At The Drive-In Relationship Of Command is a heavy, heavy LP. In fact I don’t mind admitting to you that this album has intimidated me for years and I love heavy music. From the Trojan war-referencing cover on in, this is a record that demands your complete and undivided attention, At The Drive-In don’t do background music. In fact, so urgent is most of this LP that it totally bypasses your CNS and embeds itself directly into your consciousness via your brainstem in order to save processing time.
At The Drive-In (henceforth ATDI, to save my fingers) can best be described as post-hardcore; hardcore had all that cleansing aggression and anger but ultimately, musically, was a bit of a cul-de-sac. The guys and gals who came after wanted to harness all the interesting stuff that happened in post-punk to that diamond-hard tip and whole interesting worlds opened up, whilst the records mostly sold in their tens and hundreds. After a series of incredible early EPs and a brace of LPs* ATDI eventually signed to Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys’ label – which is exactly why I bought it, sight unseen/unheard in January 2001, figuring that if it was on there it must be good, I was right this time.
Relationship Of Command strikes for the jugular right from the first seconds of opener ‘Arcarsenal’. Christ knows what it is about, having the lyrics in front of me don’t help too much (Have you ever tasted skin / sink your, sink your teeth in it) my guess is that it’s about audiences, expectations and obligations but its a guess – what is abundantly clear right from the first note is the fluency and fleet-footed nature of the band, as well as the extraordinary passion (not anger) they bring to the table. The only comparisons I can bring to bear are with a weaponized Fugazi and the noisier, less jazz-influenced, bits of Slint. There are times when it can be overwhelming, a little like being shut in a closet with a man shouting things you really agree with at you with a megaphone, but most times the band swivel and pivot and guide you away from this feeling with a clever sleight of rhythm.
Every second of Relationship Of Command is meant and means something. Just listen to everything that’s going on in ‘Pattern Against User’, the nimble bass and the quiet/loud dynamic taken off into odd unexpected realms and strange, abrupt left turns. I find myself clutching on to the occasional quieter, more melodic passages just to steady myself before the music hurtles off again into the void – the beginning of ‘Sleepwalk Capsules’ being a case in point. The musicianship is nothing short of incredible at times here, as you’d maybe expect of 2/5 of Mars Volta, they just seem capable of anything.
It’s a difficult album to break down into tracks, since the impact you get from the whole is so devastating, but there are a couple that stand up on their own. First up, the righteous ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ which I learned today for the first time, is about the femicide killings in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It starts with an almost pretty unspooling of guitars and at a stately pace, Cedric Bixler speaks the meat of the verses before the sung last line ‘dancing on the corpses ashes’ which sounds almost like Perry Farrell. As well as the anger, there is a real transient beauty conveyed by the keys here before the song just blasts off into space near the end, borne aloft by its own righteous passion. It really is something to hear.
The other real stand-out for me is the blackmail-tastic ‘Enfilade’ – even the name for God sake! Enfilade being a formal military tactical term to describe a field of fire against the vulnerable axis of a formation of troops – this really isn’t Motley Crüe we’re dealing with here. The track starts with a heavily disguised Iggy Pop making the world’s most terrifying telephone call:
[Sound of a phone ringing, Girl Picks up phone]
Man: Hello, mother leopard.
I have your cub.
You must protect her,
But that will be expensive…
10,000 kola nuts,
Wrapped in brown paper…
Midnight, behind the box
I’ll be the hyena, you’ll see.
… and then goes on to explode, via a dexterously played rhythmic section that sounds almost U2-like before it gets properly angry and urgent. The beauty of this track though is in its ability to suddenly cut back to quieter sections and the unexpected deployment of bongos** AND the fact that it has a kick ass refrain (not a chorus, there isn’t time for one of those) of,
Sacrifice on railroad tracks
Freight freight train comin’
Freight freight train comin’
.. and musically there is. It’s really magnificent stuff. You could listen to Relationship Of Command for years and find new bits and new reasons to like it/fear it. Sure, I own plenty of passionate LPs and plenty more angry ones too, but nothing I have sounds anything like as effective as this going at full pelt, imagine strapping yourself to the front of that freight train and then being driven across the Russian steppes, that is what this feels like*^.
Relentless and peerless.
*none of which I’ve ever heard a note of, I’m just being an easily led sheep here – Baa!
**unexpected bongos, being worth 5 times the worth of expected bongos.
*^don’t ask me how I know, I just do. #omnipotent1537.