IN•TER A•LI•A by At The Drive-In
Genre: Post-Hardcore, Experimental Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Hostage Stamps,” “Incurably Innocent,” “Tilting At The Univendor,” “Governed By Contagions”
It’s been a big couple of years for the reunions of massive, late ‘90s alternative rock musicians. At The Drive-In, the post-hardcore colossus whose last album, 2000’s RELATIONSHIP OF COMMAND, is considered a defining album in that genre, is the most recent entry into the fray. Before the band’s messy breakup and the group’s cellular division into Rush-style prog rock band The Mars Volta and emo-tinged hardcore group Sparta, COMMAND seemed to set up At The Drive-In for mainstream success, and there’s good reason to think that the urgency and overt political nature of their music would have altered the course of rock music in the 2000s. Unfortunately, the hotly anticipated IN•TER A•LI•A does not come even close to fulfilling the promise that this group showed. Though there are a few highlights that can hold their own against their best work, IN•TER A•LI•A provides us with an At The Drive-In that is little more than a pale imitation of itself. The music lacks the punch that their earlier works had, and though its songs are fundamentally very similar, the ghost of the 17 years in which they were separated is made even more evident by their attempts to pick up exactly where they left off.
A lot of the machine is still very much intact for At The Drive-In, and by the standards of post-hardcore, this is still a pretty solid record. It’s a particular pleasure to hear that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who is without a doubt one of the great guitar heroes of the 21st century, still knows how to set off post-punk fireworks with his guitar work, skillfully blending a punk energy with extreme technical precision and some fun Tom Morello-esque squeals and screams here and there. Musical skill has never been, and will never be, an issue for any member of At The Drive-In, and with four of five original members returning (guitarist Jim Ward being the one holdout), their impressive chops remain very much intact.
The best song on this record, by what seems like a million miles, is album closer “Hostage Stamps.” Its jittery, aggressive rhythm is what most closely captures the spirit of At The Drive-In’s older work, and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s wonderfully weird and vague lyrics are the star of this show, providing a bit of mysticism to a song with (at least what feels like) a populist political message. ATDI is inherently a high-concept outfit, and as a group, they sound the most at home as they are on “Hostage Stamps,” spouting high-falutin rhetoric in an angry and passionate manner.
The biggest problem with the rest of IN•TER A•LI•A is that it feels like an At The Drive-In album, but one as interpreted by Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez’s group, The Mars Volta. Though the politics and the stylistic flourishes are still present and certainly in lock-step with those found on RELATIONSHIP OF COMMAND, the energy and fervor found on that record is long gone. Without it, songs like “Holtzclaw,” “Continuum,” and countless others slog on by, existing without any tangible purpose. Even the decent lead single, “Governed by Contagions,” which hinted at a bit of musical evolution for the group when it came out, comes across as preachy and pretentious despite its objectively badass hook (“That’s the way the guillotine claps / She’s the one who’s governed by contagions”) because it lacks the zeal of their best work. It feels less like a true reunion than a group of people who have focused so much on remaking the group’s sound that they lost sight of its soul.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but all signs point to these flaws being a result of the absence of Jim Ward. Sparta, which was fronted by Ward, was an outfit that ran on 100 percent angst and youthful energy, so it seems entirely possible that Ward not being a part of this album could have allowed Bixler-Zavala’s tendency towards lofty ideals to come out a little too much.
All of this being said—this is a very solid post-hardcore album, and even if it’s inconsistent, there are several good songs sprinkled throughout. It’s going to be a bit of a let down to their old fans, and it’s not as good as their old output, but with post-hardcore and all of its loosely associated subgenres seeing something of a renaissance, the return of At The Drive-In is more than welcome, and given the skill and experience of the musicians in the group, it’s hard to ever see a scenario where they make an album that is not, at minimum, competent. IN•TER A•LI•A is a good enough record to attract and keep new fans, even if it may feel strange or disappointing to older ones.