The correct place to start with a reunion record is nostalgia, so I’ll be brief: I got At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command the summer I inexplicably started running cross-country, and it seemed, at the time, like a godsend, a manifestation of all the things I yearned for from hardcore and punk but couldn’t find in the Fat Wreck Chords catalog. The nonsense lyrics didn’t need to make sense; I sent transmissions to the one-armed scissor like only a 16-year-old driving a baby-blue Chrysler Lebaron home from his after-school dishwashing job could. The record was propulsive, agile, seemingly lethal, all of which I needed; this was, after all, an era during which you listened to music while running by strapping a goddamn CD player to your hand, so what you were listening to had damn well better make you want to sprint. Relationship Of Command did.
I liked punk, emo, and hardcore well enough, but never exactly loved any of it until At The Drive-In. Shortly afterward, the band broke up, and I went to college, where, in the CD-ripping era, you immediately inherited the music collections of every one of your friends. Thus ended my brief, tempestuous romance with At The Drive-In. So, too, shuttered my time with punk and emo. I was embarrassed by the dozen or so sourpuss CDs I owned, and I soon pared them down and replaced them with more socially acceptable indie rock (which, in hindsight, is sort of like casting off oranges in favor of tangerines). I didn’t really mourn their absence. Hip-hop was expanding exponentially in the early ’00s, and I viewed the Jimmy Eat World and Get Up Kids CDs in my collection as a dalliance fueled purely by teenage testosterone, with At The Drive-In the sole “good one” I’d still defend if put up to it.
Recently, though, I’ve started to come back around on those records. The emo revival of the past few years—most notably The Hotelier’s pair of bleeding-hearted masterpieces, but also records by Joyce Manor, Touché Amoré, Mitski, Yuck, PUP, and so on—has made me rethink my stance on performatively sad dudes with guitars. I am not fundamentally allergic to them, I have found. I just hated what they became—the way so many early-’00s emo bands attempted to matriculate alongside indie rock into mainstream acceptance and ended up either watery pap or Hot Topic mall punk. Even Weezer soared, glasses aflame, into air-quotes arena rock. It was hard to defend the mid-to-late-’90s stuff I liked, like Clarity or Something To Write Home About or Relationship Of Command, when so much of what it had inspired sounded like either Kidz Bop teen angst or ponderous, milquetoast treacle. It’s been interesting to hear people with guitars once again making interesting, deeply specific art about being an unhappy young American. That is evergreen, even if it is also a tad embarrassing.
It is also, as many trend pieces over the past few years have noted, significantly less catholic in its definition, and less exclusively the domain of white males. At this point, “emo” is less a specific set of sounds and references than it is an entire frame of mind, from the campfire stomp of Pinegrove to the bleached-out classic rock of Whitney and Real Estate to the bleating trap of Lil Peep and Lil Uzi Vert. Everything from the pristine, manufactured pop of Paramore to the drugged-out death pall of Salem has been subsumed by the mantle of emo. It felt like a stretch in the late ’90s to connect the howling melodrama of Dashboard Confessional with the violent, spidery surreality of At The Drive-In; yet today, we know they’re emo instinctively. Like pornography, you know it when you see it.
At The Drive-In’s first album in 17 years, Inter Alia, is emo. It is also not good. I’ve listened to it many times, and upon the completion of this article, I plan to never do so again. It is the bad type of emo—that is, the kind that makes my skin crawl, in which I am embarrassed both for the band performing it so seriously as well as myself for listening to it. Despite the decade-plus of totally bonkers work that the band’s principals, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, did with the prog-rock outfit The Mars Volta, as well as their various fusion-jam offshoots, they have somehow managed to make a reunion record that cuts right back to 2003, three years after Relationship Of Command came out, and right in the depths of emo’s depraved coagulation with corporate mainstream rock. Inter Alia sounds like the very type of band At The Drive-In once ate for lunch, howling during a mid-afternoon set at the Vans Warped Tour.
Part of the problem is the group’s unwillingness to actually commit, with cringe-inducing specificity, to the touch points of emo. Older and presumably wiser, they seem caught between feigning the intensity of youth and making a more conservative play at rock radio. Take lead single “Governed By Contagions,” which cycles through Jello Biafra play-acting, a dick-swinging Audioslave hook (“Brace yourself, my darling / Brace yourself, my love”), and a snarling Tom DeLonge delivery of the word “pissants.” They’re overplaying their hand, aiming for the hot riffs they cast off like a vestigial tail in The Mars Volta and juicing themselves toward the sort of keening, righteous fury they once commanded so easily. The songs are at their most serviceable when they’re at their most boring, as on the riff-rock of opener “No Wolf Like The Present,” while the pinched caterwauling and phased guitars of something like “Ghost-Tape No. 9” are so bad that you start to kind of resent them for even reuniting in the first place—something they had sworn, like so many bands before them, never to do.
Nevertheless, it’s the band’s second go-round on the reunion circuit, its first just for a few live performances five years ago. Between now and then, of course, emo has enjoyed a flowering second life, with critical acclaim of the sort previous eras only dreamed. That early ’00s bid for critical acceptance is now a reality. It’d be cynical to assume At The Drive-In eyed this and deemed the world ready at last for its musical vision. But it does sound here like a bar band blazing through a couple originals before getting back to the stuff the crowd ponied up for. During their first reunion, Rodríguez-López reportedly performed listlessly, as if attempting to prove to the audience and his band how little he cared for this lesser style of his music. The band has publicly disavowed that, but Inter Alia sounds unmistakably bored with itself.
It’s impossible not to notice a key element missing here: founding member Jim Ward, who went on to form the cornier offshoot Sparta, but whose wounded croon, spindly riffs, and melancholy sense of melody combined with Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López’s caterwauling fusion to create the original ATDI records’ powder-keg tension. I went back and listened to them—trepidatiously, and for the first time in years—after a few mournful rounds of Inter Alia. They still absolutely shred; 1996’s lo-fi Acrobatic Tenement clatters like a train running off the tracks, evoking indie contemporaries like The Promise Ring and post-hardcore titans Refused. Relationship Of Command is overproduced within an inch of its life but all the better for it, the band’s taste for sci-fi viscera finally drawn in full three-dimensional glory. Sparta and The Mars Volta are still, well, Sparta and The Mars Volta, but tracks like “Cut Your Ribbon” and the “The Widow,” respectively, have a sense of direction, as if the tension within ATDI was powerful enough to send them careening on their own, at least for a while.
On Inter Alia, you can hear what it sounds like when all that fury finally comes to a dead stop in the deep abyss of space. That’s not what you want from a reunion, but it is a reminder of the band’s former glory, if only by its total absence.
Purchase Inter Alia here, which helps support The A.V. Club.