Note: For the sake of this article, splits and Invalid Litter Department have been excluded simply to focus on the band’s material that showed more progression throughout their career as a larger picture.
I never thought I’d see the day when I finally admitted that Rock Band 2 had a significant impact on my life but now here I am, doing exactly that. When I first got the game back on Christmas Day 2008 I was in fifth grade at the time and a devout fan of such acts as Iron Maiden, Slayer, and The Who. I had little, if any, interest in most tracks on that game except ones that seemingly matched the sound of said bands. However, I kept playing Rock Band 2, as what the fuck else would a fifth grader who loves music do, and, slowly, it began to expand my horizons a bit.
At first this was through introducing me to acts such as The Beastie Boys and The Presidents Of The United States Of America. I enjoyed the slightly edgier aesthetic these acts had, as well as others in the game, while remaining easily accessible to a young ear such as mine. Neither were doing anything radical, but my Google searches still yielded important photos of them brooding and looking generally dramatic, something that caught my attention immediately. In addition to that, they had far larger sections of their discographies containing more severe swear words than I had previously been exposed to, once again appealing immensely to the edgy little shit I was turning into.
Eventually this obsession with the edgy, seemingly counter culture aspects of music would lead me to bands such as Minor Threat and Napalm Death, a phase that would dominate a large part of the second half of my eighth grade year. It was a phase that proved detrimental for the establishment of my music identity, one that would lead me to believe me that extremity in all things was the best way to go. I lived for the lack of clear vocal melody, was obsessed with the rawness and edge of it all, and celebrated all of it. I began to idolize Ian MacKaye, going so far as to declare myself “straight edge” (something that would not last long at all), as well as adopting his strict DIY ethos. Most importantly, however, was that my borderline obsession with MacKaye’s aesthetic and early band eventually led me to his post-Minor Threat work, as well as his record label, Dischord Records.
His music gave me a new direction as far as my obsession with the “rawest” of music went, and I began to find a great deal of interest in the early post-hardcore sound. It blended the aesthetic and raw attitude of hardcore with more easily digestible melody, as well as a more intricate look at human emotion and politics. Due to all of this, when I picked up Rock Band 2 again in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, things were different. Instead of skipping the usual tracks I did, I instead decided to give them a chance, and was rewarded handsomely as I discovered “One Armed Scissor” by At The Drive In.
The band was unlike any else I had ever heard; they had a sense of angst that was so perfectly channeled that it barely seemed angsty somehow. It was raw emotion, but wrapped in ribbons and bundles that allowed it to be easily digestible, even more so than the Dischord Material I idolized (and still do). The band was artful and careful with how they did everything and, at the time, it seemed revolutionary. Now, some 4 or 5 years after that first initial meeting, I am sitting here re-visiting their discography in full, struck not only by its timelessness but by the band’s sonic evolution from release to release. Below is an exploration of those releases, their inner workings, and why they have retained such heavy, influential status among the post hardcore community.
Hell Paso – 1994
At the core of their sound At The Drive In has always remained rooted in the sonic practices of their post hardcore/emo forefathers. Nowhere in their discography is this more apparent than on their debut EP, Hell Paso, a 3 song romp that focuses heavily on emulation of the sound that made Dischord Records such a relevant enterprise. In this end it is extremely effective, carrying a distinctive tinge of Rites Of Spring through its focus on easily accessible melodies played over a punk backbone. What is odd about this EP in retrospect, however, is that as well as worship of acts such as The Hated, it also shows an odd amount of love for early indie acts emerging at the same time, presenting a sort of awkward poppy-ness. Perhaps this was a far-off precursor to over half the band’s later participation in indie/alternative act Sparta, as well as the “creative differences” that would lead to their initial break up following their 2005 album, This Station Is Non-Operational.
This poppy-ness is exactly what makes the EP so odd in relation to the rest of their discography, as by the time they even hit their first LP, they seemed to have adopted the more experimental, oddly paced aesthetic of seminal post hardcore acts such as Nation of Ulysses. While Hell Paso may not exactly fit into the rhythm of the rest of their discography, it is a solid listen nonetheless, and an interesting look into exactly where the band pulled its influences from.
Alfaro Vive, Carajo! – 1995
One year later, ATDI followed up their debut EP with Alfaro Vive, Carajo! (roughly translated to “Alfaro Lives, Dammit!). For the most part the second EP did not deviate too heavily from the first, staying largely in the familiar “Woah-oh!” choruses that were used so heavily on Hell Paso. However, there were some noticeable differences between their first and second efforts. Namely, a bit darker tone as well as a bit more of their distinct sound peaking through. Most notably, this occurred on tracks like “Circuit Solution” where the song starts as much more of a slow burn, a quiet procedure before swinging back into the emo-indie affair of previous songs.
Perhaps the largest, most notable change, however, is how the band began to articulate their angst. With Hell Paso, the angst seemed very teenage, somewhat meaningless emotional drivel that was derived from some high school English class somewhere. Alfaro Vive, Carajo! showed a new level of depth to the lyrical work of vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala as he transforms his angst into poignant emotional statements. This is wonderfully displayed on the track’s rather epic closer (another odd contrast to the rest of the EP), “Plastic Memories”.
Acrobatic Tenement – 1996
Finally, 1996 saw At The Drive In release their debut LP, Acrobatic Tenement. From the very first track it becomes extremely apparent that the band had matured immensely in the short 2 – 3 year period that they had been active, forging their own identity sonically. The heavy influence of early emo and post hardcore acts was still readily apparent, but now warped into a slightly more aggressive, laser focused era. The songs feel immensely bigger, no longer passing the listener by as quick bursts of angst-ridden punk, but instead expanding on the depth and variability that “Plastic Memories” had teased at.
As far as instrumentation and style, Acrobatic Tenement proved to be a landmark release for At The Drive In. It saw Cedric developing his vocals into his distinct shout-sing pattern, and occasional spoken parts that he would become known for, as well as a new technicality in the instrumentation that made the band feel larger than life.
This album still remained somewhat different from later releases, even to the LP that would follow it (1998’s In/Casino/Out), but it helped to define where the band was headed. Furthermore, it contained such notable tracks as the winding, haunting “Initiation” and the jagged “Ticklish”. Both hold up, even today, as two of the best tracks At The Drive In ever put out, perfectly displaying their expert blend of raw emotion with an ear for progressive elements and a layer of technicality that fleshes out all their music quite nicely.
El Gran Orgo – 1997
Following their debut album, At The Drive In returned with an EP a year after, giving themselves little to no break in output. This EP, El Gran Orgo, found them digging around in their usual emo haunts for the first two tracks, providing plenty of group choruses for the kids to shout along to. However, the last 4 tracks saw the band take a somewhat dramatic turn.
They began to expand on the ideas they began to present on Acrobatic Tenement, playing more into their prog rock influences. This gave the back half somewhat of a darker tonal focus, drawing more on dramatically shifting guitar tones and dynamics. Also notable is that on this record is where Cedric began to find his love for vocal modulation (“Fahrenheit”) as well as increasingly abstract lyrics that would become a trademark for him (“Picket Fence Cartel”, “Speechless”).
Overall, the EP did not mark too distinct of a stylistic change for the band from Acrobatic Tenement. However, what it did do was lay the groundwork for the band’s two masterpieces that would later follow, In/Casino/Out and Relationship of Command, as well as hinting at the styles that would later spawn The Mars Volta.
In/Casino/Out – 1998
For many bands there is one album that definitively marks a turning point in their career, that shows them maturing and hitting their full potential, and that fans refer to with reverence. For anyone new to the band, this album should act as their jumping off point, a spot that allows one to explore their material both previous to the album as well as their output afterwards. With At The Drive In, many would argue that the album I am speaking of is Relationship of Command, an album that is far more commercially accessible than most of their other recorded output. However, I will argue to the day that I die that the album I’ve so extensively wound up above is their second LP, their masterpiece (and perhaps one of the greatest post hardcore albums of all time in general), In/Casino/Out.
For this one it’s (admittedly) pretty difficult for me to discuss in a non-biased way, as it had such a dramatic impact on my musical taste and remains a personal favorite even to this day. It has had such a lasting impact on me for good reason, however, as it showed me post hardcore in a light I was not used to, taking the style into odd new directions while still retaining familiar territory. It shows the band straddling the perfect middle point between their post hardcore roots and their prog rock influence that was becoming ever more prevalent.
The end product of this seemingly stylistic tug of war is an album that is fresh, exciting and, while many have tried, completely un-imitatable. In/Casino/Out is an album that is wholly unique and does everything good art should do, challenging every notion of what post hardcore should be as well as what prog rock should be as well. Add to this stellar performances by every member of the band and you have an album that will go down in history as a definitive milestone in the progression of both styles.
I don’t think I can add anything more that could possibly be useful, as it would simply be muddied by more excessive fan-boying, so instead give the record a spin for yourself.
Vaya – 1999
In terms of At The Drive In’s overall discography it seems as if Vaya is often lost in the fold between their two landmark albums (In/Casino/Out and Relationship of Command). This is somewhat of a tragedy as it is on Vaya, as well as the slew of splits released around it, that At The Drive In fully came into the sound that would make them a commercial monolith and would find them such widespread success and reverence with Relationship of Command.
This is largely due to Cedric’s increasingly excellent and varied vocal performances, as well as guitarists Jim Ward and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s continual descent into proggier territory. But the performance that truly shines through and drives the record is that of drummer Tony Hajjar who may be, in my humble opinion, one of the most criminally underrated drummers ever. This is due to his ability to really make the drums sing unlike many others. When he is needed, he is there in force — laying down intense grooves that stand so well on their own that the rest of the band can afford to play around with more scarce, dissonant sounds. However, when they need him to fade, he is a chameleon, simply providing a back beat and allowing the others some time for star power. It is a truly remarkable performance and one that I, as a drummer, am always immensely jealous of as I wish I had even half of his creativity or fluency when moving around the kit.
Relationship of Command – 2000
This album is bittersweet for me, as it is (most likely) the last we will ever see with the band’s “classic” line up. For a long time it was even thought to be their last, up until the release of their new single earlier this year. But that is besides the point, as neither of those two things affect the immense quality of what many consider to be the band’s magnum opus, a record that perfectly blurs the lines between prog rock and post hardcore.
This, in and of itself, is a magnificent accomplishment, as the styles melded on this album could not possibly be more different. In many ways post hardcore, while fiercely determined to establish itself as an experimental genre (see also: Refused, Portraits of Past, City of Caterpillar, etc.), was primarily based in raw emotional outbursts that drove all the songs. Prog rock, on the other hand, was somewhat cool and calculated, focused on technical prowess that rarely, if ever, fell into the disarray and chaos that punk so coveted. On a surface level it seemed as if the styles should never touch, much less mix, and would never attain commercial success and widespread acclaim.
However that is exactly what Relationship of Command did, and in doing so left a dramatic impact on the “shape of punk to come” (ha, threw in a pun!) for the next decade or so. Without At The Drive In, bands such as Circa Survive and Balance & Composure most likely would’ve found little, if any, commercial success at all. Their styles would have remained a fringe appreciation, a nice indulgence if you wanted to seek it. But At The Drive In did not just inspire the bands that would drive post hardcore to the mainstream, but the underground as well. With Relationship of Command, they set the precedent for all of post hardcore, be it mainstream or underground. Their bizarre, discordant, but oddly captivating album pushed all to experiment more, see where they could take the genre, and do it all while wearing their heart on their sleeve. It is an album that may mark the (at the time) end of their career, but at the same time marked the beginning of a legacy no one could ever truly foresee, and for that reason Relationship of Command, as well as At The Drive In, should remain forever cherished.
(Side Note: Yeah, I get that everybody is joking and saying that upon their return At The Drive In is now “dad rock”, but I don’t care, that single is still dope. Plus Cedric is talking about guillotines again, so what’s not to love? For reference.)