“Arcarsenal,” admittedly, is an impossibly high bar. But that’s it. That’s the standard. When you’re At The Drive In, nothing short of “Arcarsenal” is going to register as a thrilling introduction. The El Paso post-hardcore heroes haven’t given us an album since Relationship Of Command, the legend-sealing 2000 LP that briefly made them look like the future of rock ‘n’ roll. They’d released two albums before that, building up a fervent following as they honed their twisty and relentless take on screamo. And then Relationship Of Command came along and put them on the radio and MTV2, rocketing them into the consciousness of a far wider audience than ever before. Shortly afterward they broke up, splintering into one heady, ambitious prog band (the Mars Volta) and one straightforward punk act (Sparta) and leaving behind loads of untapped potential. Thus, that third album has served as the entry point for the vast majority of At The Drive In’s fans, myself included.
That means when most of us press play on an At The Drive In album, we expect nothing short of a breathtaking, body-clenching, deeply visceral experience. Relationship Of Command begins with “Arcarsenal,” arguably the three most exhilarating minutes of music ever to emerge from Texas. The moment at the start of the second verse when the music stops just long enough for Cedric Bixler-Zavala to exclaim, “I must have read a thousand FA-CES!” will always make me want to punch through a wall in a fit of violent happiness. It’s almost impossible to hear that song without reacting physically — flailing your body around in ecstasy and thinking, holy shit and maybe letting out a joyous, wordless howl. And although it peaks with “Arcarsenal,” the album doesn’t stop there. Like most good rollercoasters, Relationship Of Command begins with its most exciting drop but keeps up the excitement with twists and turns all the way to the finish. Every song is electrifying on a surface level and dense with big ideas if you decide to dig deep. It’s a masterpiece.
The reunited At The Drive In seemed to understand that when I saw them perform at Rock On The Range last spring. Their eight-song set entirely comprised Relationship Of Command material, beginning with “Arcarsenal” and ending with breakout single “One Armed Scissor.” I went into it expecting a lightweight nostalgia trip and ended up getting an adrenaline rush so intense and rewarding that I immediately found myself craving a new ATDI album, not least of all as an excuse to bring their tour back to my city someday soon.
There was also the hope that this band could return after 17 years as vital as they left off. After all, as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes at NPR, in their heyday At The Drive In were “inserting representations of Latino culture and border politics into common conversation in a way that now, in the era of Trump, feels like foreshadowing.” Surely all the infuriating headlines of the past year could inspire some righteous new music from one of the most volatile punk bands of my lifetime?
Yeah… kind of? I guess? There are a few precious moments on in·ter a·li·a, ATDI’s long-awaited comeback album, that grip me like this band’s finest work — moments like the worthy “One Armed Scissor” sequel “Incurably Innocent,” which builds from the band’s trademark stop-start herks and jerks into one of those high-drama choruses that feel like the floor endlessly bottoming out beneath you — but those moments are few and far between. Mostly it’s just a competent At The Drive In album, one that sounds like the same band but does not elicit the same feelings. It’s fine.
Things get off on the wrong foot with “No Wolf Like The Present,” one of in·ter a·li·a’s weakest tracks. The best ATDI songs throttle you around in all directions without losing their furious sense of pace; here all that rhythmic tumult just makes the song feel disjointed, like they’re trying to rev up the engine but can’t get any momentum going. The former mastery of dynamics is so lacking that it might as well be the work of an At The Drive In tribute act. From a band that once led off an album with “Arcarsenal,” starting with such a bum note like a preemptive surrender.
Subsequent songs “Continuum” and “Tilting At The Univendor” slide much more snugly into that classic ATDI groove, veering from segment to jagged segment with wild abandon and a real sense of purpose. There’s just one problem with those, a problem that crops up many times throughout this album: Cedric Bixler-Zavala often abandons his distinctive wail in favor of cringeworthy hair-metal vocals that steer ATDI into Darkness territory. “Governed By Contagions” in particular induces whiplash, and not the good kind we’ve historically associated with this band; rather, it toggles so awkwardly between obnoxious and arresting that the end result is frustration at hearing a potential classic slip away into mediocrity.
“Torrentially Cutshaw,” “Call Broken Arrow,” “Pendulum In A Peasant Dress” — what can I say except these are all tracks that exist on this album, too. The brooding deep cut “Ghost-Tape No. 9″ at least results in a change of pace. As for the topical content: You’d think an At The Drive In song about convicted rapist police officer Daniel Holtzclaw would be cathartic to the extreme, but “Holtzclaw” is just kind of there, less a song than a venue for a narrative with a finale tacked on. The album at least ends on a high note with “Hostage Stamps,” one of those tracks that rekindles that breathless feeling of old, if only in fleeting glimpses.
Even these half-hearted compliments feel like a reach. The songwriting is not up to snuff. There are no hooks anywhere near as infectious as, for instance, the “Freight train coming!” bit from “Enfilade.” In terms of sheer intangible power, it’s like watching an aging athlete who’s lost a step. in·ter a·li·a is the kind of album you fear when a legendary band attempts a comeback, an act of going through the motions that seems to exist only as an excuse to keep playing the classics on tour. The best of these songs are not going to stir anything close to a Relationship Of Command response in you unless your connection with this band runs far deeper than mine. And maybe you’re exactly that kind of listener, with affection for early deep cuts that mean nothing to me and a belief that any new At The Drive In music is better than nothing. Personally, after a few spins through in·ter a·li·a, I’d rather have nothing.
in·ter a·li·a is out now on Rise Records.