Review Summary: Hand me my ax, the wolves are baying.
At Austrialia’s Big Day Out festival in 2001, At the Drive-In caught the Holy Ghost. If you haven’t seen the video or are in need of an adrenaline spike today, I suggest pulling up “Arcarsenal”. It is a glorious thing to behold. Omar Rodreguez sounds like he is literally sparring with his guitar to get the sound out while his footwork suggests the most intense game of “the floor is lava” ever played. Tony Hajjar rips into his floor tom like a coxswain outrunning a tidal wave while Cedric Bixler stands by, back to the audience, waiting. Suddenly, the snare is slammed, a brief bassline let you take a deep breath, and wham
! Cedric is on the other side of the stage. He flings the mic stand into the air, snags it, and proceeds to slaughter the vocal line with impeccable accuracy. Meanwhile, the rest of the band performs self-exorcisms with simultaneously shredding the song with pinpoint precision. At one point Cedric drops the chorus, vaults off the bass drum, scissor kicks in mid air, and Mick Jagger hyper-struts to the front of the stage. Later, he flubs a line in exhaustion and seems to catch a second wind by attempting a handstand on the drum riser. He uses the songs final chorus to annihilate what was left of his vocal chords.
This was their opener.
However an energetic live show doth not make for great albums. (Paging The Hives) So what makes ATDI truly incredible is they packed the explosive heat of that live show into their studio versions, their swan song, Relationship of Command
, is the purest distillation of that force. The crazy thing? The version of “Arcarsenal” that opens the album might be even more
intense than the live version. At least, it feels that way when Cedric’s staggering rips of “BEWARE!” (Certainly, the greatest utterance of that word in music history) are transforming my morning commute into a post-apocalyptic dash to save the human race. Following that blistering shot of madness; the album somehow takes a step up with “Pattern Against User” which dashes through pop-punk verses, worms its way through the albums catchiest hook, and slams into an epic emo bridge. Ye olde punk standby ("HEY!") is deployed cleverly here, bookending the song. Then the album defies all logic and takes another
step up with the massive “One Armed Scissor”. Everything you’ve read about it is true; it sounds like elephants storming the lobby of your apartment complex. It sounds like Fugazi in front of a firing squad. It covers more styles in 4 minutes than most bands do in their whole careers. If you’ve never heard it, look it up, it will give you convulsions.
Following that comes a brief interlude that makes me feel like I should click on random objects in the environment to solve a puzzle. It exists to prepare you for the inevitable dip in quality that must follow 3 perfect songs.
It’s a tiny dip mind you, if this was any other band I would be using this space to lament how frontloaded the album is but things keep up wonderfully following that opening salvo. “Sleepwalk Capsules” kicks the door down on the rest of the record with a mighty bridge and lyrics ripped from the walls of an insane asylum, “Mannequin Republic” opens with the cry of a gladiator leaping to certain death, and “Enfilade”s chorus feels like outrunning a nuclear blast in a Lamborghini. The only time the album sags are, inevitably, during the slower numbers (“Quarantined”, “Non-Zero Possiblity”) but since those are integral to the album’s pacing it’s completely forgivable. Elsewhere, Iggy Pop probably should have been barred from the studio, as “Enfilade”s ransom call is cheese and “Rolex Propaganda”s backing vocals border on self-parody.
From what I can gather, there is a political bent to most of the lyrics here but if you’re looking at the words for meaning, you’re going to come away with word soup like, “Paramedics fell into the wound/like a rehired scab at a bareheaded plant/an anesthetic penance beneath the hail of contraband”. You certainly CAN gleam meaning from them but the more effective approach is to take them at the blunt edge of their delivery, which conveys one thing above all else, urgency. Every song here sounds like frightening things are happening RIGHT NOW, RIGHT NOW, RIGHT OUTSIDE YOUR DOOR!! Cedric Bixler delivers an astounding vocal performance, channeling hellfire through his throat, the lyrical jumble would swallow a lesser singer whole. On “Catacombs”, he alternates between tortourer and detainee, shrieking in agony one moment and whispering thinly veiled threats the next. What is he talking about? Hell if I know but it sounds horrifying. Ending on a throat-shredding scream, the album doesn’t so much come to a close; the fuse simply has nowhere left to burn. The rest of the fellas more than pull their weight, playing with a staggering level of chemistry, channeling the horrors of the coming decade through their instruments.
On April 9th, 2012, at the Red-7 venue in Austin, Texas, At the Drive-In played their first show in 11 years. The audience is pulsing with energy and the band takes the stage with afros intact but something is amiss. The band looks like they’re attempting to claw their way back into their younger selves. Cedric is doing an admirable job keeping the energy up, but his once hypnotically fluid spasms have been reduced to pacing back and forth. Meanwhile Omar isn’t even trying, he’s milling about in the back corner, playing his parts and looking distracted. It’s unfair to expect a band to come back after a decade apart with the same energy they once possessed but this just sad.
Until you learn the whole story.
Omar’s mother died a week earlier.
They shouldn’t be on stage at all. Your mothers’ death is a perfectly valid reason to cancel a show; nobody in their right mind would hold that against you. Yet, there they are, not making their fans wait one more day and they’re returning the favor. Drowning out Cedric’s singing and generally going ape***, the audience hoists the band onto their shoulders. The ghost has flown but the spirit remains.