At The Drive-In have finally returned with in•ter a•li•a, their first album in more than 15 years, and it’s a beast of a record. Exactly the album long-term fans will have been hoping for. When the critically-acclaimed Relationship Of Command was released, way back in 2000, it was a complete game changer. Lead single 'One Armed Scissor' affected me personally in a big way. Chaos pumping out of the speakers at my local indie club at 1am on a Tuesday evening. Suddenly I realised I could no longer tolerate the melancholic melodies of indie wet blouses like Ocean Colour Scene and Cast. What I needed now were Cedric Bixler-Zavala's impenetrable William Burroughs-esque venomous lyrical barbs, screamed into the microphone with throat-ripping aggression, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's crazed chromatic riffs, propelled by the amphetamine-fuelled, off-kilter rhythm section of Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos. These guys were the perfect band for me at that moment in my life, so I was devastated when they went on an indefinite hiatus the following year. I hadn't even seen them live, although I’d read enough live reviews to know I was missing out, and my explorations of their pre-Relationship back catalogue was largely disappointing, with the notable exception of the Vaya EP.
Omar and Cedric went on to form the incredible The Mars Volta, who have given us more than their fair share of memorable records. Meanwhile rhythm guitarist and second singer Jim Ward formed Sparta with Tony and Paul. Sparta never quite hit the mark for me and certainly didn’t reach the commercial heights of The Mars Volta. It's notable that Ward gets no mention whatsoever in the biography for in•ter a•li•a. The first reunion shows for At The Drive-In in 2012 included all five members of the original band, but now all mention of Jim has disappeared with a dude called Keeley Davis (another former Sparta member) taking his place, as if he never existed at all! Whilst I may feel mildly disturbed by this Communist-Russia-esque revisionism of the group’s history, I'm guessing they don't want the narrative behind this new record to be shaped by tales of disagreement and the repeated breakdown of a long term friendship. The album this group have delivered is far too good to have its discourse wasted on a soap opera dialogue about who's pissed off with who. I would say it's undeniable that in•ter a•li•a is the best At The Drive-In record since Relationship Of Command. In fact I'd go so far as to say it could well be the best album the band have ever released.
If you're expecting a newly matured musicality shaped by their years apart, well… that's just not the vibe. What they've done is more ambitious: they've abandoned everything they've learnt over the years in an effort to get back to the core At The Drive-In sound, in fact, more importantly, it's the At The Drive-In energy that they've recaptured. They sound youthful here, as if they actually recorded all this material in 2002 but have only just gotten round to mixing it. It’s an album with such pace I had to do a double-take when it got to the end. The 41-minute runtime actually felt like half of that. I’d just gotten over my initial, ‘this sounds just like At The Drive-In’, thoughts and I’d already listened to the whole record.
If anything that would be my one criticism of the album, it’s a matter of taste but I imagine the relentless pace isn’t for everyone. That’s not to say that it’s dull or repetitive, the strength of this band has always been their idiosyncrasies. When Omar introduces a track with an unusual guitar riff you can almost guarantee the drum beat that follows will not be quite what you’d expect. So there are pushes and pulls, light and shade, but there’s nowhere on the album that reaches the melancholy and vulnerability of songs like ‘Invalid Litter Dept’ or ‘Non-Zero Possibility’. It was moments like those that marked Relationship Of Command out against their earlier releases. The chaos seemed somehow more chaotic when juxtaposed next to slower, darker moments. The closest they come to this on in•ter a•li•a is ‘Ghost-Tape No. 9’, which is the penultimate track on the album. Final track ‘Hostage Stamps’ sounds like it’s going to end things in similar style, but the epic, clean guitars of the intro quickly step to one side for a final onslaught of energy, pace and aggression. Still, this is really only a minor gripe – if you’re in the mood for a musical bombardment, rather than a twisting-turning journey, this is the record for you.
Omar has taken on production duties alongside Rich Costey (Muse, Sigur Ros) and together they’ve crafted a phenomenally chunky sound. Duelling guitars to the left and right, uniting for chunky syncopations, while the bass and drums hold steady, powerful grooves, driving everything forward. The sound is massive. It’s Cedric who impresses most though – on those first reunion shows some fans complained that his years exploring his upper melodic range in Mars Volta had ruined his voice for At The Drive-In. It’s rare that you hear people complaining that a singer has gotten too good, but that was exactly the problem some fans had. Having seen the 2012 Lolapalooza show on YouTube I can kind of see what they were getting at: grit and aggression had been Cedric’s only route to the high notes back in the day, so they came out lacerated. Hearing him reach them effortlessly sounded a little off on those old songs. For this record though he’s got it all back – even those moments where he sounds like an angry poet ramming his spoken word into your face. The lyrics are brilliant too – one of the bands great selling points for me. It was always nigh on impossible to decipher what he was saying, but the language chosen was always so evocative, the imagery so powerful, it created a message without stating one obliquely. It’s all here on in•ter a•li•a, coming together in unlikely ear-worms. To find myself singing phrases like “And he’s only stealing flowers from my stone, stone, stone”, from ‘Call Broken Arrow’, takes me right back to my late teens and the sort of mindset I had at the time.
There are plenty of catchy tracks here, ‘Governed By Contagions’ and ‘Incurably Innocent’ have huge choruses, and there are great moments that would never fit into the back catalogues of any of the other groups these guys have played in, like the major riffage of ‘Tilting At The Univendor’ that’s so youthful it sounds almost jolly. The album title is Latin for “among other things”, which Cedric describes as meaning, “a snapshot of life right now and the inevitability of where we might be headed”. This is a record aimed at the youth, presenting to them the fucked up world they’re about to inherit. It’s not a guide book or an apology though, it’s simply a statement: this is what you’ve got, now what are you going to do about it? At The Drive-In are back in a big way, with the record we’ve been dreaming of for years and it couldn’t have come at a better time. It doesn’t make me want to go back to my late teens so much as make me feel like I am there again and that’s an impressive feat for “five people blasting on ten”.