At The Drive In
The Shrine Auditorium
At the Drive In is here at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles because they have some unfinished business to take care of. Seventeen years after they made perhaps the best post-punk punk album of the decade they are back with a new album in?ter a?li?a and fans are restarting hearts arrested in time. The blood is flowing again.
Just a couple of nights earlier the band, now in their early forties, performed on Jimmy Kimmel. This time out there is new material, written on the road last year, done “the right way” as drummer Tony Hajjar relayed to our own Nate Jackson a couple of weeks ago.
It almost happened once before about five years ago. At the Drive In came together started touring only to retreat again. The time wasn’t right. There were too many distractions, too much personal loss to contend with.
As the lights go down in the cavernous old hall, and the band slowly filters in, a distant robotic female voice is heard. I can’t make out exactly what she is saying, but it sounds like some sort of launch instructions.
And then, a hyena appears on the screen. “Is that a cow?” my friend asks. As the image gets clearer, I say “I think, maybe it’s a…hyena.” I quickly scroll through hyena images on my phone to verify. “Yup, it’s a hyena.”
“That makes sense he says,” right as Cedric Bixler-Zavala, lead singer, literally launches into “No Wolf Like the Present” the first track off of in?ter a?li?a. He has taken a stage dive and the cargo ship has left the bay.
My relationship with Relationship of Command began in the purest of ways. I was in between classes at Cal State Fullerton, most likely eating an orange chicken bowl when I paused to listen to a band booked that day in our outdoor amphitheatre.
Then as now, At the Drive In was fast and aggressive, but not the type of onenote aggression that was (and remains for me still) a turn-off. Despite being a group composed of young angry males, it was somehow a universal aggression, that my nineteen-year old Christina Aguilera listening self could grasp onto.
I was entranced. They tapped into something visceral. I lost track of the band when as they parted ways shortly after, but Relationship of Command remained timeless.
At various points in the eleven-song set, Bixler-Zavala wowed the the crowd with his Air Jordan-esque vertical during several huge leaps off of their towering bass cab. Even at 42, he could definitely still be a fierce, rhythmic gymnast competitor with his mic kicks, swings and leaps.
Bixler-Zavala and the rest of the lineup: drummer Tony Hajjar, bassist Paul Hinojos, and the Keith Richards to Bixler-Zavala’s Mick Jagger, the yin to his yang, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez never really went anywhere. In the aftermath of ATDI’s split, their respective bands Sparta and The Mars Volta and others kept their musicianship growing stronger along the way.
“The future is fuschia!” Bixler-Zavala shouts in a brief breath in between songs which nearly evenly alternates between cuts from Relationship of Command and in?ter a?li?a. Longtime collaborator, artist Damon Locks’ projected artwork combines with horizontal rows of changing lights that glow radioactive shades of blue and yes, fuscia, to give a freshly post-apocalyptic effect.
The set is orchestrated with a few rests and stops, just enough to allow Bixler-Zavala to turn the next corner. It’s remarkable that although in?ter a?li?a stands on its own, by alternating the songs and focusing on these two albums for the majority of the set, ATDI bravely sets forth the thesis that the two albums are cousins, chapters of the same story.
Arcane, sci-fi and mythology-inspired-lyrics that help to tie together both albums have more in common with Rush than say the overt political and anti-establishment stance of Bad Religion or Rage Against the Machine.
The indirect and obtuseness of the lyrics (I had to break out my dictionary for words like “kestrel” ) allow the listener’s imagination to open up. You can delve into a space fairytale of your own choosing or draw present-day parallels from phrases like “they own your history and scrap it for parts,” from “No wolf Like the Present.”
Thematically, At the Drive In frequently references death: whether by the ashes of those left behind as in Relationship of Command’s “Invalid Litter Department” or the slow soul-sucking represented by faceless generals manipulating a mechanical hand-in the stop-motion video for in?ter a?li?a’s “Hostage Stamp.”
There’s a lot to dissect but what I enjoy most about the band and it’s fueled-up return is the layers of complexity in the instrumentation. Along with the imagery, it works to unify themes of parasitic invasion, and ultimate destruction.
However, where Relationship of Command heralded the Trojan Horse in its artwork, in?ter a?li?a has the hyena: a predator and a scavenger prowling the ruins. By “Ghost Tape #9” (what could be characterized as a ballad of sorts) the set was beginning to change. Rows of what seemed like wooden fencing allowed the colors of a radioactive dawn to seep through. It seemed as if, after the destruction, we were safely gathered in the ruins of a wooden structure. But instead of hopelessness, At the Drive In is charging us up for what is to come.
Don’t call it a comeback.