Cut Away, Cut Away: At The Drive In's Lifetime Of Stops And Starts
In November 2000, weeks after the release of its breakthrough album Relationship of Command, At The Drive In's tour van skidded out of control on a road in Colorado and flipped onto its roof. Despite the severity of the crash and the damage done to the vehicle, no one was seriously injured: Band members were released from the hospital the same night, walking away from the type of accident that could have left them much worse off. It must be something, I imagine, to enter a world of unexpected and endless hype right after after surviving an incident that could have killed you. To have the freedom that comes with new success and hold it in your hands, knowing for sure that life isn't promised, makes for a hard reevaluation of priorities. And like any near-death experience, it must make you keenly aware of the people you could die next to.
After two modestly received albums, 1996's Acrobatic Tenement and 1998's In/Casino/Out, Relationship of Command pushed At The Drive In closer to the mainstream than it had ever been. It was the first release by the five Texans to crack the Billboard 200, peaking at 116, and it played as their most focused statement — the one where sound, ambition, politics and the frantic spirit of their live shows all blended together. They became critical darlings and draws for bigger stages and bigger festivals — not stars, perhaps, but considerably more marketable. More than that, post-hardcore found an entry point on national radio in the single "One Armed Scissor." I remember hearing the song on the local rock station in Columbus, Ohio and feeling like the band was going to be the next big thing, after years of toiling away in underground spaces. In giving in to their natural melodic leanings, At The Drive In's members helped create a blueprint for the flexibility of the genre, showing how it could reach its commercial potential: not selling out a sound, but sharpening it.
To witness an At The Drive In show during the band's heyday was to be immersed in a kind of energy that felt too overwhelming to harness and carry beyond the final notes played onstage. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López spent the first part of their career engaged in a creative push and pull with band co-founder Jim Ward, and some songs, particularly on In/Casino/Out, sounded like they were being played by two bands instead of one. On Relationship Of Command, every movement served a purpose, and it didn't feel like any of the band's creative pillars were sacrificed: not Bixler-Zavala's lyrics, nor Rodríguez-López's soaring guitar visions, nor Ward's insistence on volume. In the midst of this, they were also inserting representations of Latino culture and border politics into common conversation in a way that now, in the era of Trump, feels like foreshadowing. For the first time in their in their career, they'd found a way to serve their greater goals while still serving each other. And then, in March 2001, having just wrapped one giant tour and weeks away from another, the band announced it had broken up.
At The Drive In's dissolution was quick and heartbreaking, rising from an imperfect harmony of factors accelerated by the rush of hype surrounding the group. Bixler-Zavala's drug abuse, perhaps due to the pressure brought on by that hype, had begun to color his creative output and presence on stage. Both he and Rodríguez-López later discussed feeling stifled by genre, which by that point had become a major point of confusion for a band seen as too melodic to truly be hardcore, but too heavy to be anything else. Some signs of distress were obvious: That January at the Big Day Out festival in Sydney, Australia, the band had walked off in the middle of its set, displeased with the audience for not adhering to the rules against moshing. Still, the split was sudden, considering the band had just created a new circle of fans who knew almost nothing about it a year earlier. It felt like making a new friend just before their family moves away to a new city. Here was a group of musicians who seemed finally able to unlock all of their potential, spinning out of control and then closing a door for good. The car crash didn't take them them out, but the urgency that surviving it built within them may have finished the job.
After the breakup, Jim Ward — the band's guitarist, keyboardist, and backing vocalist — started the post-hardcore group Sparta with his former bandmates Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos. Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala formed The Mars Volta, which, for some fans who have followed their careers, became more interesting than At The Drive In ever was. Both Sparta and The Mars Volta seemed like logical conclusions to what At The Drive In could have been, had the passions of the musicians involved all been able to stay aligned at once. The bands represented the musical divide that sat at the center of At The Drive In: Ward hoping to stay true to the confinements of hardcore, Bixler-Zavala wanting the band to become Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Pink Floyd. Hearing the opposing parts of the band separate from each other, playing out their visions, was both satisfying and a bit sad, seen in the fading light of what could have been.
There are several worthwhile reasons for a departed band to return — money, creative comfort, nostalgia, the urgency of an unspoken message. Reunions are often initially exciting, though what follows can range from reassuring to uncomfortable to disappointing. At The Drive in is back now, not for the first time: In 2009, the band tried for a reunion that never truly got off the ground. The original lineup played a handful of shows in late 2011 and early 2012 that were met with mixed reviews, most of them centered on Rodríguez-López's visible lack of enthusiasm. (I saw the band in Austin during that stretch, and while playing through "One Armed Scissor," the guitarist lagged along, hanging over his instrument like it was a massive weight pulling him to the ground.)
What makes their return in 2017 different is the presence of fresh material. in•ter a•li•a, out Friday, is their first collection of new music in 17 years, and it sounds like a band trying to pick up directly where it left off.
Ward is missing from this album and tour (his Sparta bandmate Keeley Davis was drafted in his place), so in many ways Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala are left to their own devices. The music is still jarring in its lyrical approach, but the entry points are different, embedded in narratives and persona work threaded through the album. If there is a way to be both vague and direct, it is done on "Holtzclaw," named after rapist and former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was sentenced to 263 years in prison in early 2016. The song repeats phrases like "We'll never take no for an answer" and "Put the snakes back in the bag," which have the enticement of double meaning and which shock in their delivery.
The album, without question, is musically exciting: The guitars are still howling here, like two jets racing toward at each other full speed, narrowly missing each other at the last minute. The highlights are songs like "Governed By Contagions," which feel like the band's old template laid over the urgency of modern times. in•ter a•li•a isn't perfect: It drags in spots, and the closing track, "Hostage Stamps," felt especially uninspiring when it debuted as an early single — but as part of a body of work, by a group of people who haven't made music together in almost two decades, it sounds more focused, more complete. When a beloved and long-absent band announces new music, there is no single song that can live up to the hype the way that an entire, measured album can. Listening to preview tracks before in•ter a•li•a's release felt looking over frayed pieces of an old quilt, trying to recall how they once fit together. Hearing the complete statement, however flawed, is the thread that pulls everything back into place as I'd like to remember it: ferocious, fast, loud and still fairly precise.
The anatomy of a reunion is difficult to unravel. A band has to present work that is both present and up to date, while also arching backwards to satisfy the fans who waited eagerly for a return. There are ways to do this: Sleater-Kinney, for example, added a slight gloss to its sound when it reunited in 2015, one that was already emerging in small doses on The Woods, the band's last album before breaking up in 2006. The other option, in the vein of a band like Fall Out Boy, is completely shifting tone and sound, genre and scope, such that you are largely unrecognizable to the fans who were there from your starting point, but still nostalgic enough of a draw to carry them along. I saw both of these bands during their returns to the stage, and what immediately stood out was that each one, despite different approaches to the idea of a reunion, appeared to want to be reunited.
I'm not sure where At The Drive In is now in that respect, or where it fits on the spectrum of a reunion identity. If the new music is any indication, its members seem to be somewhere in between: both wanting to be their old selves and writing into a lyrical space that is new, sometimes clumsy. The reality is that every great band, every band committed to the forwarding of its genre, doesn't learn how to walk just one single time. An career is a collection of standing, leaning forward, and taking small steps, and then large leaps. It is fitting, I think, to have At The Drive In return with a tone of uncertainty, between sounds and ideas, as it always has been. From internal turmoil leading to their highest creative point, to a brush with death and rise to fame that quickly fractured its bonds, to a short-lived and halfhearted revival, to whatever this latest revival has in store, the band's career has been has been an accumulation of rapid accelerations and lurching stops.
I am excited by the idea of reunions, even though most music people I know find them to be awkward or overwrought, which they often are. The space between a reunion announcement and the arrival of new music is, perhaps, the most exciting: The expectations are high and impossible to live up to, but there is something thrilling about the standards one's nostalgia will set. For my own part, I dig back through old records, charting the evolution of a sound and dreaming of what comes next. I like seeing what a band has made itself into, especially if the members been apart from each other for a while, and especially if, inside of that distance, they have created something else.
At The Drive In is rare in this regard, as architects of a sound that has evolved,without them. You can hear elements of ATDI in bands like Thursday and The Fall of Troy, or on the more emo side of things in Pierce The Veil and Sleeping With Sirens — whose 2013 album, Feel, charted in the Billboard top five and included a song featuring rapper MGK. It's as though the band built a house and then went on a long vacation, allowing younger bands to move in and change the furniture.
It is a new landscape, and At The Drive In is back — with music that turns mainly toward the people who loved them then, without as much concern for the people who might discover they love them now. Which is safe, and endearing, and though it might not win them masses of new fans, maybe it's the thing they need most in this stage of their career. For a group of musicians who know what it is to be out of control, barreling into darkness with a foot on the gas and a brick on that foot, perhaps it's best for them to return older and wiser, eager to control their own wreckage.
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