Almost 12 years after disbanding, At The Drive-In’s legacy seems defined as much by the epic manner in which the El Paso prog punks flamed out as it is by the propulsive catalog of music they left behind them. And make no mistake, ATDI blitzed through the mainstream public consciousness like a meteor in late 2000. Relationship of Command was one of a small handful of records that helped redefine mainstream rock and roll for the new millennium, and the band’s aggressively earnest live show only further built up their already sizable underground buzz. And then they were gone. As it turned out, Relationship of Command‘s feverish intensity wasn’t bullshit, but rather a snapshot of a band furiously burning the wick at both ends.
But as quick as the band’s time in the limelight came and went, ATDI’s perceived brush with crossover success wasn’t quite as immediate and sudden as it seemed. Five years earlier, there was Acrobatic Tenement, a record that marked ATDI’s first humble stab at the deconstructionist underground rock the band would eventually patent as their own. As with most debut records, there are the occasional dead spots and uneven moments. But while the record isn’t nearly as taut and relentless as Relationship of Command, it hits with similar blitzkrieg force, even if it’s less refined in its approach. Some bands take their time to feel things out and find an identity, but Acrobatic Tenement proves the band always knew where they wanted to go, even if they didn’t always quite know how to get there.
Admittedly, it’s hard now to evaluate the record on its own merit. Acrobatic Tenement doesn’t feel so much like an isolated work as it does a blip on a timeline, a starting point in the band’s career trajectory that has now come around full circle from formation to break-up and back around again to a reunion. And sure enough, the record is peppered with staggered bits and pieces of the ATDI formula, from the interweaving sing-scream vocals of frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Jim Ward to the bendy guitar lines, odd time signatures, and the band’s overall proggy, post-punk weirdness. “Star Slight” offers a pretty strong sense of what the band would eventually become, as does the artful spaziness of ”Ebroglio” and Bixler-Zavala’s literate, stream of consciousness rants on tracks like “Skips on the Record” (“‘C’ is for contraction, 30 minutes apart / Umbilical agendas in the coup de jat”). Elsewhere, the soft-loud-soft dynamics and thoughtful lyrics of “Initiation” and “Coating of Arms” find the band drawing early inspiration from emo forbearers like Rites of Spring and Lungfish.
But the album also shines a clearer light on some of the band’s earlier influences that later got glossed over as they hit the full stride of their careening punk rock powers. While the band would swiftly move toward grizzled, frenetic post-hardcore on future releases, ”Communication Drive-In” shivers with the nervous emocore energy of bands like Cap ‘n’ Jazz. There’s also something to be said for the record’s comparatively lean and tenacious production, which while a far cry from the more full-bodied sounds of Relationship of Command and Vaya, goes a long way toward capturing the band’s unrestrained fury in the moment.
In the end, Acrobatic Tenement is an interesting case study of a now-legendary band that seemingly found its niche early, no small feat for a stylistically intricate band so prone to pushing boundaries. It’s not perfect, but few if any debuts are, and the shortcomings here are easy to overlook when measured against the band’s sheer bombast and energy. As far as debuts go, it’s about as sturdy and fully realized as they come, making their subsequent crossover success all the less surprising.
Essential tracks: “Ignition”, “Ebroglio”, and “Coating of Arms”