At the Drive In are back — but undeniably changed. With the release of their long, long-awaited fourth studio album, in•ter a•li•a, which follows the now-canonized 2000 fireball, Relationship of Command, fans will be forced to alter their long-preserved idea of ATDI. That caricature immortalizes the band as unclassifiable workhorses. Five kids from El Paso, Texas who toy with elements of punk, hardcore, metal, and even pop music, who Rolling Stone once called “too punk to be metal and too metal to be punk,” who used to wake up at 7:30am to practice for nine hours straight, who toured their asses off in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and who eventually burned out hard and went on an indefinite hiatus at their commercial peak in 2001.
Since then, ATDI has evaporated into less a band and more of an ideal, one that not even their current reincarnation — minus co-founder and guitarist Jim Ward, who bolted on the eve of the their 2016 tour — can surpass. (It’s like a widower asking his new wife to compete with the ghost of his dead one—it’s unfair and generally impossible.) Lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López formed prog pioneers The Mars Volta; Ward, ATDI drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos formed the emo-leaning Sparta. But time inevitably brought the team back together, with ATDI reuniting live in 2011 and officially reforming the following year.
The group’s reformation has brought with it some inevitable shifts, though. Gone is the hyphen between “Drive-In.” As previously mentioned, Ward is no longer in the group he helped found in 1993. in•ter a•li•a itself, though, has very few disappointments — it’s as blistering and anguished as followers have grown to expect from the troupe. Over the course of 11 tracks, there’s hardly time to inhale, with a more vocally controlled Bixler (thanks, Mars Volta!) screeching and howling his throat raw and Rodríguez-López winding his fingers across the frets.
Compared to the furiously abandoned Relationship, in•ter a•li•a immediately comes across as a product of maturity and (relative) control. Unlike the scalding “Sleepwalk Capsules,” where Bixler heh-heh-heaves into the mic with every cell in his lungs, he’s more disciplined here — he sings and chants more than screeches, and he preserves his energy in time for the real squallers. Opener “No Wolf Like the Present,” while familiarly deafening, is tight and organized, as is its roaring follow-up, “Continuum,” which could easily be a sonic cousin to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” Further along, “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress” experiments with rhythm, segmenting the track into a jagged jigsaw puzzle. It’s not that there’s less energy here — it’s just distributed differently.
ATDI can never be in their twenties again, and thus can never be the indignant, too-punk-for-punk kids they once were. But they shouldn’t be expected to. in•ter a•li•a is frankly as promising an album as we can hope to expect from a group of guys who set the bar and then ran away from it 17 years back. Let’s hope they have it in them to keep going.