At The Drive-In’s monumental ‘Relationship Of Command’ at 20 years old


My love letter to At The Drive-In’s iconic third album, ‘Relationship Of Command’, released on September 10th, 2000, via Fearless Records.



A smash success in the U.K. and here in Australia (one of the last places to receive the band before they broke up in 2001), At The Drive-In’s third album is nothing but pure red-faced viscera. It’s explosive and raw, uncompromising and artsy, a little proggy and experimental, cryptic and mysterious, and nearly always a furious flurry of post-hardcore. ‘Relationship Of Command‘ is a legitimate moment in time, the kind of lighting strike you cannot contain, let alone make land twice in the same spot. It’s why things haven’t been the same since band returned in 2016.

I first discovered ‘Relationship Of Command‘ back in 2010 when excitement brewed around the record turning a decade old. So a curious 15-year-old me dived in, blissfully unaware that he’d come out the other end changed once ‘Non-Zero Possibility‘ concluded. That’s perhaps hyperbolic, but listening to this album is like muscle memory now. To the point where if I had reviewed this enigma back in 2000, I would’ve given it a perfect score. And if it came out today in mid-September 2020, I would’ve slapped a big 100/100 sticker on it without a second thought. It’s one of those extremely rare albums where I wouldn’t change a single thing about, big or small. Six years into their life span, At The Drive-In created a momentous masterpiece, and my personal favourite Fearless release. (Everyone’s entitled to their opinions. Just as I’m entitled to mine that anyone who says ‘In/Casino/Out‘ is better are wrong.)

I’ve often thought about that Trojan Horse artwork, created by Damon Locks. The story of Troy and that pesky wooden horse is a tale everyone knows: a tide-turning trap disguised as a white-flag peace offering. People love to over analyse this band’s lyrics – frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the greatest lyricist who no one understands exactly what the fuck he is singing about – but maybe it’s just that simple: subversion. The difference between commands and obeying. That our senses lie; that things aren’t what they always appear; that the truth is obfuscated everywhere we turn. That when people heard At The Drive-In at the time in 2000 pre-release – five guys from El Paso, Texas playing brash music – their notions where forever altered about this kind of music once they let in this figurative wooden horse. That was where I was ten years ago before pressing play on ‘Relationship Of Command,’ unknowingly letting this post-hardcore Trojan into my life forever. It’s apart of me now.

The back of the physical CD.

Sonically speaking, ‘Relationship Of Command‘ still sounds so fucking good even at 20 years old. Produced by Ross Robinson – an adrenaline nut notoriously known for pulling great performances out of artists he discovered like Slipknot, Glassjaw, and Korn, and who made the Iggy Pop connection for intro to ‘Enfilade‘ and Iggy’s backing vocals of “manuscript replica” in ‘Rolodex Propaganda‘) – and mixed by renowned engineer Andy Wallace – who took an unhinged band, turned them way up, and made them that much more attention-grabbing – this record is a perfect storm. The right band, the right songs, the right time, and the right people working behind-the-scenes to bring it to fruition. Despite guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez stating in the past that he’s not a fan of the “passive, plastic” mix, there’s a timeless quality to how everything about these 11 songs feel and sound.

Stronger harmonies, bigger melodies, a raw liveliness, seething aggression, subtle use of congas and synths, added effects, and more hazy yet aggro guitars about than you could poke a thrashing Afro at, this is all climax, all the time, with zero foreplay. And that’s why it’s so staggering! Like many before me have mused, this shouldn’t work, not on paper or in practice. Yet it does, brilliantly so, as it’s an album that’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a blistering musical hurricane of turn-of-the-century uncertainty. Which is why people still revere it: the world  hasn’t gotten any safer or certain since 2000. Unstable music for unstable times.

That sense of uneasy, non-sustainability energy is exactly why a band of five integrity-obsessed creatives who wanted to make weird, surrealist rock music broke up when their third album blew up. It simultaneously made and broke them. That same sense of momentum, the kind that hurdles quickly towards oblivion, is instantly heard on the punchy, supposedly Jeffery Dahmer-themed opener, ‘Arcarsenal.’ (A song so fucking good that Letlive. copied it ten years later for the intro of their exceptional breakthrough LP, 2010’s ‘Fake History.’) The shaking maracas, tense guitars and driving tom rolls of the intro prime a volcanic eruption seconds later as Cedric bellows in a gripping fashion, “I must have read a thousand faces!” – one of my favourite opening lines to any record.

When it comes to ‘Relationship Of Command,’ everyone and their dog has written about ‘One Armed Scissor,’ undoubtedly At The Drive-In’s biggest song. From the chilling science-fiction and political imagery painted by the puzzling lyrics (that seem like their sole purpose is to rhyme first, make sense second); Cedric’s emotional roars, time signature jumps; the huge dynamic peaks; the noisy and tonal guitar shifts; and the overwhelming intensity of it all. Intensity only matched by their live shows at the time. The song is an incredible piece, we all know that. So let’s talk about the sheer gold that makes up the remainder of the track-listing, as awesome as ‘Arcarsenal‘ and ‘One Armed Scissor‘ are.

Relationship Of Command‘ wasn’t one of those albums where a band merely poured their efforts into five or six songs and called it a day. No, the whole damn thing was given the same level of care and oomph. It’s scarily consistent from start to end. The snappy drum fills, fluttering, phased-out guitars of second song, ‘Pattern Against User,’ which move under Cedric’s jumpy vocals sound like spindling sand falling through one’s fingers. It’s this loud, jagged yet catchy post-hardcore anthem about the temporal and existence. (It’s required under law to yell “hey!‘ when Cedric does in the intro and outro.)

The skin-searing punk of ‘Sleepwalk Capsules‘ bounce your head off the walls with all of it’s fast rhythmic heel-turns, and the booming, rumbling instrumental fisticuffs in ‘Mannequin Republic‘ could crack rib-cages, despite it all being in standard tuning and At The Drive-In not being that heavy. Proof it’s how you play, rather than how low you tune or how distorted you saturate your tone with. The ghostly “Lazarus threw the party” bridge section in the former makes the aggro moments that book-end it all the better, whereas the relevant themes of a sutured up, modern-day wasteland in the latter hasn’t had it’s impact dulled in the last twenty years. Two chaotic and excellent deep cuts.

A phone rings and hushed voices discuss a hostage and ransom situation, setting the stage for ‘Enfilade,’ a perfectly creepy but fitting introduction lead by Iggy Pop to one of the record’s more disorientating moments. ‘Enfilade‘ sounds exactly like that: a dizzying myriad of mirrors, represented by Cedric’s modulated vocals, feed-backing guitars, various pitch-rising effects, electro-percussion, eerie melodica, hardcore shouts, and grim lyrical imagery of bondage and sacrifice. All sounding like a maddening, four-minute post-hardcore descent into hell. ‘Rolodex Propaganda‘ isn’t far off. With unsettling lyrics of historical revisionism and political espionage, and a hookier punk tone under-laden with bright synths, it doesn’t eschew Jim Ward and Omar’s slithering, dissonant guitars or Cedric’s captivating vocals.

No one can mention this album without talking about it’s most melancholic, tangible moment. With dynamic shifts, twinkling post-rock vibes, larger melodic sensibilities, and genuine raw emotion at every step of the way, the heartfelt ‘Invalid Litter Dept.‘ begets a depressing real-world topic: the countless rape and murder of young women across the border region of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (As its deeply upsetting music video makes abundantly clear to the viewer). This is easily the band’s saddest song, showing that not everything they wrote was focused around absurdist, drug and bender-fuelled word-play.

With the exception of the album’s swan-song, ‘Quarantined‘ is a rare moment that shows anything resembling restraint At The Drive-In may have had in them. Yet even so, it’s still seriously vocal with it’s passion fury. While many ooo and ahh at the pre-chorus lyrics being maybe prophetic about Covid-19 and lockdown – “Sanction this outbreak, a virus conspires. Push becomes shove, days become months. I seem to have forgotten the warmth of the sun” – I still find this incredibly haunting, layered composition to be about America’s industrial prison system: repeating cycles of crime, poverty, homelessness and repeat-offences that it thrives off.

Non-Zero Possibility‘ is like a twisted nursery-rhyme. The keys melody, over-compressed drums, synthesizer wobbles, slowing acoustic guitar figure near the end, fading amp feedback, and the ominous motif of “I was bitten on the entrance” all make it sound like a nightmarish soundscape. Like something has gone horribly wrong. Which is precisely why it’s such a great send-off! Up until now, barring a few moments in ‘Quarantined‘ and ‘Invalid Litter Dept.,’ At The Drive-In had spent themselves fully. Full-throttle at all times, yet here we have real tension, dynamic and restraint cutting through. And it’s spell-binding. ‘Relationship Of Command‘ couldn’t have ended any other way.

Purposely leaving ‘Cosmonaut‘ to last, it’s my favourite piece of music from this band. Filled with angular, chorus-drenched guitars, it’s quintessential At The Drive-In. The chorus always gives me chills: “position the stitches, like miles of torpedoes. Permission was hinted, lungs that hollered in a sleeper hold.”

I don’t know whether it’s because of how Cedric delivers it, the striking imagery of flesh against weapons of war, or the unnerving sense of control being stripped away from something so natural – breathing – but that refrain is an all-time favourite. This is not to even mention the unrelenting urgency; how there is, ironically, barely a chance to breathe in the performances. It’s how there’s no build-up to ‘Cosmonaut.’ It just starts at ten, rocketing upward into the stars. As if the band will die if they stop playing. It’s the “freak out” part at 2:44 when Cedric becomes a kind of post-hardcore James Brown, yelling straight-up nonsense to his band mates. I can only ever make out “come on! Run!” before the rest is screamed gibberish. (But I wouldn’t have it any other way.) If ‘One Armed Scissor‘ is the biggest or most important song off ‘Relationship Of Command,’ then ‘Cosmonaut‘ is the best.

At The Drive-In circa 2000.

Much of the focus around the musicianship to this album is credited to Cedric’s evocative vocals, surreal lyricism, and wavering yet real vocals, as well as Jim and Omar’s stellar guitar work. In many ways, rightfully so! Yet drummer Tony Hajjar doesn’t often get the love he deserves for playing with such a fervor, always playing for the arrangements and maintaining pace with his maniacal counterparts. The same can be attributed to bassist Paul Hinojos, whose thickened, warm four-string tone compliments everything around it. Which brings me to another part about why I love this record: it sounds like the instruments and vocals are facing off in some bitter rivalry, racing to over-take each other. Yet it’s never forced. In a contradictory fashion, it feels so other-worldly because it’s all so human.

At The Drive-In weren’t the first nor last band to throw themselves around violently on-stage – ironic, given their distaste for moshing – but they did so in such a compelling way. It’s one of those things that people can see straight through when done poorly. The likes of The Fall Of Troy, Thursday, the first two Billy Talent albums, Million Dead, early La Dispute, and many others wouldn’t be as we know them now without At The Drive-In and this album. It’s impact was profound, the type of which we’ve rarely seen since. This even applies to the band themselves. What Jim continues to do with Sparta is solid, Antemasque with Cedric has its moments, and what he and Omar created in The Mars Volta, retaining their frenetic energy in that experimental troop, will uphold them as modern progressive legends. (‘De-Loused in the Comatorium,’ one of the best debut albums ever.)

This particular At The Drive-In album was and is so special. Contrast this to 2017’s ‘in•ter a•li•a’ comeback LP. While I do like it a lot (‘No Wolf Like The Present,’ ‘Governed By Contagions,’ ‘Hostage Stamps,’ ‘Tilting At The Univendor,’ and ‘Call Broken Arrow‘ are great), it does buckle under the pressure of having to squeeze onto the same throne  its predecessor so confidently still sits atop. In 2037, will we all be talking about ‘in•ter a•li•a’ as fondly as this? Fuck no! There probably won’t be another album like ‘Relationship Of Command.’ And you know what? That’s okay. One such record is enough.

 

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Lotta kind words from fans and friends about this guy turning 20 years old. One of the key components was getting Damon Locks @blackmonumentensemble to do the artwork. Another key was @farrell9600 who did the layout. If you don’t know who these people are then please read up or listen to their records or view their art. Big hugs to everyone involved. Jim, Blaze, Henry, Gabe, Mitch, Paul fucking drake, remy, Danielle, niels, Groningen Holmies, dolf and betina, sperber sisters, Booby trap squad, THE FUCKING MURDER CITY DEVILS!!!!, Gersh,Silva, Welsh,Cronen, UK team. UK publicist ANTON!!!!, nasty little man, Alex Newport, German holmies who fed us and houses us, b core Spain, sunshine, Andrew Ellis, creative man in japan, the golden poodle in Hamburg, Ross, chuck, Zack, Kevin and to the fans. Fucking A thank you guys. Your stoke was our fuel even when we didn’t see eye to eye. If I forgot your name please forgive me. It’s only been 20 years.

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