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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]
Girl: Hello?
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.

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547 Down.


*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.

17 thoughts on “Freight Train Coming

  1. I fired up the Tubes Of You and gave this a spin (I also got the fun promo spot from “Michael Diamond” at Grand Royal 😉 before starting the album proper).

    Wow. What a record. It sounds to me like a sweet amalgam of the best of about thirty different bands I’ve heard before. Definitely the vocals I pegged as Zach de la Rocha, mostly. And so on.

    I liked it! It’s certainly urgent, I get what you say about their intent in every recorded second, but I don’t think it’s THAT heavy. I mean, have you talked to HMO about his records? Haha 🙂

  2. Coming in to say the Mars Volta’s album covers disturb and intrigue me. My husband got some MV from a friend, and it never took with me, but those album covers, lordy…creep city!

  3. This music passed me by, I switched off in about 1980, a quick listen on Spotify was more than enough for me – a full frontal assault on the brain! The wonderful thing about music is that there’s something for each of us – but not this one for me.

  4. ATDI was one of those bands that seemed better in theory than in reality. They seemed important, and felt like they were trying to convey important things. Yet, I could never really get into them. The whole post-hardcore thing just never resonated with me. I’m too much of a putz I suppose.

    However, “Invalid Litter Dept” totally resonated with me. Beautiful track, and something I would definitely get into if they’d put out an entire album like it.

    1. Thanks I’ve never seen that video – it makes the point. This is by far the most ‘pop’ track on the LP.

      I’m really into this one right now.

  5. The agreeable megaphone closet shouting visual – what a terrific simile Joe!
    There’s a few tracks on Mars Volta’s ‘deloused’ that thoroughly impressed me, mostly the relentless yet fleet-footed feel of them that you mentioned is certainly present here too.

  6. Splendid write-up of this one. I like the attack of this … right from the off. Reckon I’m gonna go listen to it now!

    1. Thank you very much, it wasn’t easy to write about. Funnily enough, I dreamt about this LP last night too – it was sound-tracking some sort of sci-fi assault on a fortress that I was taking part in …

      1. I hope you kept a notepad buy the bed so you could jot it all down when you awoke! That there sounds like 2017’s Summer blockbuster!

    1. Not listened to much MV, but ATDI is mostly all attack, all the time. But without being ham-fisted, they’re very light on their feet, rhythmically.

      I always need a lie down afterwards.

      1. Yep. Get that. I find the playing on MV discs amazing but usually too intense to stay the course. I keep meaning to spend more time with them… but haven’t yet.

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