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The Men Demolishing the High Castle

There are no guarantees after 17 years — but At the Drive-In pulled it off

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala boasts a full nuclear arsenal of violent and delightful stage moves. My third favorite is when he whips his mic stand straight up in the air, like a lawn dart, or an inbound concussion. My second favorite is his goofy handstand deal, palms down, feet wiggling. My absolute favorite, though, is when he gestures wildly and berates his audience, usually for engaging in forbidden activities. One of those is moshing, which the band’s manic, sultry, riotous post-hardcore understandably inspires, and which the band understandably loathes.

Here we find Bixler-Zavala onstage at the 2001 edition of the Big Day Out festival in Sydney, Australia, literally bleating at the hordes of overhyped bros pounding the crap out of one another (not to mention anyone else unlucky enough to be standing nearby). “I think it’s a very, very sad day, when the only way you can express yourself is through slam dancing,” he thunders. “Are you all typically white people? Y’all look like it to me.” He gestures at a blissfully crowd-surfing knucklehead floating by. “Look at that. You learned that from the TV. You didn’t learn that from your best friend. You’re a robot. You’re a sheep. BAAAAAAAAH. NAAAAAAAAAH.”

Furious about their fans’ disregard for their own safety, the band stormed offstage after only 10 minutes and took a ton of shit for it. But history quickly proved them right in the grimmest way possible: Three days later at the same fest, a 16-year-old girl was crushed to death in a mosh pit during Limp Bizkit’s set.

Bixler-Zavala has uncorked several excellent anti-moshing tirades in his time — the most visceral and impassioned and darkly hilarious exemplars of the form since Fugazi’s famed “ice-cream-eating motherfucker” rant. But his other big pet peeve — the second thing that’ll get you chewed out at one of his shows — is loudly requesting old songs he doesn’t want to play anymore.

This explains why At the Drive-In’s new album, in•ter a•li•a, is their first in 17 years. These are restless fellas, profoundly disinclined toward fan service. Formed in mid-’90s El Paso, Texas, the band floated somewhere on the punk/hardcore/emo spectrum for years, propulsive and lyrically cryptic and volatile to the point of deranged live. Omar Rodríguez-López, as the lead guitarist and primary musical force, is a vengeful guitar god in a scene ordinarily contemptuous of guitar gods; Bixler-Zavala has a crazed ballet dancer’s grace and a breakdancer’s madcap zeal. He regards everything onstage that isn’t nailed down as a projectile, and everything that is nailed down as a platform to blindly leap from.

Relationship of Command, their 2000 breakthrough, was a monumental sendoff to the 20th century and a violent, thrilling introduction to the 21st. It stole the best, or at least the least objectionable, qualities of then-dominant nü-metalheads — the 600-foot-tall anthems, the pummelling low end, the comically macho ardor — and added a punkish braininess and a prog-rock-leaning loopiness. It made you want to run a four-minute mile, punch a brick wall into dust, guzzle 10 gallons of Mountain Dew, and read more science fiction.

It also broke up the band, which was wracked by what their 2001 “indefinite hiatus” statement described as “complete mental and physical exhaustion.” Two rival factions emerged: Guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar formed the somewhat staid and emo-centric Sparta, while Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala started the Mars Volta, an even more bonkers prog-metal behemoth that made At the Drive-In sound calm and conventional by comparison.

And this is when Bixler-Zavala started berating anyone intent on romanticizing his past. “All you whiny emo kids, go get a Kleenex box,” he barked at an early Mars Volta show in L.A., lambasting fans shouting for old Relationship of Command bangers like “One-Armed Scissor.” His new band got gnarly enough — 20-minute songs! Three-hour shows! — and lasted long enough that Bixler-Zavala would occasionally berate Mars Volta fans for requesting older, saner Mars Volta songs. An At the Drive-In reunion seemed profoundly unlikely, given the enmity radiating both inward and outward, and given these guys’ clear revulsion at the thought of repeating themselves in any way.

A lotta money in festivals, though! At the Drive-In first reconvened in 2012 for a few underwhelming gigs, explicitly citing cash and cheap nostalgia as the motivation. As Rodríguez-López told the hard-rock magazine Kerrang!: “Will there be a new album? No, no, no.” But just this week, touting in•ter a•li•a to The New York Times, they’d come around. “We’re doing it. No more drama. We’re going to do this band, we’re going to do it right, and that’s it,” Bixler-Zavala said, “… this band is special, and that’s why we’re here.”

Money and nostalgia are undoubtedly still major factors, but there’s also a genuine sense of rejuvenation, of unfinished business, of Trump-based anxiety that the band combats in their usual furious and enigmatic way. The best parts of in•ter a•li•a showcase a bunch of very angry people joyfully rediscovering their anger and grudgingly acknowledging what they’re best at, and who they’re at their best with, and what they’re best known for. They’ve made their peace with the ideal way to wage war.

The resulting, long-gestating new record is surprisingly great and shockingly faithful to what all those moshing boneheads seemed to love about At the Drive-In in the first place.

Which is to say: rousing and goofy shout-along choruses (“There’s no wolf like the present!”), stabbing and searing guitars, and Bixler-Zavala’s bellowing, paranoid vocals, like Robert Plant reading Philip K. Dick aloud with six volcanoes erupting in the background. You are forgiven for assuming that these dudes could never recapture their past glories, even now that they admit they’re actually trying to. But a song as absurd and pulverizing as “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress” comes awfully close, goofy title and all.

This record is a small but very, very loud triumph where it could’ve been a defeat, another bracing mutation where it could’ve felt like the craven and backward-looking cash grab these guys angrily refused to even consider for a decade. I was devastated when ATDI broke up, but gradually I came to appreciate their hardheadedness and total dedication to their personal deranged muses. (I even came to appreciate the first couple of Mars Volta records, at least.) So when the reunion came, and looked at first like a purely cynical and financial calculation, it was almost disappointing to have them back, resignedly giving us what we wanted to hear.

But in•ter a•li•a sounds like embattled veterans reliving old glories by rededicating themselves to creating some new ones. The band’s tour starts this weekend in El Paso and will rage all summer, and you can actually picture likewise reenergized fans yelling out loopy new song titles (“‘Incurably Innocent’!” “‘Torrentially Cutshaw’!” “‘Tilting at the Univendor’!”) alongside their fevered and once-reviled requests for all the classics. ATDI are finally playing the hits again. And now, in an even more shocking development, there are more of them.