I like words. This is because on the rare occasions that I get in sync with them I feel fleetingly in control of things. I like them so much that when the challenge of making crude visual art is put before me I normally circumvent the point of the exercise and utilise words. And even some of the symbols I’m partial to have letters in them (see Ⓐ). So it should be a major or at least significant problem that I don’t have a fucking clue what Cedric Bixler-Zavala is talking about in the lyrics of In•ter A•li•a. I have read them high and I have read them sober. The issue is that what he writes is poetry, and poetry in a pure form is just not my favourite word delivery system.
Having given it a try though, I can’t say that the band aren’t attempting to meet me halfway when the record begins. Opening track ‘No Wolf Like the Present’ is your obligatory 2017 number about stuff currently being tosh. Occupying coppers are in “open season” in their “prowler cars”; peoples perspectives of history are taken and recycled into cynical propaganda; knaves aren’t permitted to have even their kestrels (a references to the source material of Kes, which we recently learned was filmed at Tony’s first high school in Yorkshire). But wasn’t it ever thus? Arguably all that is different now is the Potemkin mask of modern civilisation has slipped a little, revealing the gruesome Predator face beneath. Recent interviews confirm the band agrees.
More importantly, at least to me, is that the song is a belter of a start to the album. If you like this sort of thing at all you will likely have a good time without knowing what is being said. The vocabulary is probably one reason why I was only ever a mild fan of At The Drive In (they’ve severed their hyphen here for whatever reason), but as far as I can tell they’ve consciously picked up essentially where they left off in 2001. A big loud production of bold elements all around, catchy guitars and percussion, topped off with Bixler-Zavala’s enjoyably impressive pipes. For better or worse, the eleven cuts mostly hit at one pace and tone (clocking between 3:13 and 4:17), being similarly thick chocolate chunks that make for a hefty post-hardcore protein bar.
Regardless of whether you’re the type of person to draw pleasure from ATDI’s brand of obtuse wordplay, it’s nice to read some of the lines just so you can sing along a bit, particularly during the soaring chorus’s which have a tendency to rule. There’s an undeniable musical nature to the vocals. As good as the instrumentation is on all the tracks, these moments are the highlights of the album. They are some of the parts that have wormed around in my head relentlessly when I’ve been trying to sleep, and that require exclamation marks: “Brace yourself my darling!” (‘Governed by Contagions’), “Phooooootograph/locked up in the trance of a memo-memory!” (‘Incurably Innocent’), “And he’s always stealing flowers from my stone, stone, stone/never once repaying that which he does oooooowe!” (‘Call Broken Arrow’), “Church ain’t over, over!/’till they put the snakes back/put the snakes back/back in the bag” (‘Holtzclaw’).
If you want any more than that from this word salad you’ll have to use Plyrics or something, because the sleeve font is so damn small that it’s illegible. It’s like during the early/lazy days of CDs and tapes when labels would just squash all the artwork from the larger medium on there, leaving you with a picture of four guys who’d fit through the eye of a needle. In this case, the font is tiny on the vinyl too, so maybe it’s just a bad decision designed to add to the layers of obscurity present here(I’m left to imagine what’s going on with the cassette format). That’s in stark contrast to the cover art, which matches the music well, being a gratifying cacophony of cityscape, chaos and hyenas. The style of longtime collaborator (and former Trenchmouth singer) Damon Locks is really cool, and can be seen in the ‘Governed By Contagions’ and ‘Incurably Innocent’ videos as well. Locks also did the imagery for Relationship of Command with its Trojan horses — clearly a level of animal interest which fans of TNS Records should admire. I’m inclined to be more forgiving about the In•ter A•li•a artwork being plastered on an absurd amount of merch.
Not to give the impression that I have a lot of problems with the record, there are a couple of other elements that keep this from being a complete killer. While it’s not The Mars Volta or anything, the hooks aren’t always given the chance to become hooks, veering off at inopportune times, which admittedly may have been intentional knowing this lot. ‘Tilting at the Univender’ and ‘Pendulum in a Peasant Dress’ have these weirdly edited momentum killing cascades in the chorus’s that take me temporarily out of the songs. Some of these weaker tracks being altered and surplus trimmed could have allowed for a tad more variety in the arc of the album. The exception to that issue is ‘Ghost-Tape No. 9’, slotted in at number ten to fuck with you. It’s a ghostly piece indeed, featuring prominent bass, and seems designed to be that penultimate change of pace that cools events down before the big finish. Possibly about the Vietnam War, it’s got a Bauhaus vibe to it, and maybe those quiet parts of ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ It’s an approach that it might have been interesting to see more of beyond a few short track intros. Finally it’s more of the same with the decent closer ‘Hostage Stamps.’ Tape, stamps, scissors, rolodexes: what is this bands’ obsession with stationary? It’s either because they’re so artsy or secretly so shockingly boring.
This record came out a while back, yet there was an intriguing post-script that came about in November. I had written more about this, but didn’t want to get too off-track, clickbaitish and sensational; if you want more, you can follow the links. It does however serve as a microcosm of the overwhelming forces and shittery of the times that I talked of earlier. Last month Bixler-Zavala revealed that ‘Incurably Innocent’ concerns the rape of his wife Chrissie Carnell Bixler by the actor Danny Masterson. The #MeToo hashtag movement now has to contend with a man shielded by the Church of Scientology, the LAPD, Netflix, PI’s and, supposedly, dog-killing thugs. The line “Marching to the coffins on Franklin Avenue” is a reference to an L.A. street where the Church has its original “Project Celebrity” centre, part of a concerted effort to pull rich people into their weird beard sphere of influence. (Just to bring together the subject matter of two songs that I’ve explained at length here, ‘Holtztclaw’ is about a piece of shit cop who sexually assaulted over a dozen black women in Oklahoma during 2014, and was, astonishingly, actually sent to the clink for it by an all-white jury.)
Personally, I’ll always associate At The Drive In with a time of comforting, big-haired, alt-post-hardcore during the early 2000s, along with Hundred Reasons and Million Dead (Tony’s vendetta against Frank Turner notwithstanding). This gives me some of that feeling. In•ter A•li•a is a legal term meaning “among other things,” which makes sense given the many other projects the members of ATDI have. It suggests that Cedric and Omar Rodríguez-López are serious when they talk of trying to weave back and forth between them rather than killing them off, which is good news for Drive In fans. From what I’ve read the opinions of more dedicated listeners of the band are somewhat split on what they managed on this album, but I plant this firmly in the good column. Artists are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their approach writing new material after long periods of inactivity. Nevertheless it’s a sound that’s still interesting and satisfying enough for shortcomings to be forgiven. Of all the bands to eventually have reunions — which is to say, every former group with at least one living member — At The Drive In come out pretty respectably.
Rise Records has made a playlist of the album here. At The Drive In have a European tour in February/March (which at that time should still include access to the UK if David Davis doesn’t keep fucking up).