In the Nineties, El Paso, Texas’ At the Drive In were an art-punk hailstorm informed by Fugazi, Pink Floyd and a little Tito Puente. Their highpoint was the landmark 2000 LP, Relationship of Command, which thrashed somewhere in the liminal space between Rage Against the Machine’s funk-metal spitfire and the taunting stop-start antics of lateral-thinking hardcore ranters Refused. Splintering away from the steel-toed punk establishment, the band tipped the post-hardcore genre towards something much more free-form – and maraca-friendly. Such lawlessness left some rock critics befuddled, but history has shown them to be a mad-scientist experiment gone right. The band crumbled in 2001, divorcing into two factions – Latin-tinged prog-rock venture the Mars Volta and major label post-hardcore loyalists Sparta – only to re-emerge in 2012 for some live reunion dates. Now, in a move once thought inconceivable, At the Drive In rebound with their long-awaited fourth LP.
Their first recording in 17 years, Inter Alia (stylized as in·ter a·li·a) picks up the anarchic sprawl of Relationship and amplifies it into a stadium-size version of the band’s old glory. On the Maiden-esque kickoff track “No Wolf Like the Present,” vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, turned dark wizard twin to Freddie Mercury’s Killer Queen, snarls: “There’s no wolf like the present/They own your history and scrap it for parts.” Bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar deploy the same thunderous punk blitzes that ignited their initial ascent. Notably standing in for founding member guitarist Jim Ward is Sparta alumnus Keeley Davis, who meets guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López’s mathematical exactitude with fleeting gusts of catharsis. “We need to honor where we left off sonically,” Bixler-Zavala recently told The New York Times, “and we need to honor how we used to paint outside the lines.”
Inspired in large part by sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick, Bixler-Zavala renders dystopian scenes from real life horrors in brisk, operatic free verse. As if perched on a soapbox in the sky, Inter Alia‘s lead single “Governed By Contagions” sees Bixler-Zavala finger-wagging of looming American fascism, howling “Brace yourself, my darling/Brace yourself for a flood!” Drafted with the density of a pointillist sketch, his cryptic words often run too close together to impart the same hair-raising gravitas as 2000 Juárez murder ballad “Invalid Litter Dept.,” or the cries from inside immigrant detention centers in “Quarantined.” The closest thing may lie in the atypically straightforward track, “Incurably Innocent,” in which Bixler-Zavala extends compassion to those who’ve suffered sexual abuse in silence: “A blank tape that couldn’t remember/But you can never erase the hurt/Out in the dial-toned distance someone heard.”
Rodríguez-López memorably took issue with what he called the “plastic,” condensed ambience that encased Relationship, thanks to the handiwork of producer Ross Robinson and mixer Andy Wallace, both of whom found fame by producing nü-metal records. Now with the help of Mars Volta producer Rich Costey, Rodríguez-López the sound feels at once more fluid and a little more tempered than before. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals stand tallest in the mix, but Inter Alia flatters their instrumental meanderings most – especially in “Continuum” and “Tilting at the Univendor,” where Rodríguez-López’s splashes of psychedelia and Hajjar’s swift offensives move in lock step. The same spastic, frenetic energy exists in the undercurrents, but it’s carefully and economically dispersed.
Onstage at New York City’s Terminal 5, 42-year-old Bixler-Zavala landed several of his legendary amp-hopping, acrobatic moves. Between gasps, he commended fans for passing the word along in their early days via mixtapes, message boards and house shows – and he wryly thanked an audience at Boston’s House of Blues, “for taking a chance on some spics from El Paso.” Perhaps Inter Alia is just a nostalgia-soaked, one-time penance paid to their devout followers. But inter alia – “among other things” in Latin – it’s a testament to the band’s survival in spite of themselves. A once combustible band of self-punishing misfits, hammered by a cocktail of substance abuse and workaholism, At the Drive In made the most responsible call when they put their legacy on hold in 2001. Now older and wiser, they’re much better prepared to nurture their blaze than before. All it needed was a little room to breathe.