by James Conway
On paper, the prospect of 5 misfits from the sandblasted melting-pot of El Paso, Texas playing a frantic blend of leftfield post-hardcore garnished with a strong love for prog rock and bizarre spoken-word sections sounds like a recipe for disaster. Oh, and the main songwriters have drug habits that make Aleister Crowley look like Mary Whitehouse. Surely anything this collective could commit to record would be borderline unlistenable?
Well, first impressions may count for a lot, but in this case, be prepared to leave them at the door. The band in question is the recently reformed At The Drive In, returning from an 11 year hiatus to hit the festival circuit and reap the rewards that only a high profile reunion can bring. It is no coincidence that it is also 11 years since the release of At The Drive In’s last album; the simply awesome ‘Relationship of Command’ which we have selected for our Classic Albums series.
Fresh from a tour supporting Rage Against The Machine, the album was recorded in a 7 week period with in-demand producer Ross Robinson, a man renowned for his ability to push his charges to the limits of physical and mental endurance. The result was Relationship of Command, quite simply the finest 45 minutes of post-hardcore ever recorded. With songs ranging from the all-out hardcore punk of opener ‘Arcarsenal’ to the barren meandering pop of closer ‘Non-Zero Possibility’, every instrument competes to grab the listener’s attention, with the prominent parping bass of Paul Hinojos and hard-hitting precision of drummer Tony Hajjar underpinning the hard-edged yet deftly melodic guitar-work of Jim Ward and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
The band’s ace-in-the-hole however is vocalist Cedric Bixler whose soaring, heartfelt performance captured on this album truly makes it something special. Armed with lyrics verging on the ridiculous, (“dripping with dew from the nerve of this sentence!” anyone?) Bixler croons, yelps, screams and plain-old sings his heart out, never allowing the listener’s attention to wander. This is accomplished best on ‘Rolodex Propaganda’ where Bixler faces off against guest vocalist Iggy Pop, using every weapon in his vocal arsenal to show the old dog of punk how it’s meant to be done.
Nailing down the band’s sound is no easy task given how many influences and styles are at work on Relationship of Command so it’s best to let the individual songs speak for themselves. Live favourite ‘One Armed Scissor’ employs the simplest stop-start riff to repeatedly batter the listener between verses of jangly clean-note picking. The superb ‘Quarantined’ soars through clouds of progressive dissonant noisescapes towards a devastating climax while the epic ‘Invalid Litter Dept. best utilises the quiet/loud dynamics that characterise the post-hardcore genre with the mournful piano, droning guitar lines and Bixler’s mind-boggling spoken word sections sandwiching savage clubbing riffs. The standout track however, has to be ‘Cosmonaut.’ Sheets of heavily effects-laden noise spiral off into the stratosphere wrapped around a stock hardcore melody before the infectiously devastating chorus impacts with guitarist Jim Ward’s call-to-arms cry of ‘Deny! Deny! Deny It All!’
After the release of this cerebral masterpiece, At The Drive In achieved a degree of mainstream commercial success with the album reaching 33 in the UK Albums Chart and 116 in the Billboard 200. Relationship of Command featured on many critics’ end of year lists and the band were invited onto several chat shows to showcase their wares, with a devastating performance on the clearly baffled Jools Holland’s show a particular highlight.
Unfortunately, the heart and soul that At The Drive In poured into this recording left them emotionally and physically exhausted, and this coupled with a near-fatal bus crash and the ongoing substance abuse problems of Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez lead them to announce an indefinite hiatus – at the peak of their popularity. The band may now have reformed, and have no plans to record any new material, but if they do, the chance that they will better this groundbreaking masterpiece of twists, turns, and deeply moving anthems is highly unlikely.