At The Drive-In rose pretty quickly through the ranks of noisy post-hardcore, in a high arc that culminated in a stellar final album and subsequent disintegration. A brief look at their catalogue shows three albums which are incredibly dissimilar. 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement, despite being fairly intricate, failed to avoid sounding a little bit like a pop-punk album with ambitions. 1998 saw the release of In/Casino/Out, which had very little resemblance to the previous full length. Brutally aggressive music with a rough mix contrasted with increasingly complex guitar work meant that this record was a completely different animal. Another two year hop and the critically acclaimed, commercially quite successful Relationship Of Command was unleashed. A lot of the anger remained in the music, but it was tamed by a much slicker production, and strong elements of progressive rock gave a much more textured album.
The band was an unusual case in that they made frequent use of extended plays, and not just as throwaway material. Prior to the release of the band’s first full length, the Alfaro Vive Carajo! EP displayed much poppier melodies. El Gran Orgo was released in the year between Acrobatic Tenement and In/Casino/Out, and while it sounded more like the former in terms of mixing, it neatly fills the gap between those two records which would have otherwise been a non sequitur, showcasing more aggression at times that leant more towards the latter.
The same could be applied to Vaya, a snapshot of the band’s progression rather than scraps. This 1999 release framed them somewhere in the arc between their rawest peak and the experimental direction they were heading in that contributed to their dissolution. The production finds a sweet spot between coarse and slick, the scale of aggression is broadened, and a couple of different approaches are exercised. This sort of description can indicate a lack of cohesion, but the record sounds as cohesive as any of their full albums.
“Rascuache” kicks things off, and instantly draws the listener into a sense of unease. The introductory sequence treads a line been tribal simplicity and an electronic groove. The song explodes into In/Casino/Out-style ferocity, but the elements of the intro haven’t quite left the song entirely, and they’ve certainly made their mark. A complex drumbeat brings in “Proxima Centauri”, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala almost seems to be chanting at first. Some more experimental guitar work separates Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward. The song twists and contorts frequently, perhaps a little too often. “Ursa Minor” is more recognisable as a song rather than a series of experiments, and builds up well. A languid bridge takes out some of the energy, but an iteration of the chorus is all that’s needed to reignite the song.
The half-album’s centrepiece and arguably its peak is “Heliotrope”. From brutal attacks to intricate solos to a single bending guitar string hovering over Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar's rhythm section, “Heliotrope” carries a wide range of the arsenal of At The Drive-In, and gels them all together extremely well. The focus track, for which a music video was made, “Metronome Arthritis” follows, and while it isn’t exactly painful, it’s much slower than anything on Vaya thus far, and really sounds like it’s dragging its knuckles. The pace only picks up very slightly at any point, and it feels like the venom that the band is capable of delivering has been diluted rather than sparingly used. This song would foreshadow some of the slower, weaker songs on Relationship Of Command.
An aggressive riff introduces “300 MHz”, which exercises a lot of quiet-to-loud sequencing that we’ve come to expect from At The Drive-In, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the same impact here. With only one track to go, you might be wondering if Vaya is running out of steam after a bold start that could have promised a full length record of solid material. “198d” starts in such a subdued manner that indicates a band going out on a whimper, but they turn it around in surprising fashion, and come up with a great slow song. Bixler-Zavala’s grating bleat is not fashioned for songs like these, which is one reason why the band had struggled to get this right more often than not. Whereas in “Metronome Arthritis” the guitars were a bit on the boring side for the most part and highlighted the depressing drumbeat, on “198d” they sound much more natural at this pace, and the restrained drumming works nicely. Of course, the chorus is louder, but retains the pace and the mood. Even Ward’s backing vocals, which bark even more harshly than Bixler-Zavala’s, are arranged into a relatively pleasant chorus. The mood is sullen, but despite being the gentlest track by a long way, it’s also one of the strongest.
At The Drive-In would have further success with slow songs on Relationship Of Command with the excellent “Quarantined”, and further failure with the marathon “Invalid Litter Dept” that will leave some listeners wincing, greater success in experimentation (“Quarantined” again being a defining example), and matching success in unbridled aggression in tracks like “Arcarsenal”. This is all fine and dandy, Relationship Of Command deserves its place as the band’s widely heralded magnum opus. But for all the accolades the full length gets, Vaya has given us some of the band’s best work. At The Drive-In will always be an acquired taste, but if you’re accustomed to harsh vocals and harsh post-hardcore or whatever they’ve rechristened a subsubgenre that translates to “sounds a bit like At The Drive-In” (which the crap they’re coming up with, probably something like “psychedexperimetal post-screamocore”), then Vaya is a worthwhile addition to your selection. Just make sure you get Relationship Of Command first.
Personal picks: Heliotrope, 198d
Picks for others: Heliotrope, Ursa Minor
Relative weaknesses: Metronome Arthritis
01 – Rascuache
02 – Proxima Centauri
03 – Ursa Minor
04 – Heliotrope
05 – Metronome Arthritis
06 – 300 MHz
07 – 198d