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At The Drive-In
Inter Alia Timothy Archer , May 4th, 2017 09:03

At The Drive In are the epitome of the romanticised punk-ethic high school band aesthetic, a group of friends forming a band in their youth as a release from everything else, slowly and through years of graft and commitment, finding an unexpected but entirely merited level of international acclaim. Returning after a 17-year absence, At The Drive In claim to have rekindled their friendships and enjoyment for playing together, and few would begrudge that earnest, amicable endeavour. But the nature of artistic statement these prodigal sons would make with their returning album deserves dissection, and placement within the narrative of these musician’s paths.

Formed in 1993 in the sleepy American desert city of El Paso, Texas by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Jim Ward, it took until 1996 and the months following the release of debut album proper Acrobatic Tenement for the band’s line-up to solidify into the one now most familiar to their fans. The additions of Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos saw then-bassist Omar Rodríguez-López transition to lead guitar – a deterministic and critical moment in that musician’s formative years. Between the years ‘93 and ‘96, the band toured relentlessly, disenfranchised with fabled and entirely normative path of further education, tired of playing instructive standards in the local high school band, carving a destiny of their own. And whilst this early incarnation of the group never quite found purchase in the El Paso scene (Ward recalling an entirely familiar scenario of playing gigs to rooms of no more than five disinterested punters), nationwide tours followed the release of EPs Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo! to much greater interest.

Conversations with the band recall a kind of unknowing compulsion, of seasonal work pouring money into annual tours, investment in a 1981 Ford Econoline that traversed the nation and whose floor space doubled as bed for the band’s huddled members. By September of ’97 and the release of third EP El Gran Orgo, At The Drive In were headlining shows across the American Mid-west, the more refined and articulate sound on the latest release drawing critical praise, their live shows eliciting a collective astonishment from audiences wherever they pulled up. El Paso crowds remained slight, to the band’s amusement.

To skip forward a few years is to fast forward through tours supporting Rage Against The Machine at that band’s height, and the release of both second album In/Casino/Out and fourth EP Vaya, both fine records. If it was punk by DIY, then it was certainly paying off –there was a lovely evolution, plain to see, between long playing records as defiant, grand statements and EPs as novellas characterised by a greater artistic license: a call and return between the two structural forms that fed into the band’s relentless work, tour and studio ethic.

It’s well established punk and pop-culture history at this point, but it’s fair to say that most people on this side of the pond’s first exposure to At The Drive In’s caustic, affecting, fractal music was through the release in 2000 of third album Relationship of Command. That the record had been overseen by rock/metal super-producer Ross Robinson, known for work on seminal albums by Korn, Deftones, Slipknot, Sepultura, as well as responsibility for one of Limp Bizkit’s efforts, afforded the El Paso band’s release an immediate impact far beyond their previously offered recordings. Robinson ostensibly “discovered” the band, as rock fables go, having watched them live and badgered them sufficiently, convincing the group that he alone could capture the fury of their concerts onto tape. A kind of missing link between studio producer and spiritual guru, Robinson was famed for his unconventional studio techniques, the close relationships he endeavoured to create with each band he worked with, producing a kind of bespoke symbiosis between band and producer that resulted both in a now infamous fevered off-road pelt with Hinojos in Robinson’s SUV through the forests and hills around the studio, in a bid to get his adrenaline pumping for the next bass take, and also in the working relationship he established with the young Omar Rodríguez-López, who was taken under Robinson’s wing and shown the ropes of recording and producing an album.

Seven weeks of recording time at Robinson’s Malibu home studio, and a $1000 a week weed habit produced an album which by far represented the band’s finest accomplishment, an album which exploded internationally and propelled the post-hardcore band from El Paso with the punk rock work ethic around the world on a relentless touring schedule that would last from the album’s release date in September 2000 until the band’s eventual and unexpected breakup in February 2001. Relationship of Command subsequently went achieved a near-mythical status, a record as seminal and epoch-defining as The Shape Of Punk To Come, as inventive, unexpected and compelling as Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous LP. Simply put, there was nothing else that sounded quite like Relationship of Command, no other band that looked like At The Drive In. In a market then dominated by the Chili Peppers’ saccharine sweet California return, Incubus records seemingly purpose built for MTV loops, and all the overblown ridiculousness and pretentious masculinity of nu-metal, At The Drive In had made a record as subtle as it was visceral, that approached violence with a certain poetic elegance, whose lyrics required an extended edition of the Oxford English dictionary to approach vague legibility, lyrics whose ultimate meaning like the finest imagist poetry remained both forever out of reach and infinitely up for grabs, and crucially, a record that from the moment you hit play on track one did not relent for an instant.

The album grabs you by the throat and shakes you until it’s done. From Arcarsenal, one of the most stupendous, arresting, thrilling album openers of all time, to lead single One Armed Scissor, the band pulverised all before them. Latter album cuts Cosmonaut and Quarantined drew in haunting pianos and sweeping, emotion-swelling finales, demonstrating a new confidence expressing itself through complex songwriting. Iggy Pop turned up, because why not. It was madcap, daft, serious, utterly captivating. Between Rodríguez-López’s angular upper register riffing and ludicrous dance moves, Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s atonal cries of frenzied desperation and Jim Ward’s driven, caustic bark, the band were as unknowable as they were compelling. Peers in my Devon sixth form college didn’t know what to make of them when I brought Relationship of Command into the common room, I barely understood why I was listening to them – only that I’d seen a glimpse into another world, of resistance and collective endeavour, away from the comical masks of Slipknot’s parent/teacher-baiting faux-rebellion and Rage Against The Machine’s increasingly dialled-in, dressed-up protest. This was punk as poetry, articulate and defiant.

I’d been lucky to attend the Reading Festival of 2000, where on the back of newly released Relationship of Command, At The Drive In were the hottest ticket in town, the buzz of the festival site. The tent was packed by mid-morning, the band not due on til early afternoon and by the time they took the stage, the small tent at the side of the festival site had attracted the largest crowd of the weekend. If you weren’t in already, no amount of elbows were going to help you. At The Drive In were the talk of the weekend, their performance sending reverberations through the country’s musical press. Finding time for a now-legendary Jools Holland appearance whilst in the country, At The Drive In had came, seen and conquered the United Kingdom. On that BBC recording and irked by Robbie Williams’ off-camera, pre-broadcast sarcasm, Rodríguez-López took to immolating the lead single live on air, preferring feedback and dropped-frame dancing to playing his actual parts, whilst Bixler-Zavala threw a chair in Williams’ bands direction as the cameras rolled. Whilst all this was happening, 3/5 the band were soldiering on, Jim Ward delivering vocals with respect to the recording, his high school band finally in the absolute ascendancy. Watching back that compelling footage now, it’s hard to argue that this was a band comfortable in that context; instead the format found At The Drive In caught betwixt states, pushing and pulling at themselves at once, and caught on camera, the first signs of a split in the group were beginning to seep through,

A gruelling tour schedule continued, the band applying their punk-rock ethos of non-stop domestic gigging to an international stage, and by the time they’d reached Australia in 2001 for a series of Big Day Out festivals, the band were burning out. Describing that leg of the tour as “the biggest thing” that had happened to the band, Rodríguez-López remembers confronting a macho culture that left the band cold. It was at the Sydney concert that things came to a head, a visibly fraught band performing just three songs of a full set before Bixler-Zavala launched into a now famous tirade against the inane slam-dancing and moshing in the crowd. Leaving the stage to harsh, unending feedback, vocalist turning on an audience that was hurting its own ranks. The performance is undiluted fire, band fighting against crowd and relenting in the face of mindlessness. As Rodríguez-López recounts “people were getting hurt, we were like ‘fuck this’. We had gotten so tired of the macho crap”. As Bixler-Zavala said on the mic, “baa, baa, you’re all fucking sheep.” And referring directly to the violent up/down pogo’ing in the crowd, “I think it’s a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slamdancing. You didn’t learn that from your best friend, you learned that from the TV”. The band were crucified in the immediacy, their promoter furious, the audience left insulted (though clearly with good reason). Omar defended the walk-out in a later interview by saying “we stood by what we did. We saw people getting hurt, we wanted to stop it. We’re people. We’re not a machine. We were unapologetic. Three days later, a girl died.” The tragedy of 16-year old Jessica Michalik’s death came as a sorry result of asphyxiation caused in a crowd surge and subsequent crush during a Limp Bizkit performance the very same day of At The Drive In’s performance (Michalik later died in hospital). The Coroner’s Court of New South Wales tore the festival’s security measures to pieces, and found time for an explicit condemnation of the “alarming and inflammatory” comments made by Bizkit vocalist Fred Durst from the stage during the rescue effort. Big Day Out later implemented crowd control measures which have subsequently become international standards. Culturally, far beyond the music they were creating, At The Drive In’s ethics were beginning to have a wider impact, in confronting a testosterone-riven global rock culture, the band gave interviews where they argued that the real punks today are ‘found at the library, head buried in books’.

It was a matter of weeks before At The Drive In announced an indefinite hiatus, various fatal factors combining to an inevitable conclusion. A never-ending tour schedule brought them to exhaustion, the sudden fame bestowed upon them (Ward later saying “we just couldn’t exist in that format”) with the release of their epochal work, increasing substance use in the group, and artistic differences regarding future direction of travel. Bixler-Zavala recalls being ridiculed for playing Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in the van after gigs, and Rodríguez-López encountered resistance for wanting to take the music in altogether more experimental, free-form directions.

Within months of their parting, new bands were alive. Ward, Hinojos and Hajjar continued making emotive, aggressive, highly nuanced music under the Sparta banner, whilst Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, fuelled by a jaw-dropping amount of drugs, went through transitions. First, dub outfit De Facto returned Omar to bass and saw At The Drive In’s vocalist play drums – their three LPs are pleasing, intoxicated, baffling little things well worth finding. It was in De Facto that they would first work with the late Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, a hugely talented, soulful keyboardist from Long Beach, and the late Jeremy Michael Ward, an old friend of Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s, who would provide sound manipulation and post processing. Bassist Eva Gardner joined De Facto in the latter half of 2001, and subsequent jamming produced something far beyond the confines of drug-fuelled dub. These sessions seamlessly transitioned De Facto into what would become The Mars Volta, a band characterised by psychedelia and experimentalism, by the artistic indulgence of hedonistic concept albums and free-form live concerts that would push the three-hour mark in the performance of only a handful of songs.

And after parting in 2001, and eleven years of walking their separate paths, 2012 found At The Drive In returned for a short series of concerts and festivals, which in the words of Jim Ward during the tour’s final gig represented their “chance to finish the Relationship of Command tour properly”. The tour was widely seen as a disaster, beset by tragedy in the passing of Omar’s mother days before the first gig, by audience reviews of indifferent performances and a particular strain on the singer’s once-throaty vocals (as if years of wailing falsetto and smoking weed every day in The Mars Volta doesn’t have an effect). It wasn’t a reunion, we were told. There wouldn’t be new music. Omar described playing the songs like “trying on an old t-shirt that doesn’t fit anymore”, and saying that “When playing those songs, I thought, 'Here's a person at the time that I don't relate to anymore.' He didn't care about his life and was doing drugs and was really disconnected from the world and a whole lot of other personal stuff that I won't get into. If I give myself to that, I can feel the psychological effects of that personality in the same way that an actor can say it wasn't healthy to live in that role so long or bring that role home every night”. The musicians parted again, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala returning briefly to Mars Volta, before that band dissipated in again-public acrimony. In a video interview, Jim Ward recounts “as much as we love each other, and that band, there’s something about being successful in that band that just doesn’t work. I don’t know why.” When later in the interview, he talks about the selflessness required to keep each other’s backs in a band like At The Drive In, he breaks down and the filming is paused.

Other things. Seventeen years after the release of Relationship of Command, and 23 after the band’s first concert at the Loretta High School Fair in El Paso, I am listening to a “reignited” At The Drive In’s new record, with all the gravity of this band’s history, with the birth and demise of all those other bands having led us to this point, with water still running live under the bridge. It shouldn’t be so surprising. In a recent Japanese interview with Tony Hajjar, it’s revealed that the band wrote material in 2012, but couldn’t move beyond vague disagreements to record it. Similarly, the potential of a new album was discussed in 2014 between members, leading to initial jam sessions that again fell apart. Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López formed the pop pastiche outfit Antemasque that same year, the group name a clear indication that the band was only ever intended in temporality to a subsequent, more grandiose ‘masque’, or main event. And like clockwork, a web presence re-emerged in the early part of last year with the promise of “tour, new music, 2016” – advertised with photo-fits of the band’s five key members. But again, as in 2012 and 2014, the promise of a false dawn beckoned.

There has been much said, of little value, about the departure of original member Jim Ward from that tour and the 2016/17 current incarnation of this band, that he quit days before the tour having jammed and rehearsed, that he didn’t know the gigs were even happening at all, that he wasn’t as into the rebirth as the other members – whatever. I’m not here to pick sides. However, despite a conciliatory message announcing “Jim Ward will not be joining us on future journeys. We wish him well” on the band’s social media, it’s been disappointing to see that amicable tone dropped in more recent interviews. In a Rolling Stone interview last year announcing his series of solo albums on Ipecac Recordings, Rodríguez-López is scathing: “Anyone who knows the history of the band knows that Jim has been kicked out of the band on three different occasions, and we've done a good amount of touring without him. So for us it was like, "Ahh, this again?... The only difference is that we were used to this sort of wishy-washiness. For the few people who were upset about him not being there, it's like, what would you rather watch: one person who doesn't even want to be there or the band existing without that one person?” Given that many audiences in 2012 perhaps unfairly accused Rodríguez-López of exactly that, not wanting to be there, it’s difficult to read. When one considers the track-record of bad-mouthing that both Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala have with regard to former musicians and collaborators (Thomas Pridgen, Blake Fleming, Adrián Terrazas-González, Juan Alderete De La Pena, to name but a few) – often, years later, to total retraction, it’s difficult to take anything Omar might say on former band members as particularly authoritative, and again (as with The Mars Volta’s break-up) – I can’t see the purpose in airing a band’s dirty laundry in public. Similarly, the implication of there being ‘real fans’ and others, I just cannot abide. Watching Jim Ward’s video interview, he seems utterly disinterested in the notion of fame, of making money from your band, and compelled only by the love and devotion present in the act of making music with your friends. For whatever reason, the band and their founding guitarist parted company, just days before their first concert.

Friend of the band Keeley Davis was drafted in to cover Ward’s parts at the last minute, having played with Hajjar and Hinojos in their post-ATDI band Sparta. When I saw the new band play together at the London Roundhouse in the spring of 2016, it was a handful of gigs into their new incarnation and tour, and they seemed an altogether more impressive unit than in 2012. Omar moved as if electricity was coursing through him, and the band took in live extensions of Quarantined and Enfilade that showcased some of the more esoteric guitar solo’ing and jamming-out that might otherwise have been reigned in before the band’s 2001 split. There was, however, no “new music”, the band playing a set of Relationship of Command classics and earlier material. I recalled a line from an old Omar interview, delivered with incredulity, “do I want to reunite and play fucking 15-year old songs? Well, it would be like asking you, ‘do you want to get back together with your first girlfriend?” but at the same time acknowledged that this was the best that At The Drive In had sounded in years. I looked past the heavily-stacked merchandise table, full of skateboard racks and trite band-branded memorabilia, where t-shirts from a group which had come to decry narcotic and psychotic drug use were encouraging fans to “become yourself through narcosynthesis”. I looked past the cultish band uniforms, a jet-black military thing with a white chevron adorning each member’s sleeve, each amplifier, the kick drum – the kind of onstage styling more deserving of some church burning Danish fash-metal outfit. I looked past the unexpected absence of Jim Ward, and just enjoyed what was a sonically fine and frequently entertaining, if slightly distant, performance. 2016 passed and no new material emerged in the setlists, the band working quietly and behind the scenes, recording and jamming both on tour and between tours – one can see the 2016 gigs perhaps as a band embedding a new member, finding its feet again, rediscovering its sound, but it’s doubtful whether they’d ever intended to play new music that year. Fans would also be excused for taking new music announcements from Omar or Cedric with a large pinch of salt: 2017 finds us waiting still for a second Antemasque LP, Saddle On The Atom Bomb, recorded and toured briefly with Travis Barker in 2015, a ZAVALAZ debut album recorded after The Mars Volta’s demise and of course the long-promised Volta vinyl reissues. I don’t think many people in the fan community were holding their breath for a new At The Drive In album, even in the face of explicit announcements.

But it arrived, drip by drip. Inter Alia was preceded by the release of three singles, the first of which (Governed By Contagions) I’d initially raved about only to find my enthusiasm rapidly waning. The second of these (Incurably Innocent) – I found disappointing from the start, for a multitude of reasons (but mostly Bixler-Zavala’s wail in the chorus), and the last of the pre-album releases (Hostage Stamps) I found the pick of the bunch, engaging a ridiculously good central riff and a humourous attention to detail in the violin sampled pre-chorus – it’s the little things, sometimes. Bixler-Zavala described that song as a war cry – and as war cries go, it’s quite convincing. On the rest of album, Inter Alia seems hamstrung by the band’s expectations of what an At The Drive In record “should” sound like, seemingly mandated on the precondition that they forget everything they’d learned in the years apart. Listening alongside Relationship of Command, Inter Alia is looser, both in riffs and production, the band discarding allusions to post-hardcore in lieu of a more straight-rock, blues-influenced riff-oriented panache. Gone are the earlier band’s more caustic, angular moments, where Jim Ward’s guttural screams were used for texture and tension, replaced here by melodic choruses and singing, actual fucking singing.

Relationship was arresting from start to finish, but it achieved that result through twists and turns: thrashing songs that blitzed inside three minutes followed by powerful, driven pieces – the meticulously sequenced record by its conclusion had taken the listener on a journey, no track seeming unnecessary or out of place. Inter Aliaafter opening with a looped tape effect, beckons and explodes: Omar’s riff is met by Keeley’s return and the band arrive with a sonic boom that suggest the very release of 17 years bound-up energy. This record doesn’t really let off the pace, there are few detours, only slight changes of mood between tracks, one slight reprieve toward the album’s close. The overall album sequencing seems arbitrary – except in that they’ve left the best song til last and preceded it with the album’s one slower moment for the resultant dramatic effect achieved in juxtaposition.

Perhaps this is to be expected: for all of Cedric’s talk of this being a “body of work” in the same vein as Relationship of Command, it just can’t be. That earlier record was the product of a band having grown up together: it was their cumulative statement. Inter Alia is the sound of a band trying to pick up where they left off, having taken different journeys along the way, and having spent a year jamming with a new guitarist replacing a founding member. Which isn’t to say that it’s unsuccessful, it’s just not the sequel to the band’s last album that it’s being billed as. I’d even go so far as to argue that Antemasque’s eponymous debut album has more in common with parts of Inter Alia than At The Drive In’s last record– merely to acknowledge the stylistic shifts in how Bixler-Zavala delivers his vocals, and the kind of riffs and song structures that Rodríguez-López is delivering, perhaps in a nod to a mantra described by the vocalist as “keeping your ear to the ground and listening to heartbeat of young people” - which is perhaps another way of saying “writing in to your audience”.

Inter Alia finds the band keeping instrumentation simple: whereas the At The Drive In of old had become known for melodica-sweetened dub interludes, for incorporating pianos and sweeping synthesisers into their music, this is a record comprised simply of guitars, bass, drums and vocals, some inconsequential sampling between songs. I was especially curious about the production and mix here, if only because Omar has been so disparaging about the band’s seminal work, describing Relationship of Command as the one record in his discography he can’t listen to (has he tried listening to Some Need It Lonely?) and arguing that the record label exerted undue influence in the final master.

Given greater authority here, he co-produces with Rich Costey (known for his work with Muse and Sigur Ros) and the mix is, for the most part, both sonically interesting and engaging. Guitars are hard panned to each channel, Omar and Keeley separated, bass and vocals centred and the drums are well-recorded and mixed across the stereo channel. Effects are kept simple throughout, musicians sticking to a few trusted pedals and really that’s about it. It’s a punchy and clean mix, with clarity across the instruments – a clarity that I found worked for and against the music. Aesthetically, it’s gratifying to hear a seemingly live band. It’s clear from many of the guitar lines that much of this record was recorded in single takes (charmingly, you can hear Rodríguez-López changing pedals) and there’s a looser, freer sound here than on the more-hands-on production of Relationship of Command. That’s demonstrated in the audible intricacies in Omar’s guitar playing, as he pizzicatos through dizzying upper-register accompaniments. There’s an enjoyable swagger to his playing that comes through with the clarity of the mix, although Keeley’s guitar could be higher in overall balance in this writer’s humble opinion. The downside of the clarity is a slight distance from the overall effect: sum parts often remain isolated on detailed listens, especially with use of spacious headphones.

The material here suffers too often from formulaic structures that don’t move subtly or convincingly enough between sections. I can find enjoyable passages in most of these songs, a riff, a pre-chorus, a climax or single lick, but one common issue across the record is the transition between bridge and final returned chorus. In almost every instance, there’s a return which doesn’t quite achieve the impact clearly intended, falling flat. No more noticeable is this than in second single Incurably Innocent, where a Bixler-Zavala acapella doesn’t even have time to finish its own sentence before being faded out and overlain with the returning choral vocal. Governed By Contagions suffers here too: that song’s finale, the raised-octave lyric maddeningly sung, “brace yourself my darling” isn’t anywhere near rousing enough, and is sadly let down by uninventive drum patterns comfortable to just keeping repeating the loop through a climax which clearly deserves more. With much of Inter Alia, I have a nagging feeling that a little bit more development is required.

Discarding with the experimentalism that At The Drive In had begun to incorporate in 2000, and not incorporating any of the progressive psychedelia that Rodríguez-López was begging to include in the band’s sound when the band broke up, instead these songs better and more accurately seem attuned to the mindset of Omar/Cedric’s “part-time band” Antemasque, all that relentless power-pop. Choruses are sung, crooned, wailed, repeated things – a terrible tendency of Bixler-Zavala’s melodic/lyrical style that’s affected him since Volta’s last record Noctourniquet, and that was in effect all over Antemasque’s debut album: choruses are launched into, vocals are found as repeated lyrics, often just the album title, repeated, repeated, repeated, ok, we get it. Album opener No Wolf Like The Present, however explosive its opening moments might be, just isn’t as clever or affecting as it thinks it is, and by the Cedric’s informed us that there’s “no wolf like the present” for the fifteenth time, the lyric has lost any meaning.

There are more encouraging moments elsewhere: Continuum is a ridiculously fun song and finds the band adopting a tone and delivery unlike anything they’ve done before, Cedric doing his best Mark E. Smith impression in the verses. Citing the extra time the group put into that song, developing and reformatting an idea originally introduced by Bixler-Zavala, Continuum is a demonstrable success, the product of hard yards put in. A second verse bark of “You might just see out the rest of your life soaked in the deprivation of a Faraday tank” shows this vocalist at his very best, recalling the mad, feral delivery he deployed in The Mars Volta’s epic Tetragrammaton. A particular highlight. HOLTZCLAW is an enjoyable stomp, largely written by Rodríguez-López, with a successful chorus reminiscent of Drive Like Jehu – again the transition in the bridge isn’t as smooth as it could be, and I can’t take a lyric like “are you an asset or are you a problem?” seriously, no matter how stoned or conspiratorial I might be. Torrentially Cutshaw, named after a character in William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration, starts promisingly, a throbbing bassline reminiscent of Enfilade, before outpacing even itself as vocals and rhythm section find dissonance in the midst of acceleration, the song turning into something that wouldn’t be out of place on a late 90s skateboarding arcade game. It’s fun, ok, but the band are blasting through it at this point, and haven’t let up since track one. This music is leaving me cold.

Thankfully, it would seem, a moment of relative calm follows in the form of Ghost Tape No. 9, so named after the campaign of using psi-ops tapes that the American military inflicted in Viet-Cong fighters during the war. Initially brought in by new guitarist Keeley Davis, the song was jammed out and slowed down over a single rehearsal session right before the studio time. It was one of the last songs to be written for this record, and it’s a brittle, turgid, dull thing that merely goes through the motions of itself, Cedric Bixler-Zavala stretching the chorus lyrics out over distinct syllables “num – buh – nine” while the music plods on. It could frankly have done with a raised-tempo mid-section, an explosion of squealing guitars – instead we get Cedric Bixler Zavala emoting in an empty room, a self-referencing call and response during the song’s squalid bridge. As the tension builds in that section, drawing the chorus back, I can’t feel much of anything at all. It’s music which really doesn’t leave much space for interpretative reaction. All told, a token “slow piece” by-numbers, an electric guitar strummed slog that I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see elicit raised lighters in festival crowds this summer, but I’d rather the band just played Napoleon Solo instead.

By this point I’m wondering if this is really an At The Drive In record at all, questioning the validity of Bixler-Zavala’s methodology when he says “We need to go forward, be the fucking core of what we are, and ignore everything we learned in our years apart” – to what extent is that kind of philosophy a noose around your creative drive? Inter Alia takes few risks over its 42 minutes, instead and perhaps inevitably sounding like the result of a reformed band trying to establish itself, misremembering its purpose and identity, amidst turmoil of personnel changes and shifting priorities. We can pore over the motivations and reasons for this current reignition, although it’s hard to discount whiffs of financial motive at least in part. Certainly, for a band that imploded when international fame first befell them in 2000, Inter Alia, the tours last year playing only old material, and the surrounding communications around this release suggest a band seeking to maximise their impact this time around. No shame in a band wanting to make it, but it’s hard to look past the various and sundry “bundle” packs the band have offered with the album, ranging from coloured vinyl, skateboard decks, t-shirts, posters, a pair of socks, a custom At The Drive In branded guitar pedal, a necklace, a badge, and the album on tape cassette: all available in various configurations for inflated cost. By the time I’m done with the music itself, and Bixler-Zavala has implored me to “raise [my] nithing pole” during the excellent Hostage Stamps, I’d half-expected to see a “vinyl + custom branded nithing pole” bundle option on the band’s webstore.

But equally, that’s slightly unfair. It’s arguably more of a cash-grab to just reform and tour the old material without the slightest regard for new compositions, which is ostensibly what the 2012 At The Drive In tour was about. At The Drive In have made an album, and it’s in no way a creative failure in on the level of (band of similar stature and import) Refused’s 2015 reformation album Freedom. Moments of Inter Alia clearly demonstrate that these musicians have something to offer, and the promotional interviews for the album speak to a group of musicians enjoying the time they spend together and putting earnest work into the craft. But this record undeniably plays it safe, and in attempting to make a record achieving the same impact of Relationship of Command, At The Drive In have made a record that’s nothing at all like it. Tracks like Call Broken Arrow might have fantastic moments of individual musicianship, but really have no right to be quite so pastiche or overblown, songwriting and vocals especially that betray a repositioning of the band’s style away from caustic hardcore and towards more conventional rock, however intricate or well-performed.

Inter Alia is a disappointing return to the saddle, expressed with awkward confidence and bravado by the band seemingly misremembering itself – but I won’t begrudge them for making it. Excusing Jim Ward’s absence, I am not going to argue with old friends making music together, to do so would be reductive and self-defeating – and new music is new music. There are plenty of At The Drive In fans who will no doubt find plenty to enjoy here, not least of which on the final track. Everything the band have said about this incarnation and record points to a serious commitment – as Bixler-Zavala says “We are going to be victorious. We are coming back” but this isn’t At The Drive In coming “back”, it’s something very slightly different: a skewed mirror image, a memory returning, nostalgia never quite achieving the realisation of a total reality.

To that end, I’m more interested in the record that comes after this, hopefully a more patient and purposeful statement than this brute rush of material. One where At The Drive In might settle more comfortably into their own rhythms than attempting to play so clearly to the gallery. I’m also curious to see if these musicians can genuinely commit to At The Drive In as a collective endeavour, or whether this is merely yet another short lived band cycle. In an interview last year with podcaster Dean Del Rey, Omar Rodríguez-López began talking about planned futures and alluded to a Mars Volta return, citing unfinished business with Jon Theodore and original bassist (“anyone who knows The Mars Volta…”) Eva Gardner. Not only is it hard to see what that business might be exactly, it’s also slightly at odds with the “all or nothing” approach articulated by Cedric Bixler-Zavala with regard to the 2017 At The Drive In. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

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