Review Summary: A seminal psychedelica-laced post-hardcore atom bomb which defined the genre and remains possibly At the Drive-In's greatest achievement.
For those who don't know, 'At the Drive-In' are a seminal post-hardcore band hailing from El Paso, Texas. For the later half of the 90s and a sliver of the 00s, the band released a slew of vibrant, eclectic and strongly theatrical albums and EPs to critical acclaim but negligible sales. As the new Millenium dawned, their prospects arose. 'Relationship of Command', their third full-length album (released after the Vaya EP) was released at what could be considered At the Drive-In's creative and commercial peak. While the band dissolved shortly after the release of the album, both it's impact and power have not dulled over the years. The album blends post-hardcore, psychedelica, thrash metal and jazz with pure, unhinged mania.
Opening track 'Arcarsenal' is case in point. Guitarist/songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's incredibly dissonant but compelling guitar leads and the band's over-all power channel the band's notoriously over-animated live shows like never before. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala rasps, screams and charges through an avalanche of abstract and exciting lyrics that seem nothing more than random combinations of pronouns, verbs and nouns, but phrases will catch on and slowly begin to make sense. A lot of At the Drive-In's appeal rests with these impenetrable lyrics and the band's kinetic ferocity. Rest assured, 'Relationship of Command' is a musical thrill ride unlike any who've come before.
Thankfully, the band also gives full vent to some of the more melodic sensibilities of 'In Casino/Out', their second full-length. 'Pattern Against User', following 'Arcarsenal', is a sublime rush of adrenaline and some barely contained vocals. The reggae-tinged middle sections is unexpected, but very effective. It epitomizes one side of the album (the softer side), while 'Arcarsenal' highlights the other (Fugazi influenced frenzy). When the two come together, 'Relationship of Command' becomes recognized as a music tour-de-force. 'One Armed Scissor', without a doubt the most famous of ATDi's song, shows every member and instrument clashing with astounding force. Fractured guitar notes stab at the bass, which pummels at the vocals, while the incredibly aggressive drumming assaults all the space in-between. All these scattered pieces assault and merge into a flooring chorus, which is one of the finest moments on a 21st century rock record. Few people have forgotten the first time they heard 'One Armed Scissor', a testament to its originality and power.
At the Drive-In's songs always seem to be a matter of mystery; will they dive with both feet into psychedelica, or offset the constant rasping with a pop melody before erupting with more thrash-influenced riffage? It could be argued that the album's most off-kilter moments work the best. 'Rolodex Propaganda', featuring the king of punk-rock, Iggy Pop himself, on backup vocals clashes punk-rock with Morrisey-esque vocals and a horrendously catchy synth-line. 'Invalid Litter Dept.', the album's sprawling centrepiece, is a mix of spring-loaded twin lead guitars (one of the band's most recognizable characteristics) and Pink Floyd inspired wandering. Closer 'Non-zero Possibility', the most haunting and perplexing song on the album, takes everything previously hinted to the extreme. Elsewhere, the band experiment with electronica on 'Enfilade'.
'Relationship of Command' is not perfect. But it's the imperfections that make it so special. It's a record fuelled by heart-pounding passion, energy and ingenuity. It showcases a band with an abundance of ideas waiting to take the world by storm. Sadly, At the Drive-In would not last much longer, but their influence resounds with many other bands. Without this album, the term 'emo' would be meaningless. Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez would go on to form the groundbreaking Mars Volta, which would stretch the experimenting into infinity. The other members would form Sparta, which would cower in the shadow of both ATDi and the Volta before making a confident return. Regardless, 'Relationship of Command' remains a stunning album.