existing an arresting contrast between the driving punk melodies and the more subtle, interwoven intricacies of their earlier material, most of these songs depend largely, or even entirely, on the anger and energy of the former, without the grounded control of the latter to act as a powerful point of counterbalance, making in•ter a•li•a disappointingly one-note in terms of dynamics. Although this issue isn’t quite as noticeable on the album’s best cuts, it can nevertheless become apparent on the less interesting songs and impacts the listening experience of the record as a whole. Meanwhile, tracks such as Continuum attempt to replicate this contrast, but fall short of the mark set on albums like Relationship Of Command, with the guitars playing an oddly passive role when supporting Bixler-Zavala’s preacher-like tirades during the verses, making the sudden tone shift towards some subdued tinkering during the bridge section somewhat fruitless. The following track, Tilting At The Univendor, marks one such instance in which the group’s songwriting certainly has its moments, but the production simply lacks the bite necessary to properly capture the power of their performances. The heavily-punctuated chorus, for instance, is far less impactful when the release of tension following the rhythmic accents is as flaccid and lacking in low-end as it is here. Although such issues relating to dynamics and impact may seem relatively minor, for a band whose stylistic identity is so substantially centred around their dynamism and intensity, as is the case with At The Drive-In, these quibbles become a lot more significant, and in•ter a•li•a notably misses the mark at times in this regard.
Although the extent to which At The Drive-In can rekindle the fiery fervour of their most celebrated work is hindered significantly when they struggle to capture the same compelling contrast in tone and overall forcefulness of such material, the band nevertheless encapsulate many of their most defining qualities on in•ter a•li•a. The piercing eccentricity of the guitar work is very much present, just as Bixler-Zavala’s singing, although not quite as organic, is as feverish and as sharp as ever, even if the production does favour the vocals over the rest of the mix at times, to the point of diminishing the impact of certain songwriting tricks. Ultimately, therefore, in•ter a•li•a may not strike all the same notes as a record like Relationship Of Command, but the common ground shared between these two eras in At The Drive-In’s existence afford another blistering release for the band.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10