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At The Drive-In
Acrobatic Tenement / Relationship of Command (Reissues) Tom Hannan , April 19th, 2013 09:33

Any term that's been applied to both Rites of Spring and My Chemical Romance is clearly one over which there's little agreement.  Alongside similarly bickered-over labels like 'post-hardcore', the 'emo' tag was also attached to At The Drive-In, though both band and fans remain quick to quell such unfashionable associations.  Yet the group's definitive statement, Relationship of Command, represents perhaps the last record to which those genre names were (rightly or wrongly) connected that still conjures up strong feelings in people who so loved it initially.  Reissued by Transgressive on lavish coloured vinyl for this year's Record Store Day, Relationship and debut LP Acrobatic Tenement suggest that whilst the Texans had no interest in defining whatever those scenes were, they killed them off in style.

Formed in 1993 by guitarist Jim Ward and singer Cedric Bixler, At The Drive-In were flogging 7"s on an under-attended U.S tour when a Los Angeles gig brought them to the attention of Flipside, a record label whose representatives happened to be among the nine or so people present. Suitably enthralled, they fronted $600 for the recording of Acrobatic Tenement, a punk record from some earnest men in their early twenties who continued to be just as earnest in their late twenties, albeit in a rather louder way.

Though larval in comparison to what followed, the ideas across that album, released in 1996, all range from pretty good to pretty great, with the naïve execution forgivable given how convincingly they'd later build on the template they laid out here.  Influences are worn on sleeves with a  'yeah, what?' bravado, the opening 'Star Slight' coming across like a budget Fugazi in everything down to the way Ward and Bixler's vocals respectively trace the low and high roads laid out by MacKaye and Picciotto.  

These songs should be full of dynamic range, yet only tease about drop offs and crescendos that rarely appear.  Their absence is either down to the band's own compositional immaturity or the clearly basic production levels that, eventually, become one of the record's most endearing features. Though the otherwise splendid 'Ticklish' sounds ridden with mistakes (like forgetting to step on a distortion pedal until the middle of a riff) and the hell-for-leather musings on Mexican dictatorships in 'Porfirio Diaz' could really benefit from some clarity amidst the oddly tinny guitar sludge, Ward and Bixler seem very aware that such shortcomings leave it up to their vocal performances to carry the songs.  They subsequently scream the hell out of each one with such intensity that their presences carry the entire album along. With their lead, Tenement becomes more than a curio, a record that, whilst lacking in aptitude, can't be accused of deficiencies of vision or passion.

The reissuing process skips forward an album to find ATD-I bowing out at their inarguable peak.  Though there are signs on Tenement that point to what they'd become by their third effort – 'Ebroglio's spoken word musings on a friend's suicide, the proto-'Invalid Litter Dept.' ballad of 'Initiation' - the band was a very different one by 2000's Relationship of Command. Numerous line up changes saw them now exercising considerably greater rhythmic muscle, and while its distinctly glossy and nu-metallish punch (courtesy of producer Ross Robinson and mixer Andy Wallace) was far from their live sound, it's the best At The Drive-In ever came over on record.

The depth of field within just the first few bars of 'Arcarsenal' is a world away from Tenement's comparatively toothless attack, the opening track setting a template of riffs that are more noises than notes, and lyrics full of violent imagery, despite being devoid of obvious meaning. Pretentious though the words may seem, you can't doubt the conviction with which they're yelled, and joining in with every "feeding frenzy, it's contagious!" or "this gravity's a quadriplegic horse and carriaaaaage!" is all part of the fun.

And fun it is, because it's got bongos on it and Iggy Pop screaming "manuscript replicaaaaa!" whilst blowing a raspberry, though one gets the impression you're not meant to chuckle. ( That's the problem with lyrics so opaque that all one can really do is make up one's own mind as to their meaning.) Though research reveals 'Invalid Litter Dept.' – a startling semi-ballad that's surely their most uncharacteristic song – to be a critique of police investigating a series of murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, you've really got to do some digging to clock it.  Without context, lines like "paramedics fell into the wound like a rehired scab at a barehanded plant, an anaesthetic penance beneath the hail of contraband" become easy to mock, though are at least a little more interesting than the Holy Bible-style crap my teenage self deemed of similar importance.

The musical thrills are much easier to spot, despite there being so vast a leap between Tenement and Relationship.  I was startled to discover indie dancefloor classic, 'One Armed Scissor', which I'd previously thought to be pretty much just a list of choruses, actually only has three of them – it's just the song's every section could be used as one if needed.  Elsewhere, a revisit also reveals a distinct Johnny Marr influence to the guitars of 'Pattern Against User' and 'Non Zero Possibility' (essentially 'How METAL Is Now?'), making their cover of 'This Night Has Opened My Eyes' seem less incongruous.  The fact that it's still possible to discover surprises in a record you thought you already knew so well speaks volumes to its enduring quality.

It's less surprising, with hindsight, that the band barely lasted six months after its release.  Fans might have wanted whatever this genre was to go somewhere, but those making its best music knew there was nowhere else to take it. ATD-I left behind a music press that was so desperate for some life to be left in the scene that bands like Hundred bloody Reasons got called "the new At The Drive-In" simply for shouting and being strangers to a hairdresser.  But the fact that time's been less than kind to their contemporaries and followers shouldn't reflect badly on At The Drive-In – their lesser fate is in no small part down to ATD-I having been quite so much better.