AT THE DRIVE-IN: RELATIONSHIP OF COMMAND (2000)
1) Arcarsenal; 2) Pattern Against User; 3) One Armed Scissor; 4) Sleepwalk Capsules; 5) Invalid Litter Dept.; 6) Mannequin Republic; 7) Enfilade; 8) Rolodex Propaganda; 9) Quarantined; 10) Cosmonaut; 11) Non-Zero Possibility; 12*) Catacombs.
Vaya on a larger scale — this is the record that finally made the band into a household name (at least, in that kind of households), entered all sorts of critical shortlists and rock textbooks, and gave them a chance to turn the ensuing break-up (or, rather, «indefinite hiatus») into an act of sense and purpose. Meaning that, rather than breaking up in disappointment and going back to the plough, they could break up with satisfaction and go on to become The Mars Volta.
Once again, I am not going to lie about how deeply I love and feel for the album. There is really nothing that can be done with this problem: hysterical leftism, hidden under walls of improvisational lyrical metaphors and half-punk, half-math-rock-ish musical constructions, just does not happen to be one of my personal cups of tea. But on the other hand — hey, it took me at least 15 words connected in an unusual manner to attempt to describe what the band is doing here, and this means that Relationship Of Command is hardly a record that you should allow yourself to just shake off your shoulders and be done with it.
Parts of this album are still «post-hardcore», burning on mad percussion and fast guitar noise, with the artsy overdubs and convoluted, if not convulsive lyrics providing the «post» part of the deal. But there is just too much atmosphere, vocal harmonies, and sometimes even melodicity for us to simply tag Relationship Of Command as «post-hardcore» and be done with it. What has ʽInvalid Litter Dept.ʼ to do with «hardcore» at all? The backbone of the verse melody is «geometric rock» à la 1980's King Crimson, but humanized through the intervention of piano flourishes, heavenly slide guitars, and mournful angels chanting about "dancing on the corpses' ashes" (the song is said to be dedicated to the memory of the infamous Juárez murder victims). Hint: subtlety frequently, maybe even almost always, works better than straightforward anger — ʽInvalid Litter Dept.ʼ is angry enough, but it is the soft flourishes that emphasize the eerie effect, not the "nails broke and fell into the wishing well" chorus, thrown out by Cedric in his usual manner.
And there are lots of these neat little touches on Relationship Of Command — the band here is clearly in a state where «formula», no matter how strict or trendy, does not satisfy them any longer. On ʽEnfiladeʼ, for instance, guest star Iggy Pop opens the song with a hushed kidnapper phone monolog — immortalizing the line "Hello, mother leopard. I have your cub!"; the vocals are run through an «underwater» effect; no less than three guitars are interweaving different melodies (a distorted heavy psychedelic pattern, a shrill set of light psychedelic trills, and I'm pretty sure there's a third part there, buried so low in the mix that I can't quite lay my finger on it); and the mid-section breaks into a... lambada? Whatever.
This is just what I'm talking about. These melodies still aren't all that memorable, but the album as a whole leaves a great aftertaste — you might not fully understand what you have just sat through, but the creativity, the wish to expand their musical world to make this confused, apocalyptic vision of the universe even more evocative, it's all there. Guitar World put the record as No. 94 on its list of 100 most influential guitar albums of all time — I certainly cannot verify the «influential» tag, and I would definitely rate it lower on my personal list, but I do admit that there is a huge, huge, huge mélange of guitar stuff here: pop, punk, New Wave, prog, metal, everything is mixed, and frequently at the same time (ʽOne Armed Scissorʼ shuffles power chords, jazz, acid rock wah-wah soloing and God knows what else). Maybe none of these ingredients are all that innovative, interesting, or inspiring on their own, but taken together — in the year 2000 — for a kid who never had the chance to learn the history of rock guitar — even for some grown-ups who did — this approach is a real blast of fury.
And it all ends with the band's successful attempt at a sort of a «noise requiem»: ʽNon-Zero Possibilityʼ, the last song on their last LP, might be their masterpiece. "Contusion is hungry / They still eat their young / Proto-culture null and void" might be too blunt and hyperbolic, but the song's mix of mournful electric pianos, guitar-produced «bee stings», and noisy electronics in the background, is neither. This is already not so much «classic At The Drive-In» as it is «early proto-Mars Volta», announcing a radical shift in perspective, but who cares about the tags? Here they take our world troubles and put a unique dress on them. It may not be the most stunning dress in the world, but it is still a hell of a way to participate in the end-of-the-century «We Are Still A Very Evil Planet» festival. And a fine way to end a highly uneven, questionable, but ultimately self-redeeming career — thumbs up by way of listening and reasoning, if not necessarily so by way of hearing and feeling.
Check "Relationship Of Command" (MP3) on Amazon