At the Drive-In couldn’t have reunited to record an album at a more perfect time. Years after the El Paso band's messy breakup and soul-searching with various legacy bands — De Facto, the Mars Volta, poor Sparta — post-hardcore’s favorite sons buried the hatchet (for a second time) and regrouped to face a world fed on their caustic stew of heady ideas and showmanship, with news of North American and European tours and plans to release new music. But now, unlike their first go-round, the rest of the world is ready for them — and maybe the band members themselves are more ready, too.
The quintet cultivated a reputation for galvanizing audiences with their extended versions of smoldering shout-outs (check out the 13-minute version of “Quarantined” on YouTube and see if sniffing for feels on Tumblr does it for you anymore). Between singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s witch doctor sauntering and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's methed-out dog-chasing-his-tail routine onstage and offstage, At the Drive-In’s live performances were hallowed. Their caliber weighed heavily on the band when writing albums.
Vaya (1999) and Relationship of Command (2001) pack weird time signatures, spoken word salads and guitar noises that clash, splinter and burn between the ears. Guitarist-singer Jim Ward is the unsung hero of these albums, anchoring the band’s adventurous, captivating sound with his ringing, post-hardcore melodies and tamer energy. It’s this balancing of experimentalism and accessibility that made At the Drive-In great, something lost in the embers of their break-up.
Life after Relationship of Command (2001), the band’s swan song and magnum opus, has disproportionately favored the fivesome’s afro’d wonders, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez. Their songwriting partnership, the Mars Volta, found commercial and critical success almost immediately, while their second album Frances the Mute (2003) cemented them and their cohorts as the leading band in “prog-rock” (or whatever you want to call it) for over a decade. Bored stoners fawned over suites like “Day of Baphomets” and “Cassandra Gemini,” following Cedric and Omar’s collaborations with myriad people across the music scene, from rapper-producer El-P, to multi-instrumentalist Adrian Terrazas-Gonzales to wunderkind drummer Zach Hill.
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Ward soldiered on, releasing music with Paul and Tony as Sparta that failed to match the excitement or originality of their old band; the band went on hiatus after three albums. In Sparta’s defense — or let’s be honest, Ward’s — the Mars Volta struggled to balance Rodriguez-Lopez's songwriting and outré-ness after De-Loused. Amputechture (2005), TMV’s balls-out, fusionist baby, polarized listeners, the majority of whom interpreted the album as a jump-the-shark flub, and it’s fair to say that even their most devout fans grew tired of them by Octahedron (2009).
It's now seven years after Octahedron and the world has seen a generation of musicians fearlessly churn out exciting and weird music, most of which rarely journeys past six minutes. El Grupo De Omar Rodriguez-Lopez drummer Zach Hill now famously helms dadaist noise-trio Death Grips, conjuring squelches, beeps, whistles and Björk into a porridge that is unclassifiable. On average, a Death Grips tune is roughly five minutes, and wields more electricity and ideas than some entire albums in the post-ATDI catalogue. There are others, like Speedy Ortiz, Grimes and — if this isn’t edited out for heresy — Young Thug (Ed. — It wasn't), who tiptoe the line between friendly and futurist onstage and off.
Which raises the inevitable question: After splitting up to indulge themselves, can At the Drive-In reconcile to toe that line again? On the one hand, 2012’s reunion appeared to fail when Rodriguez-Lopez, visibly uncomfortable with the rest of the band onstage, admitted a fear of retreading the same path, both as an addict and a musician. On the other hand, the diminishing returns of his albums after Frances the Mute, coupled with his reputation for leading the Mars Volta like a dictator, have wounded him in the public eye.
Perhaps he’s come to terms with himself, and if so, cool. After a decade of writing insular, fusionist music, a return to the brash straightforwardness of his youth is just what we all need.