It is the year 2000, when Britney Spears and N*SYNC ruled the charts and nu-metal was at its apogee, dominating rock album and ticket sales and the ill-equipped indie rock press where crying out for an alternative (Radiohead were going jazz and Britpop was dead and smelling funny) – yet another saviour was required. At the Drive-In were the incendiary five piece post-hardcore group from El Paso groomed for that role and Relationship of Command duly arrived to critical acclaim. The all skinny, some afro’d, constituents of At the Drive-In were unlikely heroes of student discos in an instant with kids screaming, “Send transmission from the one armed scissor. Cut away, cut away!”
Let’s not entirely define them by what they weren’t though i.e. inarticulate rap-metal bruisers, ATD-I were loud, frenetic, tense and out of the ordinary; witness Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s ornate hyper-speed lyrical pronouncements: “intravenously polite it was the walkie-talkie that had knocked the pins down…prepare to indent, a coma that read – floating in a soundproof costume.” The album itself was a chart ready proposition helmed by nu-metal production lynchpin Ross Robinson who fired all the needles into the red. Like Nevermind before it Relationship of Command was a polished rock beast but unlike Nirvana, ATD-I didn’t sell ten million copies and produce a follow-up they broke up in acrimony instead leading to the conventional post-hardcore of Sparta and the sometimes transcendent, sometimes trash Mars Volta.
But what of the tunes? From the off Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s spidery guitar is welded close to the high tensile backing of Jim Ward’s guitar and the bass and drums of Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar. Arcarsenal rumbles with bass and piano backing and Cedric roaring, “beware!” Pattern Against User paves the way for that left field but hooky as hell floor-filler One Armed Scissor; all stop-start verses and blasting chorus and Cedric dueting with his own “get away, get away” backing and that irresistible ‘doo-doo’ ad-lib. The record offers brief respite from the maelstrom with the clinking electronic opening of Sleepwalk Capsules before the band regain their adrenal resources.
Relationship of Command doesn’t feature lots of variation across its twelve (and now thirteen via a bonus) tracks – the songs are generally about all out attack, albeit a skewed asymmetric one. Invalid Litter Dept, Mannequin Republic and Quarantined opt for more space and melody amid the strained riffing and more scream along lyrics: “Dancing on the corpses ashes” and “They call it a wasteland, baby”. So much of this record is euphoric, highly quotable, sing-along fare not that the spoken intro to Enfilade immediately supports that statement but the handclaps and rolling bassline do. Wrinkly punk godfather Iggy Pop appears on Rolodex Propaganda, a mish-mash of a song notable for its other voice more than anything else. Cosmonaut feels like an album ending song, such is its apocalyptic urgency but it gives way to the melancholic sway of piano led Non Zero Possibility. Actual closer, Catacombs boasts a metallic riff interrupted by slashing chords and staccato rhythm but doesn’t quite reach the heights of that heart-stopping first side of Relationship of Command.
This re-issue follows the pattern of the years following the band’s break-up: underwhelming, cursory backward glances at their legacy; see the tense and, to some, disappointing reunion shows last year, in that there’s only a demo of Catacombs as an addition rather than the wallet shredding multi-format, rarities and artwork of other bloated re-releases in recent years. That approach just serves to underline how great this album still is, there’s no fat just taut impassioned rock and roll and we always need that not just to save us from an overbearing, conservative mainstream from time to time.
First published RoomThirteen