AT THE DRIVE-IN: VAYA (1999)
1) Rascuache; 2) Proxima Centauri; 3) Ursa Minor; 4) Heliotrope; 5) Metronome Arthritis; 6) 300 MHz; 7) 198d.
Not the first, but the longest EP released by these guys, it deserves its own brief review because it is generally considered to be an important transitional step — sort of a threshold where they finally stopped seeing their noisy schtick as a thing-in-itself, and started using it as a foundation upon which something bigger could eventually be built up. What would be built up is another matter, and I am still not sure that either Vaya or its lumpier full-length successor are «awesome» records in the way that they are revered by the fans, but...
...there's a change in the air, and it is a change for the good. Vaya cuts down on the straightforward noisemaking of In/Casino/Out, brings back some of the twisted guitar geometry of Acrobatic Tenement, and throws in a few new ingredients, mainly, a huge emphasis on «dirge-like» bass and guitar chords. As a result, Vaya gels together as a sort of twenty-minute long punk requiem — appropriate enough for a record whose last song is said to be dedicated to the drummer's grandmother, buried in a mass grave in Lebanon (Tony Hajjar's family actually fled to the States from the Civil War in the 1970s).
It is, in fact, only when I started looking at Vaya this way that something clicked (and I tried relistening to the earlier albums this way, too, and it did not help). This is a carefully — much more carefully than before — constructed projection of human madness and its consequences, pretending to far more importance than you'd initially assume it to. The lyrics still flow in seemingly random streams of conscience, but as the music that backs them becomes loaded with a sense of purpose, the words no longer irritate at random — important signals are let out at regular intervals: "mastadon infantry radiate this frequency"... "civilization tastes so good, Nero has conquered the stars..." "they will come and get you tonight, so I guess this is goodnight..." "it's as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again..." "what if forensics finds the answers, what if they stole my fingerprints?.." "amnesia proletariat, coughing up the coffins..." "you speak in tongues, tremors that warn us of ourselves..." ...see, it's starting to come together somehow.
As for the music, it is still anything but memorable, but now they know how to make atmosphere — by putting more fuzz on the bass and letting it roam along the premises louder and prouder than they used to, by alternating quiet and loud sections with more suspense than they were capable of mustering, by bringing back the «guitar-weaving» techniques, by toying around with echoes and bits of electronics, by... well, I don't want to create the impression that these songs are very «diverse», because they are not, but the end result is a complex, intelligent, and, of course, hard-rocking grimness that warrants repeated listens until something sinks in.
Because this is so short, there are no high- or lowlights. ʽHeliotropeʼ is one of their fastest and craziest numbers; ʽMetronome Arthritisʼ is an attempt at «dark soul» that culminates in the "what if forensics..." line, the grandest gesture of paranoia in the band's career; ʽ300 Mhzʼ is the album's humble simulation of a worldwide nuclear meltdown; and ʽ198dʼ sometimes quietly, sometimes all-out loudly wails over the consequences. They do not really work apart from each other, and it takes a few listens and a bit of an effort to even make them work together, but once the effort is made, it is hard not to acknowledge that, finally, At The Drive-In managed to transform their «educated brutality» into a form of, ho hum, modern art. Thumbs up, right?