Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is At The Drive-In's 'Relationship of Command'.
On 27th March 2001, At The Drive-In announced their intention to take an indefinite hiatus. Guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López told the press “After a non-stop six-year cycle of record/tour/record/tour … We need time to rest up and re-evaluate, just to be human beings again and to decide when we feel like playing music again”.
The announcement came at the peak of the band’s career. At The Drive-In had just completed a world tour and despite having formed in El Paso, Texas almost seven years earlier, had only just achieved their critical and commercial breakthrough off of the back of their third studio album ‘Relationship of Command’, released 12th September 2000. The buzz the album garnered earned them spots on late night television shows such as Later with Jools Holland, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and the Late Show with David Letterman, cementing their place in mainstream popular culture.
The band’s newfound fame and fortune did not come without incident. On 12th November 2000, At The Drive-In’s touring van flipped upside down having skidded out of control after hitting black ice, leaving a profound psychological effect despite none of the members having sustained serious injury. On 21st January 2001, the band cut their performance at the Big Day Out Festival short after ten minutes, taking exception to the excessive crowd surfing and moshing during their set. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala addressed the crowd opining “I think it’s a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slamdancing”, labelling his audience as “sheep” and “robots” before exiting stage. In an ironic twist of fate, five days later, 16 year-old Jessica Anna Michalik would be pronounced dead as a result of asphyxiation after being crushed during Limp Bizkit’s performance later the same day at the same festival.
All of this combined with the overnight overexposure, tour fatigue, artistic differences and Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s increasing taste for opiates lead to At the Drive-In’s implosion. Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, disillusioned with punk and hardcore would go on to form the more progressive De Facto, and later The Mars Volta. The remaining members, Jim Ward (guitar, backing vocals), Paul Hinojos (bass) and Tony Hajjar (drums) would form Sparta.
After two years of speculation and negotiation, At The Drive-In would reunite in 2011; admittedly to cash in on fan nostalgia but also, according to Rodríguez-López; to “close the chapter on that era”. As of 21st January, 2016; At The Drive-In have reunited once again to record new music, only to part ways with Ward on the eve of the beginning of their world tour; which leads us to our discussion of what warranted such hype and drama.
‘Relationship of Command’ captures At The Drive-In at their most intense and their most intelligent. With the infamous Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit) handling production duties, the group were not only free but also encouraged to cut loose, channel their emotions and experiment with their sound; all of which they did in abundance.
Forceful yet focused, ‘Relationship of Command’ would ultimately serve as At The Drive-In’s magnum opus. Though deeply rooted in hardcore punk, the group expanded their horizons to include electronic elements and influence from some members’ Hispanic origins, leading to a diverse yet cohesive end product with tracks ranging in style from the anthemic, dynamic minor radio hit One Armed Scissor or signature track Pattern Against User to the streamlined Enfilade, which features both processed beats and a Latin inflected middle-eight.
Not just experimental in terms of style, ‘Relationship of Command’ was forward thinking in terms of musical interplay. While speed had long been a staple of hardcore punk, and the soft-loud dynamic was a tried and tested formula in the alternative rock scene; guitarists Ward and Rodríguez-López laid down a formula which saw them play interlocking guitar riffs built upon unusual chord shapes, switches to melodic keyboard by the former, allowing space for dissonant, sinewy, effect-laden guitar leads from the latter. Underpinned by a tight rhythm section, this gave way to Bixler-Zavala’s impassioned howl and rhythmic shouts.
Lyrically, Bixler-Zavala crafts a cryptic, coded style littered with clever wordplay and metaphor. On One Armed Scissor, he reflects upon the severed relationship of the band due to a heavy touring schedule and even heavier drinking (“Slithered entrails in the cargo bay … They hibernate but have they kissed the ground, pucker up and kiss the asphalt now”) while on Invalid Letter Dept., Bixler-Zavala sheds light on the murders committed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico which its government has to date failed to effectively investigate (“The federales performed their custodial duties quite well”).
With ‘Relationship of Command’, At The Drive-In breathed new life into a post-hardcore scene which had by then dwindled and descended into self-hating misery and uninventive guitar breakdowns, paving the way for the likes of Biffy Clyro, Alexisonfire, Billy Talent, Gallows, Underoath and La Dispute. In the wider popular music scene, the album is seen as a landmark and one of the most influential of its time. The band did not get to reap the benefits of its influence and esteem in its initial inception. Now, in the midst of their second reunion with new music in the works and having just kicked off a world tour; they may just get their chance.