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At the Drive-In Relationship of Command Review

Album. Released 2000.  

BBC Review

Ten years old this week, we look back at an evergreen, ever-vital rock classic.

Mike Diver 2010

In the autumn of 2000, two albums were released that would send shockwaves through the forthcoming decade, influencing innumerable acts and topping critical lists the world over. One was OutKast’s Ms Jackson-housing Stankonia, a dizzying, dazzling cornucopia of genre-dashing invention. The other was this, a post-hardcore album that nobody totally saw coming.

OutKast were a known force, their Aquemini LP of 1998 earning plaudits aplenty; their eventual commercial breakthrough, while hardly inevitable, was certainly likely. Texan quintet At the Drive-In, though, were toiling away on the toilet circuit on both sides of the Atlantic, touring their own 1998 album, the recorded-as-live In/Casino/Out, at such salubrious venues as the Joiners in Southampton’s dodgy St Mary’s district. But whispers soon built to roars, the group’s ferocious live reputation (do, please, watch their self-sabotaged Later… performance from December 2000 on YouTube) eventually attracting the attention of the Beastie Boys, who swept to secure the release of the band’s next album through their Grand Royal imprint.

And what an album it was. What an album it continues to be, a decade on. Relationship of Command is, simply, a landmark release – not because it ripped up any rule books, or positioned post-hardcore as a vital commercial force. The band adhered to compositional traits long established, albeit shot through with remarkable ability, and Relationship of Command, for all its five-star reviews, only charted at 33 in the UK. It is remarkable because of what didn’t happen next. It should have been its makers’ Nevermind, introducing them to new audiences and wonderful opportunities. Instead, the band split just a few months after its release, playing their final show in February 2001.

Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala – who alongside guitarist Omar Rodríguez-Lopez founded The Mars Volta almost as soon as ATD-I were declared over – shouldered the responsibility for the band’s break-up. He felt their fairly straightforward set-up – guitar, drums, bass, vocals – was holding him back creatively. Listening today, there are undoubtedly suggestions of the more adventurously arranged music to come across Relationship of Command – the alien squelch of Enfilade, Non-Zero Possibility’s funereal march, Bixler-Zavala’s deeply cryptic lyricism – but this is a record best remembered for its instances of explosion, rather than its occasional withdrawal into introspection and flirtations with compositional indulgence.

It’s not surprising that the ATD-I song most recently played on BBC radio (at the time of writing) is One-Armed Scissor – Relationship of Command’s lead single is one of the most invigorating rock songs released in the last 20 or 30 years, let alone the past 10. It’s shot through with sizzling adrenaline, ensnaring anyone with the slightest appreciation of fast-paced, heavily-amplified rock within seconds of its four-minute run time. It bursts into life before cooling down, like a magnificent, massive celestial body; its core grows hotter and hotter, until finally – well, around the 40-second mark – the inner unrest tears through a crust of reservation and suddenly legs are where arms were, heads are upside-down and your body’s heading stage-wards. Not that they approved of that sort of thing, as any ATD-I concert attendee with a little too much enthusiasm (or lager inside them) can tell you.

The One-Armed Scissor single (US magazine Alternative Press’ number one single of the 00s) came backed by Pattern Against User, another of this record’s bracing-is-an-understatement numbers, stirred into life by a magnificent yelp from Bixler-Zavala. He might croon his way through The Mars Volta’s catalogue these days, but in ATD-I his primary weapons are a sharp bark and a mighty bellow that’s as ferociously feral as it is beguilingly graceful, swooping between the jagged guitars of Jim Ward and Rodríguez-Lopez, prancing atop the busy bass patterns served forth by Paul Hinojos (also lately of The Mars Volta) and Tony Hajjar’s accomplishedly propulsive drum work. Similarly striking at the first time of asking: the boundlessly bombastic Cosmonaut, which appeared around Relationship of Command’s release on a cover-mounted Melody Maker CD, Born to Do It Better; the frenetic opener Arcarsenal; and the Iggy Pop-featuring Rolodex Propaganda, where The Stooges frontman rasps and dribbles something about a "manuscript replica" while Cedric squeezes a thousand syllables into space best suited for a half-dozen.

If there’s a criticism to be levelled at Relationship of Command – and this is something many a latecomer to it struggles with – it’s that Bixler-Zavala’s wordplay is so across the line marked pretentious that he’s practically inventing new synonyms for the term. As magnificently epic-of-feel though Quarantined is, what on earth do lines like "Shackled the grapple and sentinels found / Binoculars watch cardboard towns / Strung up in webs, the net was flung / Over the auditorium" actually mean? What are slithered entrails doing in the cargo bay, exactly? And where’s your entrance when it’s at home, since you’re getting bitten on it? (Oh, there? Sorry we asked. You might want to put some ointment on that.) But while such indulgence can be subjected to ridicule, ATD-I’s preference for such content immediately marked them out from the post-hardcore pack, many protagonists within which were adhering to an emo path already so worn from being frequently travelled that it’s a wonder the genre ever navigated itself free of the underground at all. My girlfriend this, my broken heart that – boring, said ATD-I, and invented their own intriguing, but utterly disorientating and insanely complex lexicon.

One of the most vital albums of the first decade of this millennium according to NME, and one of the most important rock records of all time to the ears of Kerrang!, Relationship of Command is completely mesmerising, a statement of grand intent that could never be followed. Not by the men behind it, and certainly not by those who came in their wake, those citing it as a key influence, a core text on their own musical curriculum. It has remained in a prism since release, reflecting adulation out into the creative cosmos, opening the entire spectrum of contemporary rock for all to appreciate. If picked apart its constituents are easily assimilated; but experienced as only it should be, as a triumphant whole, and its impact hasn’t diminished in the slightest. This is still an album to switch on, turn up and flip out to. It is the high against which every post-hardcore record since 2000 has been measured against. And every one has come up short.

In layman’s terms, this sews its way through you like matrimony. Once attached, it’s impossible to ever let it drift into the ether of record collection indifference. It’s a love for life.

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