At The Drive In has a history of surfacing when rock and roll needs them most. At a time when boy bands and and teen pop largely ruled over popular music, 2000’s Relationship of Command helped usher in a new wave of interesting, innovative rock and roll into the mainstream. Much like Nevermind nearly a decade prior, Relationship was one of a small handful of epochal records that signified a musical sea change in the early oughts. It was hard not to listen to ATDI circa 2000 without thinking, This is the future.
But the future was short for the post-punk renegades. Relationship of Command was an inspired fit of highly sophisticated musical chaos, but its makers were ultimately done in by that same mania. The band went on hiatus at the peak of its popularity in March 2001, the end result of a molotov cocktail of relentless touring, excruciatingly physical live sets, creative differences, and drug abuse. Fans waited for the hiatus to lift, but as months turned into years, the break became a break up.
Now, 17 years, two bands, and a few reunion tours later, ATDI are back to take another stab at the brass ring. in•ter a•li•a, much like Relationship, arrives at an uncertain time for mainstream rock. In today’s fragmented musical landscape where genre labels no longer do anyone justice, rock music doesn’t have a corner on the market the way it once did. So in•ter a•li•a is met with the question of whether or not ATDI can save rock music from its perceived last rights … again. It’s unlikely, even if the album’s more than a solid effort.
Like all things ATDI, in•ter a•li•a is complicated. It’s a good record that comes surprisingly close to meeting the stratospheric expectations heaped upon it, and yet it fails to match the band’s own impossible-to-clear bar. Still, mark of their hallmarks are in play, from heady song titles like “Pendulum In a Peasant Dress” and “Torrentially Cutshaw” to the smart-went-crazy arrangements that still make them sound like Fugazi on Adderal. “Continuum” nails what the band does best, packing in everything from bendy guitar squeals to drummer Tony Hajjar’s shifting tempos, while choppy album closer “Hostage Stamps” does an equally credible job recapturing the band’s erratic magic.
Individually, each member both new and old are in fine technical form. Guitarist Omar Rodriquez-Lopez still knows his way around an angular six-string hook, as evidenced on “Call Broken Arrow” and “Holtzclaw”. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who’s spent years expanding his vocal range with The Mars Volta, sounds just as comfortable melting down the microphone as he does singing on tracks like “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress” or “Tilting At The Univendor”, the latter of which finds him coming down from his hyper-philosophical plane long enough to ponder the idea of marriage. And while departed guitarist Jim Ward is nowhere to be found, Sparta’s Keeley Davis is tightly locked into the band’s dynamic chemistry.
This is the sound of a more flesh and blood ATDI, one that capitalizes on humanity over white-hot-insanity. Sure, “No Wolf Like The Present” tips off the festivities with loads of frenetic energy, but it never leaves reality, and that goes for the rest of the album. Oddly enough, this restraint warrants some of the record’s finest moments, and when the Texas rockers aren’t twisting and distorting their music like a rubber band, they get lost in the ether. Such is the case on “Ghost-Tape No. 9” with its echoes of Floyd that overwhelm their traditional post-punk bedlam.
(List: At the Drive In’s Top 10 Songs)
No, in•ter a•li•a isn’t quite the prog punk spectacle of its predecessor, but that could be a good thing. If you recall, the band already fell victim to its own explosive ambitions, and it’s why we’ve had to talk about them in the past tense for so long. That’s not their narrative anymore, and with in.ter.a.li.a, fans should take solace in discovering an older and wiser incarnation of At the Drive In. Nearly two decades after lighting the world on fire, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez sound like they’ve found a healthy balance they once sorely lacked under this moniker. With in•ter a•li•a, they not only prove that they can still be one of the most interesting and complex bands in the land, but that they don’t have to tear themselves apart to do it, either.
Essential Tracks: “No Wolf Like The Present”, “Call Broken Arrow”, “Tilting At The Univendor”