Music Features

Used Adventures in Hi-Fi #5

 At The Drive-In, Relationship of Command, (Cancer Research UK, Epping, £1.75)

By virtue of being from a small-town in the middle of nowhere, I missed out when At The Drive-In happened. The first I heard of them was a feature review of an ecstatically-received live show at Camden's Electric Ballroom in Kerrang!, and even then there was a sense that this band had exploded onto a scene but with such vigour and intensity that they could never keep it up. And of course, that was exactly what happened, and just a few months later At The Drive-In dissolved into some kind of progressive hardcore soup, to be resurrected as the interminably prog Mars Volta, and the distinctly less successful Sparta.
Relationship Of Command was ATDI's piéce de résistance, the defining moment of the whole bands' careers. Though not an overnight sensation - Relationship... was the band's third full-length - this was where they took flight and really anchored themselves as an important step forward in hardcore punk. Looking back now, with all the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and nostalgia, 2000 seems like a pinnacle for this more articulate form of the genre. Refused's 1998 classic The Shape Of Punk To Come was just then starting to filter into public perception; it's beat-led, angular, politicised punk rock, light years ahead of its peers, had been appreciated by few except the industry insiders themselves, the musicians (cf. the Velvet Underground effect). Fugazi had been straining away for years at the forefront of the motion, moving punk in different directions to the white-vested, hairy-chested, flat-capped NYC hardcore of Sick Of It All, or Agnostic Front. Even the much-maligned emo genre was in its salad days, where the likes of Jets To Brazil, or J Robbins' various incarnations were rubbing shoulders with the more thoughtful Dischord releases and acts like Dismemberment Plan and Les Savy Fav.
And so Cedric and Omar and friends rope in producer du jour Ross Robinson and set about creating an instant classic. And, they partially succeeded. Instant it was, classic it almost proved to be. Relationship of Command really hit the spot in those late-Clinton, pre-September 11 days, when one could afford to sing about, in essence, nonsense under the guise of art. One Armed Scissor and Arcarsenal became instant dancefloor fillers, the needly guitar lines fleshing out into stabbing, pulsating choruses. Tales of live shows leaving fans hanging from the ceiling dripping in sweat, copycat-afros flailing along to the dubby basslines and intricate drum patterns. Exciting times, where music felt like it was changing things, making things better, more exciting, more personal, more important.
Of course, it didn't last. The Bush era begins, and ATDI break up almost immediately. Coincidence? Who knows, but something had been withdrawn from the music scene, a vitality and punch that was never recaptured. Mars Volta showed promise but were soon revealed to be performing from somewhere within their own colons, and the thrill is gone. Listening back to Relationship... now shows that even the music was very much of its time, all crunched drums and not-quite-distinct enough guitars (Franz Ferdinand were to blame for demanding that sort of auditory precision that Ross Robinson's productions lacked; everything pre Franz now sounds pre-Franz). And while the excitement flickers, the listener is only too aware of his role in the saga - an onlooker, not a participant; too late to the party.