Six Degrees of At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command

Ryan Reed

By Ryan Reed

on 04.24.13 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

At the Drive-In's discography is measly (three studio albums, a handful of singles and EPs), but incredibly substantive: From their modest, DIY formation in 1993 to their turbulent, bitter break-up in 2001, the El Paso quintet subverted the boundaries of emo and post-hardcore music, expanding the sonic vocabulary of guitar-based rock for the Clinton generation.

The artistic growth was rapid — only five years separate their raggedly explosive debut, 1996's Acrobatic Tenement, from their expansive send-off, 2001's Relationship of Command. But by the end, At the Drive-In were a ticking time-bomb of creativity — merging five distinct, often hostile, musical personalities (particularly the guitar crossfire of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's psychedelic dissonance and Jim Ward's full-throttle punk assault) into one wholly unique package.

As turbulent toms and swirling effects pedals segue into a crushing blow of distortion, "Arcarsenal" opens the album with its most potent blast; Cedric Bixler-Zavala, in his patented wind-tunnel shriek, spews surreal gibberish over the din, like a Pentecostal preacher speaking in prog-rock tongues. That track's relentlessly blunt force sets the template (check the emotive sing-along "Pattern Against User" and the unlikely MTV hit "One Armed Scissor"), but elsewhere, At the Drive-In experiment with bold new tonal colors: "Invalid Litter Dept." finds Bixler-Zavala speak-singing over textural guitar washes and the spooky grooves of drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos; "Enfilade" is a disorienting dip into electronica, with Rodriguez-Lopez channeling a Robert Fripp-esque squall.

The union between those five musicians was as distinct as it was damning: Relationship of Command is the sound of a band with too many ideas and too much talent, one imploding — thrillingly — in the face of perfection. And it's the apex of their musical trajectory: Over a decade since its original release, it's a bittersweet listening experience — both sonic eulogy and iconic swan-song.

The Post-Hardcore Godfathers

Fugazi is arguably At the Drive-In's most crucial influence. The entire band (but particularly Jim Ward) constantly flaunted their love for the post-hardcore godfathers to the press, praising their anti-commercial philosophy and DIY musical approach. But ATDI were also Fugazi disciples from a musical perspective: Like the rest of the band's catalogue, Relationship of Command harkens back to Fugazi's intensity and unpredictability, crystallized on the band's debut album, 1990's Repeater. The electric guitars (played by Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto) form a disjointed, spastic symmetry, blending dissonant feedback with noisy asides and catchy bursts of power-chords. Tempos abruptly shift; instruments weave in and out of tune — every one of the album's 35 minutes feels naked and vulnerable, as if the songs might totally collapse at any moment. It's a model lesson in reckless abandon — one At the Drive-In clearly took to heart.

The Emo Bretheren

Of all the acclaimed post-hardcore bands to emerge from the mid '90s, At the Drive-In and Seattle's Sunny Day Real Estate were arguably the most influential. But even if they technically fell within the same genre, the two bands represented opposite extremes: Where At the Drive-In were brutally aggressive, often violently so, Sunny Day Real Estate were moodier and more ethereal, balancing emotive intensity with nuanced introspection. Though they grew exponentially more ambitious with each release (Their final album, 2000's The Rising Tide, with its swelling orchestrations and lavish art-rock arrangements, hardly resembles the urgent simplicity of their early work), 1994's Diary remains the band's most beloved moment. It's the sound of their classic quartet line-up firing on all cylinders: Dan Hoerner's squealing guitar leads, William Goldsmith's propulsive percussion, Nate Mendel's melodic bass, and Jeremy Enigk's grand, alien tenor.

The Logical Spinoff

Wiretap Scars


After At the Drive-In's demise, the band split into two factions: Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala pursued a proggier, more experimental direction with The Mars Volta, while ATDI's remaining trio (Ward, Hajjar, and Hinojos) formed Sparta, maintaining the aggressive post-hardcore edge of their previous band. The ghosts of Relationship of Command loom large on 2002's Wiretap Scars (Being three-fifths of the same band who made that album, how couldn't they?), but Sparta also emerge as their own powerful entity. Produced by reputable punk producer Jerry Finn, Wiretap Scars bears a no-nonsense sonic palette, built on freight-train percussion and razor-blade guitars. But the real revelation is Ward — always the tortured, yelped yin to Bixler-Zavala's swaggering, fiery yang — who fully embraces his role as sole frontman, whether he's screaming himself hoarse (throat-punching opener "Cut Your Ribbon") or swooning in a sweetly melodic style (the spacey atmospherics of "Collapse").

The Head-Fuck Spinoff

Deloused in the Comatorium

The Mars Volta

While Sparta sought to carry on the At the Drive-In legacy, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez aimed to eradicate it from their resume. Joining forces as The Mars Volta, the duo established a chaotic, unpredictable writing partnership that lasted more than a decade. Their 2003 debut, the proggy head-fuck that is Deloused in the Comatorium, was an experimental left-turn from the sound of their previous band; nonetheless, the seeds for this new direction were sewn on Relationship of Command, particularly with Bixler-Zavala's more melodic vocal style and Rodriguez-Lopez's barrage of mind-melting guitar effects. But where Relationship merely hinted toward a more prog-oriented direction, Deloused is totally immersed in that sonic landscape: the psychedelic guitar solos, the Latin-fusion grooves of the rhythm section (human wrecking-ball drummer Jon Theodore, one-man funk-machine Flea), the shifting song structures, the enveloping sonic textures. All in all, a jaw-dropping re-birth.

The New Breed

No Devolución


Even if At the Drive-In's recorded output remains painfully small, the band's influence was seismic, inspiring an exciting new crop of emo and post-hardcore acts in the 2000s. One of those bands is New Jersey sextet Thursday, whose sixth LP, 2011's No Devolucion, best exemplifies their intelligent, forward-thinking approach. The album's grandiose aesthetic mirrors Relationship of Command: These are two albums with an epic sense of scope, produced with massive studio sheen, venturing into more progressive territory with spacey keyboards and effects. But the biggest revelation on No Devolucion is frontman Geoff Rickly, who mostly ditches his usual blaring screams, moving toward an atmospheric, highly melodic vocal style. Sadly, the album also mirrors Relationship of Command as a career marker: In 2012, Thursday succumbed to intense "personal difficulties," triggering an "indefinite hiatus." It's a story At the Drive-In know all too well.