Right before these last couple of awards shows, another band, this time El Paso’s At the Drive-In, made their own hobo-esque attempt to hop the rails of this gravy train we call the reunion racket and launch a putative next phase of their career 1. And so it is time to anger LL Cool J, call it a comeback, and then decide whether or not it was worth it.
At the Drive-In were one of those bands who, for their initial run anyway, had a basically-perfect existence. I don’t mean they were musically perfect, they just started out small, played shows incessantly, never left the road, became a finely-honed musical machine that released their own records on their own schedule for their own reasons. Then they decided to be famous.
When they decided to take a swing at record-sales success 2, they launched a couple of high-profile national tours 3, and connected with a big fancy name producer, Ross Robinson, then known as a first-call dude for nu-metal bands 4.
The end result, whatever the intentions for making it were, was the best album of At the Drive-In’s career, and one of the best albums period. It’s probably not overextending things to say that what’s coming back here is less At the Drive-In, the journeying hard rock band from Texas, and more At the Drive-In, the band that recorded Relationship of Command. It is rather their defining statement. Of course, in classic ATDI fashion, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has spoken of RoC as being the album he’s least proud of.
Some of Rodriguez-Lopez’s chagrin is undoubtedly the fault of the aforementioned Ross Robinson, who produced it the same way he produced the commercial-metal records that were his bread and butter 5, which made it “pop” on the radio in a really effective way, and also dates it pretty unfortunately. Some of it is also probably that the friction and infighting that would cause the group to fall apart in Relationship of Command’s aftermath actually started right around the time of its recording.
The factors that would eventually break up the band sort of reach a point of critical mass around the 2001 Big Day Out festival, when the band protested the violence with which people were “dancing”, warned the audience that someone could get hurt, and walked offstage after lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala called the audience sheep and then, perhaps to drive the point home, made sheep noises at them. The remainder of that story is that eventually Limp Bizkit incited the crowd to dance more violently, and literal actual people literally actually died 6. So, even if their behavior may have seemed hostile at the time, the worst they can be called now is prescient.
Right or wrong, however, the band never really recovered from storming offstage in the middle of a festival set. They staggered around a bit, and eventually just called it quits, never finishing out that last tour.
After the break-up of At the Drive-In, other guitarist Jim Ward formed Sparta, who made a handful of records in a handful of years, and also made some solo records. He didn’t proceed at what you’d call a frenzied pace, and largely stayed out of public for huge whacks of time. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala continued to work together, first in the Mars Volta 7, and then again in Antemasque, with various projects for both men in between and concurrently (Rodriguez-Lopez, specifically, has been in something like eighty billion bands, some of whom did not exist for longer than it takes to type their names), each of which ended the same way: with vocal recriminations from Bixler-Zavala, and, presumably, hoovering up a bunch of drugs to transition into a new thing.
It is in the post-At the Drive-In careers of the band’s founders that we see the shape of the wedge that drove them apart: Jim Ward was a consistent, salable commodity who was also kind of a flake 8, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala was ferociously musically-focused and inventive, but also self-indulgent (and chemically-indulgent) to the point of occasional unlistenability, and, of course, unbelievably vitriolic in the press about the failings of the people he had worked with 9. Admittedly this last didn’t contribute to the break-up of At the Drive-In, but rather to the fact that it has taken years to even materialize to the limited extent that it has.
You see, the band got back together before, in 2012. They played a set of shows that didn’t work and that ended in grief and (everybody all together now) vitriolic recriminations. There were a number of statements about how nobody really wanted to do it in the first place. Compounding whatever of that was true, Bixler-Zavala’s mother died more-or-less immediately before he went onstage for the first show, so it’s justifiable that his heart was never really in it. The band went their separate ways, and even the Mars Volta (having then run for over a decade) broke up, at which point Bixler-Zavala complained about Rodriguez-Lopez’s work ethic, and complained that the Mars Volta were never as good as At the Drive-In anyway, at which point he started another band (ZAVALAZ), who then broke up amid public recriminations when Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala reunited (recanting most of the previous recriminations) as Antemasque.
Then the band re-convened last year, insistent that they were going to release music by the end of 2016, and, naturally, they did not. They made it almost halfway through this year before they managed to actually release it. Shortly before its release, the band announced that Jim Ward was not involved. He had been replaced by his erstwhile co-Sparta-n Keeley Davis 10, who honestly, is probably a pretty good fit. The Washington, DC post-hardcore scene isn’t miles away from where At the Drive-In were, musically speaking 11.
In the run up to Inter Alia (that’s what they ended up calling it), there were a couple of advance singles that were…fine. I mean, they weren’t very good, and that should have been more of a warning sign than I saw it as, but the problem with the singles is more or less the same as the problem with the album itself: there’s nothing you can point to and say “that thing is specifically real real bad” 12, but none of it really works.
There are certainly moments. “Grounded by Contagions” was probably the reason the advance singles didn’t raise flags – it’s pretty good, and clearly the best of the material here. “Holtzclaw” is fine, if overly silly. “Continuum” is unquestionably good, but it’s all pretty thin gruel.
The problem, such as it is, is that the members of At the Drive-In are no longer At the Drive-In. Cedric’s voice has changed (it’s been almost two decades, and in that time he’s had to recriminate a lot, and also do a whole lot of drugs), and it’s no longer the high-flying instrument of destruction that it was the first time around. Perhaps that’s unavoidable – people do age, and vocal cords don’t last forever – but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to work around it, he’s just not delivering his vocals with as much force. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has become a more technical player, and doesn’t seem as interested in the sort of riff-assisting descant-style playing that was so striking. The rhythm section is fine, but also seems looser and less-tried than previously. I’m not sure where Keeley Davis entered the process 13, but his playing is pretty nonspecific.
I think, ultimately, the thing that makes Inter Alia such a weird experience is that it seems to me that these people are fundamentally incapable of being this band anymore. It’s possible they could have formed a new band and incorporated some of their At the Drive-In material. It’s also possible that they could have toured this for longer to give it more time to set.
At the Drive-In’s original discography is a testament to what happens when five dudes spend their time in a band as a band. Relationship of Command especially betrays an almost-telepathic ability for the members to play together as one synergistic rock band unit. Inter Alia is a testament to how hard that can be to bottle back up, especially when it appears to be for non-creative reasons 14, or at least reasons that aren’t related to any kind of creativity that have spurred them all to make great music in the past.
So is it a worthwhile comeback? No. It’s not. It’s a weak, unsatisfying album that adds nothing in particular to the legacy of this band, except for continuing the story of how they can’t manage to get back together in any kind of healthy or reasonable way. I’m not ruling out the possibility that they could, somehow, manage to stay together as a band for long enough to play some of these songs on the road a bit more, and gel a bit more as a unit (again), and reclaim their ability to be in this band. But as of the end of Inter Alia, I have to say that they might have been better served by just staying on the reunion circuit and not trying to add anything to a body of work that, outisde of this record, is pretty untouchable.
- actually, in all fairness to the members of At the Drive-In, there is no way of knowing whether they thought this was going to be a long-term thing, or whether this record was just the next thing they were doing. ↩
- I mean, they also went no bigger label-wise than The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal, then also the home of Jimmy Eat World and Atari Teenage Riot. ↩
- including one with not-actually-that-similar but superficially-very-similar Rage Against the Machine. I mean, their singers sound a lot alike for starters. ↩
- which sounds today like something you’d want to specifically avoid being, but, y’know, the past is a different country. ↩
- Ross Robinson is a heavy-handed, nonsense-driven producer who, nevertheless, managed to make pretty good commercial metal albums in the nineties, a thing that happens somehow and despite him, not because of him. ↩
- this is a year and a half or so after Limp Bizkit, those lovable lads from Jacksonville, had basically become intimately associated for inciting crowds to irresponsible, harmful and criminal violence at the catastrophic Woodstock 99. ↩
- who made probably the best of the post-At the Drive-In records with De-Loused in the Comatorium, although Sparta’s first album, Wiretap Scars, has held up remarkably well. ↩
- Ward also quit At the Drive-In multiple times, in addition to his casual, unhurried pace at making music. Please note I am not opposed to people working leisurely, it just seems like it might have added to the existing problems with At the Drive-In. ↩
- often accompanied, years later, by comments retracting the initial, vitriolic ones, because ugh seriously just shut up Cedric. ↩
- actually, Davis was a replacement member of Sparta also, so he’s made something of a late-period career out of pinch hitting for these guys. He did, however, start out in the under-rated Engine Down, so he’s clearly got some stuff on the ball. ↩
- physically speaking it’s, y’know, on the other side of the country. ↩
- it’s not as bad as, say, At the Drive-In’s fellow MTV-emo-invaders The Refused’s Freedom from a couple of years ago. ↩
- Jim Ward didn’t play on the record at all, which, weirdly, is not a first – their early EP El Gran Orgo was recorded during one of the aforemetioned stints in which Ward had quit the band, and thus also doesn’t have him on it. Anyway, I’m unsure how much of the writing process he was a part of, or how much of this was “written” by “process”, honestly. ↩
- I mean, I’m not a member of At the Drive-In, so I’m not going to talk about my knowledge of anyone’s motives, but it seems clear from the result that whatever it is they were intending to do, it wasn’t “put out a record that sounds like it could use another year or so in the oven.” ↩