[Album Review] At The Drive-In - in•ter a•li•a
Cover Photo: Rise Records
When seminal Texan band At The Drive-In announced their first reunion in 2009 they did so still masked by the shadow of their greatest success. When the third full-length LP Relationship of Command dropped way back in 2000 it came to define not just the band's sound, but a progressively expanding post-hardcore genre, pushing alternative boundaries in a way the likes of Nirvana's Nevermind and Refused's The Shape Of Punk To Come had before it. Seventeen years on, that legacy remains a hard one to shake off, even with members moving on to other projects, and it seems inevitable that the excellence of that LP extends to considerations of At The Drive-In's latest output, 2017's in•ter a•li•a.
Following 16 years after the band's split, and marking their second reunion with new music, in•ter a•li•a feels like the natural progression you'd expect as a listener after a break that substantial in length. In many ways, the LP sounds like the older brother of In/Casino/Out and Vaya, more mature and more technically accomplished. It puts the years spent in between to good use and finds each member of the band having grown as musicians - not surprising considering vocalist Cedric Bixler's commitments to The Mars Volta and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's lengthy chain of solo albums (he's released twenty-two in the last year alone).
Despite these numerous, stylistically different undertakings, there's something pleasantly familiar about in•ter a•li•a, while the frenetic energy of the band's younger years has been channeled through the spectrum of time. This is still unmistakably At The Drive-In as you remember them, just older and wiser - and it breeds mixed results. in•ter a•li•a is a good record, if not a great one, and despite its issues there's also plenty to enjoy here.
Take opener "No Wolf Like The Present," which explodes into riffs, releasing 16 years of pent-up energy, meeting the harsh, unmistakable vocals of Bixler with finesse. It's a promising start which uncoils the folds of time and finds the likes of Rodriguez-Lopez and company rejuvenated as Bixler wails "there's no wolf like the present / they own your history and scrap it for parts." The lyrics throughout the record are philosophical, ontological musings, with the band shining spotlights on the bourgeoisie and present-day persecution, and build on the records rollercoaster aesthetic.
in•ter a•li•a is consistently caustic, as it should be, churning with a lyrical and vocal intensity which is matched by jagged, razor-sharp instrumentals. Dizzying time signatures and thick basslines persist, a number of pedals used to good effect, and things are suitably chaotic - if often relatively safe in terms of experimentation. Fifth track "Pendulum In A Peasant Dress" fizzes along and toys with some vocal back-and-forth's, displaying Bixler's singing capabilities, which are prominent on this record in a way they've never been on past At The Drive-In releases. His time spent with The Mars Volta and pop-outfit Antemasque has seen his singing improve, and it adds a new dimension to in•ter a•li•a, replacing the screams of Jim Ward while also betraying a tendency to sit back on certain songs that would benefit from some additional bite. Single "Incurably Innocent" is one such moment, the melody of a memorable chorus diluted.
Listening to this single, a symptom of a bigger problem, there's a nagging sense that something is lacking, at least in terms of what you'd expect from an At The Drive-In release. Several songs here don't really do enough dynamically, simply going through the motions - as is the case on "Governed By Contagions" - while elsewhere moments that should be monolithic feel muted, despite generally excellent production. Third track "Tilting At The Univendor" brings very little, lacking any sort of punch when it should be swinging, resulting in a chorus and bridge which are ultimately underwhelming without the power provided to catapult them higher. It's a common theme throughout in•ter a•li•a, and I constantly found myself wanting to take more from the listening experience. More energy, more tension and more risks in order to reap more rewards from the record.
However, when At The Drive-In get it right, they absolutely do. The more straightforward song structures do result in some affecting tracks, such as "Call Broken Arrow," the chorus to which may go down as the coolest thing I've heard in 2017 thus far. Thick guitars supplement a brash Bixler caterwaul, and the track bristles with punk swagger, a primed powder-keg of genre bravado. It kicks off a string of strong tracks towards the records end, with both "Holtzclaw" and "Torentially Cutshaw" particularly noteworthy. The latter crashes with trademark At The Drive-In gusto, scything back and forth, while the former offers up some of the records best lyrics in: "Haystack of needles trying to compromise / turn the little splinters into black passports / The future is heathen and we want you to know your hope Is a worthless currency." This energy and intensity relent upon reaching the weary plod of "Ghost Tape No.9," a track always threatening to build into something bigger, only for its trepidation to turn sour as the song progresses. It's an experiment which doesn't really work, and thankfully following single "Hostage Stamps" ends the record on a war cry high.
As far as comeback records go, in•ter a•li•a is certainly better than most, but outside of a few excellent instances, it has a tendency to come across a little lackluster. It would be foolish to think that At The Drive-In could recapture a moment akin to Relationship of Command in context when seventeen years have passed, but, in terms of present expectations, the record does deliver. However, it does also feel fairly safe throughout - and should aim higher. Too often it feels like At The Drive-In are testing waters only recently rediscovered, and I currently find myself far more excited about where the band will go from here than I find myself excited by the majority of in•ter a•li•a. As Bixler sings on "Governed by Contagions," 'that's the way the guillotine claps.'