Review Summary: Aurally vicious, powerfully groundbreaking, and deeply moving, At the Drive-In create a pure hard-edged masterpiece.
Have you ever listened to an album that is so powerful that it never lets you go until the second it's over? Records that are this spellbinding are exceptionally rare and usually put out by the musically elite. Such is the case with At the Drive-In from El Paso, Texas; the band combined influences from prog rock, hardcore punk, surreal ambience, and metal to create a landmark in modern music.
We were certainly given a good glimpse of the band's sound in previous records; Acrobatic Tenement had a very rushed (in a good way), spastic sound to it; In/Casino/Out had a bit of a more melodic feel yet still being intense/fast as the band were gaining steam, as well as extra attention from the underground music community. Even the EP Vaya had gathered extra pieces to this collective puzzle; This monolithic puzzle would be known as Relationship of Command.
Even from the get-go, maracas and heavy-rolling drums pick you up and pull you straight into the fray, as melody, vocals, dissonance, and heavy percussion clash in a crazed battle for dominance. A very spastic, angular, yet oddly organized sound is delivered, and in spades. One of the first things you might notice is how odd Cedric Bixler-Zavala's vocals are, although you might be familiar with them from The Mars Volta. His voice certainly isn't for everyone, but he always delivers the goods here. His eccentric personality and voice fit the music perfectly, or at least better than a more gruff singer.
The other members never have any background time either; everything in the album is up-close and personal, whether the song is a ballad or a full-on riff-fest. As I mentioned earlier, every instrument attempts to overpower the other; However, the sound is somehow very concise, focused, and coordinated all the same. You won't hear any meandering throughout the album; one of the biggest examples here is opener "Arcarsenal." The song is a quick attack designed to knock you off your feet, and it works very effectively as an opener.
Perhaps the best representation of the band's sound comes in the first four songs in general. "Arcarsenal," "Pattern Against User," "One-Armed Scissor," and "Sleepwalk Capsules" kick your ass before the next songs can even start making a move. "Sleepwalk Capsules" is probably the best of the four, utilizing everything the band had in their arsenal up to that point. There's the powerfully immediate, no-holds-barred intro; the chilly climax of atmospheric angular guitar work; heavily emotional and diverse vocals, and so on. "Pattern Against User" has a somewhat alternative section at the end with some nice picking on Omar's guitar, offering further diversity in the band's sound. "One-Armed Scissor" is the most popular song on the album, as well as by the band. Again, the song wastes no time with its aggression and power, immediately pushing the listener into the crowded sound before entering an effective soft-to-loud pattern that's generally adhered to for the rest of the song.
After the first four songs, you'd think the band would falter with the remaining songs. WRONG! In fact, the band's sound gains more depth as it goes along; more atmosphere, progressiveness, and piano are used, further adding a cohesive diversity that few punk acts can boast to have. Overall, I'd say that the oddest and most interesting track on the album is the closer "Non-Zero Possibility." There's absolutely nothing that resembles punk; even calling this rock would be quite a stretch, as the song is a dreamy yet sad ballad. The song pretty much displays all the emotion that Cedric could muster with his vocal abilities, and the piano is a very effective addition to bringing passion to the track. Overall, the song is excellent, and a very fitting closer to the album.
As I said before, one of the most interesting aspects about this album is how there's no musician left behind (No George W. Bush references, please). Even the bass, which is usually drowned out in other bands, is fully present here, and adds to the visceral brutality of the heavier tracks. The guitars add layers and sheets of sound to the music. The vocalist is up in front, plowing through whatever comes his way, and the drummer is extremely powerful and precise behind the kit. Overall, each member serves his role effectively and doesn't get lost between other instruments.
All in all, this has to be one of the best modern rock albums; a grand powerhouse of hardcore punk with twists, turns, and trap-doors. Aurally vicious, powerfully groundbreaking, and deeply moving, Relationship of Command remains a timeless masterpiece.
At the Drive-In were:
Cedric Bixler β Lead vocals, Guitar on "Rolodex Propaganda", Melodica on "Enfilade"
Jim Ward β Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Omar RodrΓ*guez β Guitar, backing vocals
Paul Hinojos β Bass
Tony Hajjar β Drums
Iggy Pop β Guest vocals on "Rolodex Propaganda" and "Enfilade"