Remember At the Drive In? They’re back — in pog form!
Yo, this be Reuben. Chaboi is back. The one and only. The big dingus. The guy who isn’t as good as Milo. You know it. The exams are over and I’m back to give ye some crappy reviews n’ that, oh joy. I kinda-ish promised I’d review this, so here we go.
At the Drive In, the original brainchild of The Mars Volta geniuses Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, grew through the 90’s from the raw punk rock act they were with their oh-so unpolished and slightly crappy debut Acrobatic Tenement, to a thing of legend with 2000’s Relationship of Command, which stands as one of my favourite albums of all time and no question one of last decade’s most influential records. Fast-forward 16 years, the band is alive and kicking again in the studio after 16 years out, and eventually releases in•ter a•li•a, to mixed degrees of enthusiasm. Indeed, although it’s done about as well as we could’ve expected on the charts, it has had quite the unfortunately lukewarm reception from critics and even some fans, and hasn’t made the impact I think it could have. However, a large portion of us have welcomed the band back with open arms and I, for one, am in love with this new record, as I know many others are. And I’d like to think that’s not because I’m biased in favour of Cedric and Omar, because I haven’t loved absolutely everything they’ve put out.
I think that although not as spectacular as Relationship of Command, this new record is an instant recovery of the form At the Drive In were in at the end of their initial career, and in•ter a•li•a is a joy to listen to from start to finish. It’s essentially just a brilliantly crafted blast of punk-infused rock, and it’s a solid rock with its consistency as every single song has something great about it that just makes me want to keep on coming back for more.
As soon as the opening track, No Wolf Like the Present, kicks in after its very At the Drive In-y experimental intro, you know exactly what you are in for in the album. There is a very definite tone to the whole record, which can be heard in this song and in every other. It’s aggressive, energetic and a little odd in its song structures, but all with a new precision and wisdom from the band’s age, providing a much less raw listen than their work before their initial break up. It relies less on heavy power chords and angry vocal delivery, and instead uses per-nicety guitar patterns, precise drum beats, all with Cedric’s more developed vocal delivery very akin to his work in Antemasque and the latter part of The Mars Volta.
Indeed, it feels a fair bit more sensible than the raucous Relationship of Command and incorporates the lighter tones of In/Casino/Out (the band’s 1998 album) to give a slightly more indie, more accessible and more positive slice of At the Drive In goodness. This lighter side of the record’s sound can particularly be heard (and enjoyed) in Incurably Innocent and Torrentially Cutshaw, and songs like these I find can be listened to on repeat and are just as enjoyable every single time. They’re catchy, positive and energetic, but still with that essential punky heaviness brought about, mostly, by Paul Hinojos’ pounding bass lines, which are a strong point across the whole album, but really stand out in Incurably Innocent as they expertly counter-act the almost whimsical vocal melodies and light, winding guitar parts to give it an important ounce of power.
in•ter a•li•a provides a constant stream of awesomeness and many moments on it could stand as highlights, as the fun just doesn’t stop. Given you’re in the right mood, this album can be re-listened to on repeat for a long time and it can still be enjoyed. It’s hard-hitting, melodically strong, varied and consistently impressive with its fantastic musicianship. In classic Cedric and Omar fashion, it’s experimental when it wants to be, and it manages to remain unique. Interestingly, a fair few influences from the band members’ work between the original At the Drive In and what we have now can be heard, and they are important in giving this new album its unique sound. Of course, it carries on the punk-rock tropes of At the Drive In, and sounds distinctly like the band, but it also clearly holds some of the indie rock of Hinojos and Tony Hajjar’s Sparta, and Cedric and Omar’s The Mars Volta and Antemasque, with the whole album containing similar styles to the latter and Ghost Tape No. 9 sounding like something that wouldn’t seem out of place on The Mars Volta’s Noctorniquet. Although I don’t think these influences have necessarily improved the music the band has put out, it has certainly given it a breath of fresh air and some new variety.
However, in•ter a•li•a, like most else, has its flaws. In some ways I feel like the band has lost a little bit of its identity since their break up, and that trademark raw heaviness of Relationship of Command is pretty much missing other than on the final track of the record, Hostage Stamps, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this, the album’s hardest hitting song, is probably the best on it. And, the song that most clearly presents the album’s lighter tone, Tilting at the Univendor, is the weakest on its run-time. I feel like if more of the album was like Hostage Stamps, we could have an incredible album, but, as it is, it doesn’t quite reach those heights and is definitely inferior to Relationship, despite its best efforts.
In conclusion, At the Drive In’s return to the studio saw them create something with more of the sensibility of their age than the madness they created back in 1999. Musically, it’s significantly less heavy than Relationship of Command, but it’s more calculated, precise and almost as energetic, creating an album that is lighter in tone, much less aggressive, yet nearly as enjoyable. in•ter a•li•a is a fun listen, essentially an album filled with the perfected style of Pattern Against User, and is full of highlights, with Governed By Contagions, Pendulum in a Peasant Dress, Incurably Innocent, Call Broken Arrow and Hostage Stamps all standing as some of the best songs the band has put out. It’s not quite so inspired as their very best work, but in•ter a•li•a is a fantastic listen and one I’ve kept on coming back to since I bought it in its first week of release.
Recommended to anyone into the heavier side of alternative rock. This could be the best album of the year, but we’ll see. I’m not sure if it can beat Emperor of Sand.
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