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Saturday, August 26, 2017

At The Drive-In: Inter Alia


1) No Wolf Like The Present; 2) Continuum; 3) Tilting At The Uninvendor; 4) Governed By Contagions; 5) Pen­dulum In A Peasant Dress; 6) Incurably Innocent; 7) Call Broken Arrow; 8) Holtzclaw; 9) Torrentially Cutshaw; 10) Ghost-Tape No. 9; 11) Hostage Stamps.

Never say never all over again: fifteen years of various musical projects later, Cedric Bixler-Zavala has suddenly decided that he wouldn't mind screaming his head off with At The Drive-In once again (to be more accurate, this is already the second reunion — the first one occurred in 2011-2012, but did not result in any new recording activity). With the rest of the band seemingly happy to oblige — the entire Relationship Of Command lineup minus guitarist Jim Ward, who played with them a little bit, but was then quickly replaced by Keeley Davis — the good old friends finally focused on going into the studio and knocking off another set of songs. to prove that true Texan post-hardcore still has that Texan spirit.

Unfortunately, the resulting album sounds less than Relationship Of Command, with its occa­sional quirks and self-conscious break-ups of the formula, and far more like Acrobatic Tene­ment, the record that set the formula in place. Despite the frantic energy level and the tight, pro­fessional sound (and, might I add, clearly improved production values, as the band is aided here by famed producer and mixer Rich Costey, formerly a big friend of The Mars Volta), despite all that, it is hard for me to interpet Inter Alia as anything more than a fun exercise in nostalgia. The band members did have fun recording it, if the interviews are to be believed, but if there ever was even the slightest intention to prove that the world still needs At The Drive-In, it could only be taken seriously under the condition of throwing away all the original records. (For instance, because they have a shittier sound — which, too, is a legitimate argument in some way).

Of the eleven songs populating the record, ten sound completely alike. Not in terms of melody, of course, as the twin guitar strands of Rodríguez and Davis are too complex to sound exactly the same on even two of the tracks — but in terms of tones, timbres, volumes, and attitudes. Ten post-punk rockers with two maniacal guitars, overdriven percussion, and a lead screamer spurting out incomprehensible pseudo-symbolic gibberish... sound familiar? This is what they started out like in 1996, this is what they still sound like now. And what's the use of trying to talk about individual songs when each of them fights to achieve the exact same purpose?

Of course, one might say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that 2017, with all of its political tenseness and chaos and unpredictability, is a great year for a new At The Drive-In album; all it really needs to be is loud, aggressive, and desperate, and these guys are well known for their ability to combine aggression and desperation in one explosive package. You could even argue that ʽNo Wolf Like The Presentʼ is an anti-Trump song, run through several layers of Cedric's verbal cyphers, or that the line "church ain't over 'til they put the snakes back in the bag" (ʽHoltzclawʼ) is a heavily veiled attack on organized religion, or that all them young kids of today still trying to make energetic guitar rock need to be shown a lesson from the seasoned pros — who can still rock far harder in their forties than today's youngsters in their twenties.

But while I couldn't agree with the old statement of «guitar rock bands are on their way out» even for 2017, three listens to Inter Alia were almost enough to convince me that there might be some truth to that. This does not sound like inspired music — this sounds like a mathematically calcu­la­ted piece of product, delivered with enough professionalism and good will, but, ultimately, with the sole purpose of proving to themselves that they still have «it». When each new song begins precisely like the one before it; when each new song rings with so much hysterical desperation that its market shares crash in embarrassment; when the interlocking riffs show more complexity, but less emotional variation than the music on any given AC/DC record — well, you just know you won't be able to take the record too seriously. And yet they want you to take it seriously, or else Cedric would not be screaming "I'LL DROP A DIME ON YOU FIRST!" with all the inten­sity of a veteran gang member, or "PRAY THAT YOU NEVER FIND A PLACE TO BURY YOU!" with all the passion of a... uh, psychopathic romantic lover? Whatever.

Precisely one song stands out from the pack, but it comes so late in the game that not all listeners might live through it: ʽGhost-Tape No. 9ʼ alters the formula by slowing down, letting the bass carry the main bulk of the melody while the guitars exchange fiery siren calls in the background, and having Cedric sing in his tragic-romantic style instead of covering the microphones with spit, foam, and bits of broken teeth — in other words, doing one of those things that used to make Relation­ship Of Command be more distinguishable than any of its younger brethren. And, inscrutable as the lyrics are, we can hold on to bits like "they trained you, wire framed you / stood you upright in position to administer the want" and interpret the dark, hellish tune as a lament for the souls corrupted and demolished by The System, or The Great Satan, or Darth Vader, or gene­tically engineered pink elephants... whatever, it might just work.

But the song's very presence and serious difference from the rest is precisely what baffles me even more — if they were capable of exploring different moods and patterns, what was the point of offering us just one small teaser, and then going on in this hardcore mood? See, they no longer have youth, freshness, and originality on their side: I am not the world's biggest fan of Acrobatic Tenement, but it did offer a new perspective back in 1996, even if it was a barely comprehen­sible and (in my opinion) pretty dull perspective. Why this whole shenanigan needs to be revived in 2017 is anybody's guess. One review (in Consequence Of Sound) made the point that Relation­ship Of Command once saved rock music from its tight spot in the early 2000s (a fairly contro­versial, but at least sensible point) — and that, who knows, perhaps an album like Inter Alia could save it from its current tight spot? Thank goodness, at least they themselves answered the question in the negative, because the time has passed, and you cannot perform the same miracle twice with exactly the same means. Bottomline: for all those who adore the typical At The Drive-In formula of «two interlocked guitars, cabbalistic lyrics, and a mad screamer», Inter Alia will be a great addition to their esoteric home collection. For all those who (sometimes) tolerate this style rather than adore it, my thumbs down rating will be far more reasonable.

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