Arguably the stand out post-hardcore band (yes, ever), the occasional return of At The Drive-In from newfound roles revives a real whirlwind of turn of the century anger and drive. The El Paso act are sometimes as shambolic as they are beautiful (the 2012 live return, for example, could have been less… messy). Nevertheless, Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s distinctively abrasive, protesting lyrics and the stunning pace changes found in the guitar work of Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Jim Ward have arguably made At The Drive-In more influential as time passes.
There’s little doubt their big finale – the darkly stunning ‘Relationship of Command’ – was a moment of rare brilliance, but touching on poetic whispers and emo-leanings along the road also helped establish one of the greatest live acts of recent years. We worked our way through the drug references, death and bitter local politics to whittle their output down to our top ten…
The opening track on the Vaya EP, Rascuache (which translates roughly at ‘vulgar’) takes the weirdest of lyrical twists and turns (“poured salt on these slugs, mugshot fatigue”), but comes together like a quirky abstract painting exploring fifty shades of black. We don’t know what they’re on about, but it’s darkness personified and the guitar track is outstanding.
9. Give It A Name
A messy mid-90s effort recorded in the brief Jim Ward-less era, ‘Give It A Name’ glances at the roots of At The Drive-In. The stand out from cluttered 1997 punk-leaning EP ‘El Gran Orgo’ nevertheless has many of the elements of the more ‘finalised’ version of the band, and you can almost feel the elements starting to fall together. The band hate the label who put this out, and have told fans to download away.
8. One Armed Scissor
The roughshod, notably out-of-tune and mistimed performance of ‘One Armed Scissor’ on Jools Holland – one that had Robbie Williams’ squirming at stage-side – remains one of At The Drive-In’s most memorable and divisive moments. That beautiful shambles aside, the raw energy and throat-assaulting lyrics of the ‘Relationship of Command’ anthem were certainly memorable, and easily At The Drive-In’s most successful single. The line ‘This Station is Non-Operational’ has since become the band’s rallying cry.
A track with some classy, fuzzy slow moments, 198D is full-on delicate in its slower corners, taking the death-leaning themes of the Vaya (or “let me go”) EP and applying them to bassist Paul Hinojos life. 198D is a reference to the only marking on Hinojos’ grandmothers’ desecrated grave, and the chilling lyrics here are an unholy, memorable clutter of thoughts around the same theme.
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6. Pattern Against User
Urgent, shadowy and abrasive, ‘Pattern Against User’ is almost late-career At The Drive-In by numbers, and that’s no criticism. The ‘clock keeps ticking’ verse two thirds of the way through offers a particular beguiling pace change, while the bouncing background guitar in the quieter moments is sublimely subtle. Drugs. Rebellion. Darkness. Class.
Starting with a creepy phone call and sprawling into a vivid description of impending death (“freight freight train coming, freight freight train coming”), there’s riddles of drug and kidnapping references to be had here alongside a proper shout-it-out-loud chorus. Iggy Pop playing the hyena in the haunting spoken word intro is a nice quirk, too.
4. Napoleon Solo
Jarring and abrasive, ‘Napoleon Solo’ kicks off like an alarm call, plods along for a bit and then explodes into life in one monster chorus. It’s potently personal, obliquely referencing two of Bixler-Zavala’s former band mates who died in a car accident. Bixler-Zavala heard of their deaths right before going on stage, and the singer’s called it a “commemoration”. the context certainly adds to the weighty tone.
One of the tracks most likely to bring out Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s infamous anti-moshing speech, ‘Cosmonaut’ is a rampage of a snarling rhythm. The driving melody paired with Bixler-Zavala’s growling “is it heavier than air” and some of Rodríguez-López’ fiddliest, most technical guitar make for irresistible energy. We’re struggling to imagine how you wouldn’t throw yourself around to this live, to be honest.
Something of an aside for the band, ‘Hourglass’ is the only track on which Jim Ward takes sole charge of lead vocals, and also possibly their most emo-leaning moment. It’s raw and occasionally slightly off-pitch, which – alongside a live-style recording setup – somehow gives the track startling emotional depth. Tucked away in the back end of ‘In/Casino/Out,’ it also feels like an unpolished gem awaiting discovery.
1. Invalid Litter Dept
Dealing with vicious, unsolved serial murders of women in Mexico – and the stand-out moment on the exceptional ‘Relationship of Command’ – ‘Invalid Litter Dept’ revels in contrast, with Bixler’s cutting, poetic spoken word verses giving way to throbbing, melodic choruses. “Dancing on the corpses ashes“, he almost whispers, after a slow-build opening loaded with a fuzzy delicacy atypical of the El Paso stars’ later records. Thoughtful moments of class give way to brashness in an epic, screaming outro.