20 Years Later, Have At the Drive-In Lost Their Commanding Presence?

At the Drive-In have read a thousand faces (and rocked them all).
At the Drive-In have read a thousand faces (and rocked them all).
Courtesy of Fearless Records

"I prefer their old stuff” is one of the hoariest of music snob cliches. It’s right up there with “I listen to everything but country and rap” as a warning sign that whoever just said it has, to borrow a phrase from Raoul Vaneigem, “a corpse in their mouth.”

The problem with “I prefer their old stuff” is that it’s lazy and ageist. It advances the poisonous idea that an artist’s vitality and brilliance is front-loaded on their timeline. But unfortunately, like all cliches, there’s an element of truth to it. Some bands lose their connection to their muses. What was once a high-powered celestial frequency turns into a weak and dim signal, beaming down occasional flickers of the old magic before getting lost in static.

Case in point: At the Drive-In.

The El Paso post-hardcore heroes released two promising records, 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement and 1998’s In/Casino/Out, before dropping their 2000 breakthrough Relationship of Command. It showcased their best qualities: Their live-wire energy, slashing guitars, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s unhinged vocals and free-associative lyrics, and the band’s embrace of Latino sounds and culture. Featuring deafening, thick-as-a-brick production that cranked their amps up to 11, Relationship of Command was loud and forceful enough to make the nu-metal on the airwaves at the time sound as soft as a microwaved banana.

The group would dissolve a year later. The in-fighting and creative differences between Bixler-Zavala, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and guitarist Jim Ward split the band into two distinct entities: Ward’s Sparta and Omar and Cedric’s The Mars Volta. It was like At the Drive-In was a Dragonball Z fusion character that had split in half: The band’s more “trad,” pop half on Ward’s side and their batshit, Dadaist half on the other.

ATDI reunited in 2011. Despite initial reports that the band wasn’t looking to record a follow-up to Relationship of Command, the reformed ATDI finally dropped a new record in 2017: In•ter a•li•a. Whether shouting “That’s the way the guillotine claps” or naming songs after convicted rapist/policeman Daniel Holtzclaw, Bixler-Zavala and his ATDI bandmates clearly hadn’t lost their revolutionary spirit.

But while Bixler-Zavala’s words haven’t dulled with age, his voice is another story. It doesn’t reach deep into his guts the way it used to, like how on ROC’s “Arcarsenal” he made repeated screams of “BEWARE” sound like the word was being ripped out of his body. Instead, he sounds almost like a hair metal singer. That’s less surprising than you might think: After all, the group were inspired to take their name, in part, from a line in the Poison song “Talk Dirty to Me.” It was only a matter before Bret Michaels seeped into the DNA of the band.

The songs also lack the forcefulness of their past efforts. Perhaps that’s due to the absence of Jim Ward, who quit ATDI Version 2.0 in 2016. ATDI’s lackluster return mirrors the fortunes of a similar second coming by a beloved post-hardcore group: Refused. When the reunited band dropped Freedom in 2015, it couldn’t help but sound like a pale shadow next to their epic, genre-smashing 1998 LP The Shape of Punk to Come. A big part of Freedom’s downfall was the absence of original guitarist Jon Brännström, whose intricate and brutal riffs were a huge part of the band’s sound. Much like ATDI, Refused had lost their tether to rock & roll’s primeval bedrock and floated off into softer, less compelling territory.

Not all reunions are doomed, of course. Dinosaur Jr, Sleater-Kinney, and Afghan Whigs came back, each group releasing new records that could stand toe-to-toe with their older work.

For some bands, the reception to Radio Muse is clear as a bell and the magic doesn’t run out. And for others like ATDI, they’re stuck in the unenviable position of twisting that dial, hoping to find a station where inspiration can come through loud and clear.

At the Drive-In. With System of a Down and Skeletonwitch. 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 16, at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 201 East Jefferson Street; 602-379-7800; talkingstickresortarena.com. Tickets are $64.25 to $94.25 via Ticketmaster.

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