You could write a novel with the number of talking points in At The Drive In’s history. There’s always frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocal distaste for moshing at their shows, or their now-infamous performance on Later… With Jools Holland which showed a band on the very precipice of implosion, but arguably the thing with the most resonance is their 2001 breakup itself, in that it felt as though Bixler-Zavala and his partner in crime Omar Rodriguez-Lopez would rather do anything but At The Drive In. Despite Rodriguez-Lopez claiming that time was needed to rest and decide when the right time would be to make music again, the two would go on to collaborate numerous times, first with the dub project De Facto before forming The Mars Volta later in 2001, and finally teaming up with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea for Antemasque in 2014. As such, the arrival of a new At The Drive In album comes with a certain amount of justified trepidation. After all, their initial reunion shows in 2012 were seen by many as a way to sate fans and nothing else, and with this being their first album since 2000’s much-lauded classic Relationship Of Command (and given the less-than-stellar quality of many long-awaited comebacks as of late), with in•ter a•li•a, literally anything could happen.
Sadly, the reality is a lot less open-ended than that. in•ter a•li•a couldn’t feel more perfunctory if it tried, a lazy album made by a band who clearly couldn’t care less anymore and just want to get it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. A lot of it hinges on Bixler-Zivala’s vocal performance, and the fact he tries and utterly fails to sound as though he cares. He can sound convincing at points, like the staccato barks of opener No Wolf Like The Present or the frenzied Governed By Contagions, though progressing through this album, any sense of real engagement is fleeting. Instead, there are tracks like Call Broken Arrow and Pendulum In A Peasant Dress which sound completely flat and dead behind the eyes by trying for an impression of sounding engaged that’s completely transparent.
It has a knock-on effect on the lyrics too, which, when taken in isolation, are easily the strongest component of this album. The band have kept their classic quality of verbose, immaculately articulate songwriting that becomes really striking, if only because of awkward lyrical choices meshing with spidery cadence that can carry some potency when done right. The problem is that potency is barely ever reciprocated in Bixler-Zivala’s delivery, and considering the band touch on topics ranging from political mudslinging to sexual assault, a lack of power is probably the most counterintuitive thing imaginable.
At least the instrumentation manages to hold itself up to a degree, but even then it’s difficult to say it’s anything beyond serviceable for the most part. Sticking more heavily to their math-rock side means that there’s a greater sense of technicality in tracks like Tilting At The Univendor, as well as a magnified off-kilter sensibility that’s always been part and parcel with At The Drive In as a band. But, like almost everything about in•ter a•li•a, it has no satisfying payoff, particularly towards the midpoint on Call Broken Arrow which sounds too thin and surprisingly underdeveloped. That’s not even mentioning that there’s barely a memorable instrumental passage, given how almost the album bleeds together rather early on; the sole moment of breakaway comes on the penultimate track Ghost-Tape No. 9 with its creeping, steady bassline and a more willowy vocal performance that actually works really well. If more of the album was like this, it would be a lot better.
As it stands though, in•ter a•li•a is a bitter disappointment in almost every way. A few standout moments do keep mercifully distanced from the pile of other comeback shovelware, but that’s hardly an endorsement by any standard. It still fails to live up to At The Drive In’s legacy in spectacular fashion by being an indolent, homogeneous bore that couldn’t make it more obvious that its creators just don’t care. And for an album that’s taken seventeen years to actually arrive, that’s clearly not good enough.
For fans of: Refused, Sparta, Cursive
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘in•ter a•li•a’ by At The Drive In is released on 5th May on Rise Records.