Hell Paso EP/¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo! EP (1994/1995)
At the Drive-In were recording the same demos in 1994 that your friend’s punk band are recording now. Muddy bass, typical teenagers-in-a-garage guitar strumming and distortion, all recorded live in a domestic refrigerator. Hear those tinny tape pops over Hell Paso? Omar Rodriguez-Lopez hasn’t met these guys yet, and it shows through the demos’ simplicity. It’s all raw aggression with some tempo changes and start/stop dynamics. Both demo EPs bring the ruckus similarly to peers like Cap’n Jazz and Unwound: frantic, messy Dischord-worship. Fans of Cedric Bixler-Zavala at his most experimental will snub these, but if you like your punk lo-fi and sloppy, turn these up and have some fun. And I really mean turn them up, the levels are shit.
Acrobatic Tenement (1996)
You were wrong. Someone does want to listen to our “shameless racket.” Nine people came to see us at a dive bar in L.A., and half of them worked with Flipside Records. They loved it. They signed us almost immediately, and we’re recording a full record soon. I get to do my background sing-yelling thing like Ian MacKaye (not that you know who that is), and Cedric’s singing is as raspy and loud as ever. We’ve written some solid songs for this one, definitely as raw-sounding as normal. “Ebroglio” is an emotional one about our friend Julio Venegas’ suicide, with Cedric doing spoken-word at the beginning. I’m not sure what he’s talking about though, not that I ever am. We’ve got this guy Omar on the bass, he’s fine but he seems more like a guitarist to me. We have some good trashy songs (“Communication Drive-In,” “Blue Tag”) and some calmer ones (“Initiation,” “Skips On the Record”), and I think we’re starting to get a feel for translating our energy onto the records, but I’m uncertain we’re hitting our full potential. I think the band has room to grow. I know you think we’re wasting our time, folly of youth, all that, but go back and listen to those Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate cassettes I left in my closet. Maybe you’ll see what we’re trying to do. I’ll send you a copy of the album (w/t Acrobatic Tenement) when it’s done this summer. It won’t be perfect, but it’s only 30 minutes. Give it a chance.
P.S: Need to borrow $600 to get Acrobatic Tenement made. Please respond.
El Gran Orgo EP (1997)
At the Drive-In must’ve left one helluva “while you were gone” note for Jim Ward. He took a vacation from the exhausting touring/recording while ATDI did El Gran Orgo. Omar was bumped from bass to lead guitar, pushing their sound into a more complex territory. They re-wrote “Plastic Memories” (from ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!) and it appears here as “Picket Fence Cartel,” punkier and cut in half. “Give It a Name” and “Speechless” are tooth-rottingly melodic, the former being a pop-punk anthem about teenage love. Somehow, they pull it off. The rest is a more musically interesting (and slightly better produced) version of ATDI’s previous efforts, but is the first major shift in the band’s sound, accurately predicting In/Casino/Out. When Ward returned home, lei around neck & suitcase in hand, these changes were considered, evaluated, and perfected for the last three years of the band’s career.
“Yo dude, what’s that?” “Oh, it’s this new CD by some band, At the Drive-In.” “Who?” “No clue bro, my mom gave me an extra $20 when she dropped me off at the mall.” “You didn’t buy some sick Vans?” “Nah, Molly found out I don’t actually skate.” “Oh.” “I went to FYE but they didn’t have the Armageddon soundtrack, so I picked this up. It has satellites on the cover.” “Looks gay. Any good?” “Man, I dunno. Found it in the punk section, but it doesn’t sound anything like Green Day. I popped it in my stereo and right off the bat this dude is yelling at me, like, about widows and antiques and bulls and none of it makes any sense. All the dudes playing keep stopping and starting, but it’s really loud so I kept going. Then the next song, he’s actually just yelling ‘ayaachucaaaaaa’ in the main chorus, there’s all these bongos and twiggy riffs and I had like no idea what was happening to me.” “Is that Spanish for something?” “No dude! I looked it up! This guy is bullshit!” “Ugh, sounds like it sucks.”
“That’s the thing! It’s just so tight. All the hooks are so catchy, and the guitar parts…I dunno man I’ve been playing guitar for like six months and I’m still not as good as these cats, they’ll switch from harsh low riffs to high squealy lines to unrelenting noise. The first dude will be just jamming a hard chord and another guy…arpeggiating? And so many drum fills!” “Sounds…high-energy?” “Totally, but there are some chilled out moments on the songs ‘Napoleon Solo’ and ‘Lopsided’ and ‘Transatlantic Foe’ that build up to the heavy parts, like you have to earn them.” “What kind of song names are –” “‘Shaking Hand Incision’ is another one, with these siren-sounding guitars over apeshit drums and homeboy screaming ‘never again!’ and then this solo, like, fuggin A dude I dunno I got pumped. There’s even piano on ‘Hourglass’ and it’s not girly or whatever. This CD is like…almost perfect” “Oh snap, can you put this on a cassette for me?” “Hecky yeah man, I’ll borrow my dad’s set tonight. You’ve gotta hear it before our next band practice. Oh, have you thought of a band name for the talent show?” “Uhh…how’s ‘From First to Last’ sound?”
Vaya EP (1999)
Cedric and Omar are making a plot in 1999. They already want The Mars Volta, so they’re getting together by the warm glow of microwave dinners and Cheers re-runs and laying the groundwork. They want their band to be loud, yeah, with punky punch and all that Shape of Punk to Come chaos, like, who doesn’t – but they want the world. They want dub, they want Latin-American percussion, they want weird reversed guitar sounds and synth like on “198d” and total tempo shifts a la the incredible “300 MHz.” “Metronome Arthritis” doesn’t even have a structure to speak of. But what will bandmates Jim and Tony and Paul say? Glad you asked. We gotta appeal to their tastes. Do it their way. “Proxima Centauri,” “Ursa Minor” and “Heliotrope” will basically sound like In/Casino/Out b-sides – in the best way, of course. Terse, off-kilter, razor-sharp post-hardcore. Then hit ‘em with the weird stuff. A beautiful marriage indeed, pulsing with the trademark ATDI vigor with those inklings of the future. Omar recently said that the production on Relationship of Command was overboard, that it undercut the rawness and energy of the band’s true sound. If this is the case, then Vaya is the last vestige of the band at full-force. I can’t argue that. It is Vaya that serves as a bridge between Omar and Cedric’s southwestern druggie-punk days and a statement that the genre may never be able to make again.
Relationship Of Command (2000)
The building super keeps calling. Turn it down, he says. He tells me the retired marine downstairs is complaining about his stucco ceiling shedding all over his carpet. Yeah well, mine too. He says the loud music is upsetting the family in 304B, that their kid is having wheezing and coughing fits. Sucks to your assmar. I hope the sonic fury of “Mannequin Republic” alone dissolves the ground beneath us and sucks our building into the mouth of hell. He says the constant switch between pile-driving chords and proto-Volta wank (“Rolodex Propaganda,” “One-Armed Scissor” and “Extracurricular”) has resulted in an average of twenty RH/W (Resident Headaches per week). Shrill guitar riffs like alien teethmarks. This is punk rock on cough syrup and peyote. The super says the galloping rhythms in “Catacombs” and “Cosmonaut” are causing the dogs to chase and chew off their tails. Cedric’s screams and low yawps are breaking tenants’ windows. These are not my problems.
I’m struggling with my own questions: How do I physically celebrate “Arcarsenal,” one of the most powerful album openers ever recorded? The maracas and tribal tom-hits over the echoing circular guitar line only Omar Rodriguez-Lopez could write, building up into a righteous ferocity – a tense, dynamic, hateful beast. Cedric pollutes the chorus with shouts of “Arcarsenal” with the word “beware!,” because he knows that the ensuing twelve tracks are enough to bring down buildings. Such is my issue. The super hates it the most when the slower, quieter “Invalid Letter Dept.” and “Non-Zero Probability” come on, and he and the residents think it has all subsided. Even after the last track, it all starts over. I can’t take Relationship Of Command off repeat for the simple reason of its well-roundedness. Glitchy electro-percussion and hand-claps drive “Enfilade.” “Invalid Letter Dept.” is six minutes of disjointed, Burroughs-esque imagery with its tormented finale, steady and shrieking. Where Refused left off, At the Drive-In resumed play. The foundation needed restructuring, and Relationship Of Command rose to draw the blueprints and erase the genre’s boundaries. The super says punk is noise and nothing else. I keep turning it up because he’s hearing it all wrong.