Review Summary: counterpoint:
Like Usher, I have a confession. I’ve been harbouring a secret for many years now, one that I’m loathe to reveal but for the current circumstances, one which could well make me a pariah of a music community like this one:
My favourite At the Drive-In album, and the one I have listened to most, is This Station is Non-Operational.
Oh go on, fling me from your home, wield your pitchforks and brandish your crosses. I know how gauche it is to select any kind of ‘greatest hits’ album as a favourite, like a 12yo dilettante whose favourite Nirvana album is, “uhh, the black one with the band name on the cover”, especially in any kind of music community -- of which this is one (though weirdly, Hatful of Hollow is the exception which proves the rule but I digress) -- which takes pride in listening to albums holistically. I’ve always thought the term “concept album” redundant -- isn’t any album, by virtue of being an album, conceptual" -- but At the Drive-In are one of those acts, like Talking Heads and Simon and Garfunkel, who I genuinely adore despite not especially liking any of their albums. Previously, At the Drive-In’s oeuvre confirmed for me that they’re a band who writes songs, not albums, sins not tragedies. Purely by virtue of being a compilation, Station has cohesion, a linearity, motifs. The other albums: not so much.
Perhaps with Relationship and Command the problem was, as with the disgruntled woman who went to see Hamlet only to discover it wasn’t a play but a “series of quotations”, it was a selection of songs which friends had lavished upon me (“dude you have to hear the guitar line in one-armed scissor!!”) with a couple of others when I finally checked it out from the local library (god I am old). But the old “Seinfeld is Unfunny” effect certainly can’t be ascribed to their other less renowned efforts, where I always hit a wall. I like the songs well enough, individually, but as an album they’re incoherent, even diffuse, a collection of songs with not much thought put behind it and that.
If you’ll let me wax conspiratorial for a second: is it no mistake that the Mars Volta put a ridiculous, almost self-parodic emphasis on ‘concepts’ in their albums, no matter how abstruse or weird or, yes, pretentious" Is it an accident that Sparta, which essentially carried on At the Drive-In’s ethos of collecting songs and flinging them together in an unseemly melange, never attracted the critical success of their fellow splinter-group"
But I ask you, reader, is this so wrong" One of the problems of having every obscure japanese proto-slowcore album available with a click of a button on slsk is that music has lost some of it’s value: its fun. Focus on albums makes sense, as I’m not really a singles listener or even a track listener, but there’s nothing wrong with honing in on your favourites and playing them at coruscating loud volumes. Nor is there anything wrong with preferring “Wave of Mutilation” to “Surfer Rosa”, “Once in a Lifetime” to “Remain in Light”. Even better, perhaps, make your own compilations! Share CD’s structured with your favourite tracks by the band, or the ones you find most archetypical, and share them with friends! Put your editors cap on dammit! Just don’t forget to have some fun; in today’s age of easy musical dissemination and the favouring of the weird and dark over the joyous or catchy, don’t let the fun die.
Oh yeah. At the Drive-In have a new album out. Titled “Inter Alia” (which shares an etymological root with ‘interim’... makes u think), it is their most cohesive work to date. This comes at the expense of stand-out tracks -- there’s nothing as bone-rattling as Arcarsenal, as thrilling as Napoleon Solo, no lyrics as direct and honest as “so who’s in charge in here / ‘cos I’d really like to meet him” -- but finally we have something like a mission statement.
The guitars, as ever, are a vicious tangle of post-hardcore directness which unfortunately tend to imprison their creators more often than the audience -- Continuum and Univendor get lost in the thicket and cannot hatchet their way out with Bixler-Lavala’s weakened vocals (to quote another post-hardcore band, “the trap i set for you seems to have caught my leg instead”), but they sound like they belong together! While some of the noodling on the rest of the album sounds likes weird directionless noodling, it sounds like At the Drive-In noodling, and not The Mars Volta or Sparta (except, perhaps Incurably Innocent, which atones by kicking all sorts of ass percussion and vocals-wise). And the last five tracks! Miraculous! I’m especially fond of the pop nous displayed on Holtzclaw and the tapered back post-hardcore lullaby Ghost-Tape No. 9, the perfect set-up to the ferocity of “Postage Stamps.”
Yes, their political cogency may be diluted; yes it is a bit fan-servicey; yes the lyrics are dreadful, but it's still a firecracker. Most of all; it’s big, dumb, sprawling fun, and in a musical landscape which has largely forgotten what that word means -- and why it’s important -- that’s enough to justify this long-awaited release, as well as perhaps the possibility of more refined work to come.
Church ain’t over.