It started with maracas. An afro outlined in white light. Then a train-chugging drum roll along the tom-toms to start off “Arcarsenal,” the first track off the seventeen-year-old album, Relationship of Command. “I must’ve read a thousand faces!” At The Drive-In singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala screamed.
When the rumbling breaks, the opening verse brings all the power and rage of lost innocence. The crowd was an instant cyclone of human bodies, arms up, gasping for air with each lyric. “Have you ever tasted skin?” Bixler asked. On this night we came for the internal bruising. “Sink your! Sink your teeth into!”
At The Drive-In played The Marquee Theater in Tempe, Arizona on May 8th, three days after the release of their new, long hoped for album, in•ter a•li•a. Their fourth album arrives four presidencies and countless international tragedies since their third. Relationship of Command was released in 2000 and soon after, to the surprise of almost everyone involved, they broke up.
The members would all ride the burgeoning success of ATDI to form multiple bands: Sparta, The Mars Volta, Le Butcherettes, Sleepercar, Crime In Choir, Bosnian Rainbows, Antemasque–the list extends. None ever did or would do it quite like ATDI. They toured briefly during festival season in 2012, but this feels more like a real comeback (absent Jim Ward), even if for only one album.
They kept with Relationship coming next to the punching drum roll that opens “Pattern Against User.” And just like that seventeen years went to dust.
The first new song played was the first song of the new album, “No Wolf Like the Present.” The energy hit the crowd like a giant carpet was pulled from underneath them. The breakneck rhythm forced us to break our necks swept up in the swirl. Following was, “Call Broken Arrow,” with the addicting refrain, “And he’s always stealing flowers / from my stone, stone, stone.”
Cedric, dressed finely black head-to-toe, has the same presence on stage. But, thicker in the neck, slower on the uptake. No snake-crawling across the stage. He steadies himself before standing on top of the bass drum. Looks before he leaps. But still leaps into the crowd and moves like his feet are shrinking. He’d let the microphone fall and kick it back up in a perfect half-circle, always retaining it in time for the next lyric.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez wore a skin-tight turtleneck with his hair cut back and glasses firmly up on his nose through all the thrashing. Rodriguez-Lopez, who pulled double duty opening with Le Butcherettes, played like Jimmy Page with his hair on fire. He made the guitar cry and choke, dropping tears of feedback in a circle around him. The rest of the band, Tony Hajjar on drums, Keely Davis on guitar and Paul Hinojos on bass, stuck to the gig at hand.
The songs you’d most want to hear from ATDI arrived like injections of toxic nostalgia: “Invalid Letter Dept.,” “Napoleon Solo,” “One Armed Scissor.” There was a moment of magic when the entire crowd sang breathlessly along to “Sleepwalk Capsules” as the song finds reprieve from Bixler’s poetic lacerations. “Lazarus threw the party. Lazarus threw the fight,” in tones desperate and helpless, “Lazarus threw the party! Lazarus threw the fight!”
They played half of the new album and those songs cemented into the old ones like a cinder block fence. They all felt like long-lost hits to the forehead. Hearing the new songs live made me appreciate in•ter a•li•a a lot more.
The set ended with a cannon shot. During the performance of “Governed By Contagions” the crowd turned totalitarian, arms raised, clapping along with the guillotine. Released as the first single last December, it is their best new song and it rips. The moshpit was in constant motion; everyone preening for every shriek from Cedric.
After merciless applause, At The Drive-In reappeared for an encore of new track, “Hostage Stamps,” and the telltale, “One Armed Scissor.” By then I was eating my tongue, no more comments, long live ATDI.