Monday, 23 November 2009

Decaydence (2000): At the Drive-In - Relationship of Command

The minute I began thinking about reviewing H~T~A's albums of the decade, I knew the very first year would cause problems. Good problems, in much the same way as selecting the midfield at Real Madrid is a stumper, but problems nonetheless.

A brief sort by year and run through of iTunes shows defining releases from The Avalanches, Deftones, Modest Mouse, The Appleseed Cast, Spoon, Ocean Machine, earthtone9, Glassjaw, In Flames, and Queens of the Stone Age..........all that without even beginning to search outside of those ripped selections. The assumption being, of course, that if it hasn't made it's way into the iTunes library in the past 5 years, it's unlikely to warrant attention as one of the most essential listening experiences of the decade.

All told, however, there could be no denying that At The Drive-In's 'Relationship of Command' was the most influential, enjoyable, and consistently brilliant album laid into my sweaty post-teen mitts at the turn of the century.


A caustic collection of dynamic, raging post-hardcore mixed with introspective (but no less enthralling) slow burners, it can be difficult to assess whether Relationship of Command was before its time or a direct reaction to it. Created at a point when the often Neanderthal approach of nu-metal prevailed in both scene and chart popularity, the complex layers and nigh impenetrable lyrics were diametrically opposed to much of what would receive attention from the still crucial American radio medium. 

MP3: At The Drive-In - Arcarsenal

Buy it at Insound!

Whilst this was true in the USA, in the more fragmented scenes of the UK,the Texan outfit carved something of a niche for themselves. Appealing to both indie-rock fans receiving their wisdom from NME and the more heavily inclined on the back of support from Kerrang! and the like, the band reached a highly respectable #33 in the album chart. Coupled with several live performances that became the stuff of legend, At The Drive-In carried huge respect overseas with critics and fans alike. 

The album itself channels influences from seminal hardcore-leaning bands such as Fugazi, Jawbox, and Drive Like Jehu, focusing the purest elements of their sounds and projecting them through the eccentric lens of co-vocalists Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Notoriously tense relations between the duo and the remainder of the band would later lead to ruin, but at this moment they aligned perfectly - as is so often the case with landmark albums - to create 11 tracks with incredible energy coursing through them, all rooted in the relative stability of rhythm section.

Listening through the triple salvo of openers Arcarsenal, Pattern Against User, and perhaps their best known, most accessible track One Armed Scissor, it's a wonder the whole effort isn't derailed before it departs the station. The explosive vitriol of the guitars, the breathless delivery of the cryptic yet impassioned lyrics (try "yes this is a campaign / slithered entrails in the cargo bay / neutered is the vastness / hollow vacuum check the oxygen tanks" for starters), the powerfully frantic percussion........

 .....all vye for attention and threaten to overrun each other at any given moment. Somehow it all manages to stay the course and provide one of the most incendiary openings to an album any rock fan could desire.

Brief respite is found in the comparatively serene Invalid Litter Dept. Even here, though, the subject matter delivers an emotional weight and discomfort, chronicling the disappearance of underpaid female factory workers in Mexican border towns (video below). There are a couple more restrained moments in the latter sections of the album, but this slow down is only momentary before  further explosive material forces its way to the surface. Indeed, this happens to glorious effect on the album's penultimate - and my personal favourite - track Cosmonaut. An undulating, vicious yet somehow positive-sounding song, it epitomised all that is great about the band and Relationship of Command in particular.

In the intervening years this collection of songs - and iconic art, I should point out - has become increasingly essential and spawned a variety of imitators, to various degrees of success (highs like The Fall of Troy or Blood Brothers vs. lows like much of latter day screamo). The band members themselves have split off into their logical sections, Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez forming the progressive if often inaccessible The Mars Volta, and the more steady rock of Sparta characterising Jim Ward and co's influence. Nothing has come close to this level of post-hardcore perfection though.

As the end of the decade is filled with endless rock reunions - some enthusiastically welcomed, others deeply depressing - it's actually an unreserved compliment to this band that I'd rather they preserve their legacy in this stunning collection of songs and the reports of a live show I never got to witness. A truly cathartic gem of an album that not only weathers the test of time but stands distinctly removed from its passage.

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