Key Tracks: “Continuum,” “Governed by Contagions”
It would be more than safe to say that At The Drive In were given the highest of expectations for this album. This past decade or so has seen plenty of alternative and hard rock reunions that produced new material (Dinosaur Jr., the Avalanches, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Hole, allegedly even Temple of the Dog, and many others). And as with any reunion, fans hold with baited breath when a new album is announced. Often, like in the cases of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the productions are fair and fan-serving, but not memorable against the rest of the band’s albums. Sometimes you get Pixies, who stained their own legacy with one mediocre and one painfully bad album. And sometimes, you get Dinosaur, Jr., who worked out the (few) faults of their early albums and improved on (most) of them. But ATDI aren’t like those bands. ATDI didn’t sustain a period of fame and radio familiarity. They broke up in 2001 right as they started to become a name, and it wasn’t through the radio. When my local rock station WBCN folded in 2009, the DJ’s spent the last week going freeform. One DJ played “One Armed Scissor,” the band’s most well-known song, because he’d never been allowed to before. ATDI have never and will never be a radio-friendly band. The music jumps from abrasive to dissonant to chaotic, and is rarely ever beneath those points. But their last album, “Relationship of Command,” is almost inarguably the best post-hardcore album of all-time. In fact, it remains one of the best rock albums of the century so far. It is a brutal hailstorm of riffs, lightning drumming, crushing energy and performatively energetic vocals.
My point here is, there are high hopes for this. Not only are they following a behemoth, they’re following a behemoth that has had plenty of time to age, and it has aged very well. Luckily, the band knew this, and they have let their age show purely in good ways. “in•ter a•li•a” shows hints of containment. Certain tracks like “Ghost-Tape No. 9” and “Call Broken Arrow” lean closer to traditional rock than anything the band’s done before. Their slight leaning might not be a reflection of age, but a response to their work in the interim. When ATDI first split, they broke into two distinctly different bands – the more alternative approaching (and mostly forgettable) Sparta, and the wildly ambitious prog-rock band The Mars Volta. Two of ATDI’s three key members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, let all their wildest ideas fly in the Mars Volta. So after years of incomprehensibly difficult guitar riffs and half an hour long songs, it makes sense why ATDI might want to settle for something more basic. (The other key member, Jim Ward, chose not to rejoin the group and is not present on this album. He was replaced with fellow Sparta member Keeley Davis. The band also dropped the hyphen in their name).
Simpler does not mean less effective. ATDI were often at their most effective when they simply went unhinged. The band’s shotgun opener to their last album, “Arcarsenal,” remains one of the most thrilling rock tracks just because of sheer energy. And for quite a while on this album, it seems like the energy might hit a pummeling point. “No Wolf Like The Present” opens the album with a contained blast, like the moment when you realize a storm is getting really bad. And that storm hits even harder on follow-up “Continuum,” arguably the album’s most intense track. This song shows how Bixler-Zavala’s vocals have grown into a more classic rock sound, less manic but stronger. It also pairs well against the wallpaper-tearing music around it. The song ends with a whispered, a capella bridge from Bixler-Zavala that feels like an antithesis to his screaming past, but is somehow equally effective. Lead single “Governed by Contagions” keeps it going with a pummeling tempo, and with the album’s best use of duel vocalists. Davis gets his best opportunity at vocals here, filling in most of the song’s chorus.
The band doesn’t always pull slower moments off well. While “Call Broken Arrow” uses its conventionality to a good use, “Ghost-Tape No. 9” feels like a lackluster penultimate track. Thankfully, there aren’t many slower moments. This album is a continuous cannon-blast, and even in 2017, they’ve proven themselves exhausting. This is a new and different At the Drive In, but the fundamentals feel the same. The energy is there, the occasionally-difficult music is there, and the lyrics that jump from incomprehensible to political are there. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics remain deeply impenetrable,a byproduct of both years spent in a prog-rock band, and his decision to write about some touchy subjects. As expected, they’re dense and borderline nonsensical, sometimes poetic and sometimes poetry-adjacent.
“in•ter a•li•a” is certainly no “Relationship of Command,” but it is still a force to reckon with. Their last album came out at an awkward time for rock. Boy bands and slightly-underage girls were dominating the charts, and rock was mostly delegated to Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, and regrettable Rage Against the Machine ripoffs. The fact that the band dropped “Relationship of Command” and bailed seemed like a purposeful shake-up. “in•ter a•li•a” doesn’t necessarily feel that way, but given the 2017 state of music, it does feel a little similar. While “rock” music isn’t really a big thing anymore, delegated to specific radio stations that play mostly the bands that were already coming into fruition in 2000, it does come at a time when indie and EDM are both getting stale. Is this album going to change music? No, of course not. But does it remind the listener that anything is possible? Yes. And At The Drive In have proved that on an album that will never be legendary, but is certainly timely and unforgettable.
-By Andrew McNally