Balk all you like at the idea of holding art up against an over-arching political backdrop but what is the alternative? A blinkered stupor where we take music into our cortex, decide if its frequencies chime with our emotional synapses and give a sluggish, digitally-numbed shrug of approval? Sixteen years after blasting Fred Durst to kingdom-come and changing a few lives en route, At The Drive-In hurtle at humanity once again from El Paso, a border town that will be at the frontline of any Floydian wall erected in the name of US exceptionalism.
Tell me none of this matters while we listen again and again to in•ter a•li•a, each rotation making more sense in a world that finds itself as bereft of urgently delivered rock music and political dignity as it did when the group first railed against a landscape of nu-metal, neocons and the ‘smiles of torpedoes’.
For these reasons, it shouldn’t be that surprising that in•ter a•li•a is built on the sonic foundations of Relationship of Command (2000), the Ross Robinson-produced major-label breakthrough that proved to be the quintet’s extraordinary swansong. It’s a shame this fourth LP will be measured against that previous tectonic shift – not only must we remember that nobody, let alone At The Drive-In themselves, is likely to scale such heights again, but also that this is now a different outfit to the one who flailed battered fenders and po-faced afros all those years ago. They claim that this comeback involved forgetting all they’d learned in the hiatus years (from De Facto to Antemasque and all the intervening Mars Voltas, Spartas, Bosnian Rainbows and fidgety side-projects Omar Rodriguez-Lopez fitted into his 36-hour day). But how do you do that? The answer is, you can’t, meaning in•ter a•li•a is – vitally – a new ATDI for a new age.
Echoes of ‘Arcarsenal’’s famous staccato detonations are detectable in opener ‘No Wolf Like The Present’ but it and the raucous follow-up ‘Continuum’ immediately show that the reflex spasms of yore have calcified into lusher, more full-bodied patterns and textures. Weirdly, on ‘Governed by Contagions’, the underwhelming comeback single that smacked of self-pastiche on arrival, this narrows their trademark dynamism. Almost everywhere else on these 11 tracks, it expands it.
‘Pendulum In A Peasant Dress’, 220 seconds of angled, frenzied romance in a constant state of evolution, is one of the finest things they’ve committed to tape. ‘Incurably Innocent’, by contrast, reminds that behind the Fugazi and Jawbreakers records, ATDI had a solid education in pop and hookery too. You also feel that Cedric Bixler-Zavala could not have backflipped his swiss-army voice through the beautiful melodic lurches of ‘Ghost Tape No.9’ or his astounding scatter-brained anthemics in ‘Call Broken Arrow’ and ‘Torrentially Cutshaw’ without exploring his limits with The Mars Volta. Meanwhile, Rodriguez-Lopez, no longer provided with a grunging counterpoint by Jim Ward, strips his guitar work of indulgence and serves the song at hand with snake-hipped weaves of salsa-punk fretting. ‘Hostage Stamps’, a granite-strength closing workout, displays this, Bixler-Zavala’s inimitable lyrical coiling (“inoculated at the liquor store … prolonged exposure to combustible nativism”), the frightful intensity of Tony Hajjar’s stick slamming and every other way they’ve emptied themselves into this record.
It won’t nudge the paradigm as they did at the turn of the century, but what matters is that in•ter a•li•a is no diversionary cash-in of worthy punk chips. This is the real thing in an age where “real” doesn’t mean a whole lot any more. Their timing remains impeccable.
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