For my first Goo Is You article, I chose to focus on At The Drive-In’s most perfect record. It is a personal essay. I loved writing this piece and I hope you enjoy reading it.
When I found out what One Armed Scissor was about, I was actually holding one in my hand. I was staying at a punk house in Miami and I had gloriously abandoned my reason. I was counting the days by the track marks and keeping a warped faith with junky iconography. I remember cradling the syringe and thinking about my body, how it had nearly been pushed to its limit, about how it would soon be non-operational. I thought about a near-death philosophy founded on sent transmissions from such a small artifact of punk ethos.
I remember when I first heard this LP. It was revelatory. I was very young. Even then, I understood the free-associative nature of At The Drive-In’s lyrics and I freely associated songs like One Armed Scissor with science fiction tropes. The song has changed entirely for me. The song’s meaning altered/grew the summer I began sending my own transmissions from one armed scissors. I used heroin for a little while and the more I used, the more One Armed Scissor revealed itself to me. It was Miami, it was a punk house/lifestyle/trip, and I was on a mission.
Albums like this grow with you and are auto-regenerative.
Being a ‘junky’ in Miami and being a punk rocker is an absurd reality that I experienced. It felt exactly like Relationship of Command. I felt I embodied the essence of it. I was a vessel for the newly expanded meanings of every track. Like some no-wave Lazarus relearning the sonic language of emo, I had come full circle. The album became the soundtrack to that period of my life. It’s not a period full of regret or sadness, like one might expect. It was full of anxiety and music. It was a period of earnest crushes and zodiac anarchy. One armed scissors that defied their users.
A one armed scissor is a needle and a sent transmission is the act of taking intravenous drugs. A relationship of command is what happens when you use a one armed scissor regularly and without unhappiness, but overflowing with modern anxieties. A failed transmission is an overdose, but At The Drive-In, Relationship of Command, and One Armed Scissor are not maudlin, cautionary acts. They are as is sonically, lyrically, and generally. If you use hard drugs, you use hard drugs. It may compound certain anxious notions and fears or anger, but it does not define you, realign your morality, nor can your junky status be used to judge or rate your value. It’s just a part of life.
One Armed Scissor is a hyper-intelligent junky anthem, but it’s not a song about that, it’s about anxiety and not being able to rid yourself of that feeling. No matter how many transmissions are sent from as many one armed scissors that you can find, it does not cure nor capture you. It’s about the need to turn away from your timeline. Yet, sonically, the song does move into a more catchy sphere during that astonishing and simple pow-pow chorus. The song changes and the transmission has been sent. Therefore, heroin use does make an impact. It does not make anxiety disappear. It turns a verse to a chorus, and makes your life catchier, easier, but still all the more immediate and onrushing.
One Armed Scissor demonstrates genius levels of aural storytelling. It’s this kind of sonic grammar that makes Relationship of Command the landmark album that it is. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Co. flex a vast musical and lyrical vocabulary/ability and the group is able to actually use sonic textures, signatures, and structure to propel meaning and expound a fully realized sonic story. The fact that tempos/moods change when a transmission is being sent is astonishing to me. One Armed Scissor is built around verses that sound frayed, fleeting, anxious, falling apart, and almost conveniently despondent, giving way to the anthemic punk rock chorus, abandoning confines of the verse and embracing a hardcore hymnal, truly shattering premise. One Armed Scissor gives us a bridge that courts us romantically and sardonically, but it’s the chorus that reestablishes the song’s ultimately unique sonic story arc.
Relationship of Command is the most perfect rock record of the early aughts. Its eternal characteristic is elemental. It is a fiery LP. It scorches, blazes, and burns. It sears. Relationship of Command is philosophically fatalistic. It is a record that steams with postmodern rage. Post-hardcore, by definition, is a deconstructionist style that takes the core concepts of emotional hardcore music and punk rock, then reshapes and realigns them into fiercely modern and strikingly powerful themes. Post prefixed music populates after-the-fact genres and movements in art. This is music for those who missed out. This is what happens when the party’s over. Post-hardcore music is also aggressively ever-happening. It is, for all intents and purposes, postmodern punk rock. Pioneered by groups like Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi and Rites of Spring, and later perfected by others like Refused and At The Drive-In, post-hardcore is immediate no matter how old the record is and how late you’re listening to it by comparison. Records like Relationship of Command, The Shape of Punk to Come and Steady Diet of Nothing have the postmodern benefit of being ageless and adaptive. These are LPs that change according to circumstance.
The most attractive part of At The Drive-In is Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s voice and personality. It is the manic, high-octane quality of his vocals that give At The Drive-In their signature urgency. Bixler-Zavala reinvents the muscular punk rock idol with acrobatic leaps of energy, certainty, and logical purpose. The undying dynamism of his vocals make Relationship of Command the landmark masterwork it is. His voice fucking blows my beautiful world away. It is as if he is equally dedicated to both the detachment and the implosion. He is a believer in sonic inevitability. He is a prophet of vocal expression through rock music. Bixler-Zavala dominated the verbose lyrical structure of a given song, punching it into a post-hardcore, emotionally resonant and new formation. The tracks on Relationship of Command sound like they’re falling apart and that’s because, conceptually, they absolutely are. It’s Bixler-Zavala who operates as the always reliable string, as the guiding light for the listener. If a relationship of command is built by the audience, our strongest connection is made with Bixler-Zavala, and it is he who controls it. It’s a romantic, affectionate association with a lead singer that has become sadly lost to us in this post-pop atmosphere of anti-fame along this anti-rock star landscape of identity crisis music.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala is the last living, all modern punk idol.
Relationship of Command is an album about postmodern anxiety. It’s about what it is to be anxious, about redefining it, and reimagining the concept and application of angst. It’s about the meaning of anxiety in a universe that is perpetually falling apart and reconstructing itself. We live on an abstract plane that is always deconstructing its core tenements. We are a people self-obsessed with self-growth. One of the most popular ways to attain this is by self-reference and self-analysis. Relationship of Command is about being so psychologically reflective, poetically insulated, and politically afraid that self-obsession turns to anxiety, and anxiety to pure rage. This intensely restless philosophy also led guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez to end the group. It’s only fitting that At The Drive-In’s most lethal flaw was also their most compelling sonic element.
Arcarsenal kicks your teeth in. Pattern Against User trades anthemics with deconstructionist hardcore acrobatics to paint a vulgar picture of anxiety and truth. One Armed Scissor changes lives by way of junky iconography and guitar-sliced, anxious landscapes of sound. Something like Invalid Litter Dept. sounds like the nervous ramblings of some depressive anarcho-cubist, while Mannequin Republic is all classic hardcore pandemic… until it’s not, and then it is again all over. It’s all beauty and it’s all vertical motion. It’s all At The Drive-In and it’s all perfectly captured. It’s all about falling apart sonically and it’s all about caustic redefinitions of musical theory and artistic practice. It’s about being postmodern, while you scream and thrash about.
Given the album’s transient, powerful anatomy, listening to it is an undeniably personal experience. I hear Miami, I hear all of Florida. I hear the heat, the rage, the rain, and the sweltering sun. I hear my voice as Bixler-Zavala’s and I’m yelling about sent transmissions to dead roommates. I’m hurling emotional hardcore paeans at the heart of my galaxy, at the very core of everything that ever shocked me by its suddenness and relentlessness. I’m rebelling against the auto-regenerative make-up of my social self and culture as a whole. I keep reevaluating myself, I keep changing, deconstructing and reforming, that I have no idea what my soul even feels like anymore or whether or not I am even a constant personality aspect or if I’m a hybrid of postmodern tension and non-operational woes.
That right there is the philosophical bone of the LP. It’s not just that culture changes us so much that we’re unrecognizably angry, we change ourselves, we put our hearts through a methodical, torturous process of reinvention every single moment of every single day. We are constantly adapting and shape-shifting. We are different, forever. We are post-people, part of a post-caricature anti-generation. We are proto-anxiety. Anxiety is our only commonality. Anxiety will never die. And it makes you wanna scream.
Relationship of Command is a gorgeous record of guitar noise. Let’s focus in on Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Jim Ward, and the cosmically relevant sounds they produced. The guitar music on this LP is beyond mind-blowing. It’s inventive, it’s admirably brave, and atmosphere building. Rodriguez-Lopez and Ward carefully, yet brazenly, mold a very specific universe into existence with their six strings, one of full frontal abandon and sonic poetry as heard by eternal youths with damaged eardrums, skinny heroin-chic with pulsating holes in their arms, overanxious and bored, but frightened and mad. It is a guitar driven opus, one that blooms outward with kinetic energy and astral importance/purpose. Paul Hinojos aides this energy by providing wonderfully crafted/handled bass lines that are not only deliberately performed but flexible in character.
It’s a sound atlas. There is a well-coordinated map, connecting each song, enlarging them into a sonic scope of neon rushing splendor. Hyperbole aside, Relationship of Command is unmistakably of its time and place, the here and the now. Not their now, but the ongoing now that is always happening right now in every unfolding, immediate instance, like right now. They faced emo sensibilities with hardcore sensitivity. Offbeat rhythms lay waste to emotional peaks of energy. They’re talking about your veins and using words like ‘intravenous’ to describe their worth.
Something I really should touch on is just how accessible the album is. It’s aggressive, but it’s not a challenging work. It’s relatively easy to digest. Most of the eleven tracks are El Paso brief and perfectly digestible. But it’s this kind of pop art that runs in parallel lines. It’s a multi-faceted piece that works on several levels, all of varying complexity and authenticity. Relationship of Command provides its listener with a portmanteau of influence. It’s an endearing, enduring collection that paints several figures in a divine, important, fatal light. Violent sweat junkies as bearers of the aegis. Junky warrior Homers. Smack tanned gladiators who believe in absolutes. Doped-up would-be Caesars.
Relationship of Command is post-coliseum noise rock.
At The Drive-In are a deadly serious pantheon-satyricon. I don’t only hear Florida and junkies and rage and men/women and politics. I hear ancient Rome. I hear concurrent, infinite timelines. I have been converged. I am kid Caesar. I am emblematic. I am revenge. Relationship of Command is pure post-coliseum. It’s something else entirely. Something intimate and ageless, doomed and mythic. It’s Edith Hamilton with a shaved head raging about sci-fi slumlords and cyclops demagogues. It’s a cathartic release. Relationship of Command is Hercules emasculated. It’s about complete upheaval and reconstruction. It’s about reinventing our timelines. It’s about realigning them to run simultaneously together. It’s about sacking the Roman Empire. It’s about being eaten by Huns. It’s about watching Carthage writhe. Nero has abandoned his fiddle in favor of an electric guitar.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala as some misfit emperor turned screaming punk god.
After the demise of At The Drive-In, the survivors splintered off into two primary camps, the aptly named but underwhelming Sparta and the occasionally brilliant (see Noctourniquet, Frances the Mute, and movements of De-Loused) progressive acid rock fusion that was The Mars Volta. in•ter a•li•a is now upon us and it is a fantastic follow-up seventeen years later to Relationship of Command . It is an excellent record that does its predecessor justice. Like all classics of genre though, in•ter a•li•a could never have been Relationship of Command, not for all of its glory (and it truly is another glorious LP). There is something to be said of the ineffable timing of At The Drive-In’s landmark release. The year 2000 was really something else for concept art-punk, and make no mistake about it, At The Drive-In is purely art-hardcore/art-emo music. They went out of their way to deconstruct every characteristic of the genre they called home and reevaluated its every aspect. They changed post-hardcore because they fully intended to change it. This was not a case of accidental genius on the part of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It was calculated, careful, and precise. It was something to behold. Rodriguez-Lopez as a cracked, renegade Aurelius, as a hobo Cicero, and as a luminous, acid soaked Pegasus.
Even when you give something like Acrobatic Tenement a spin, you are immediately transported to a very unique world. In/Casino/Out is a masterpiece unto itself and might even deserve its own think-piece. In/Casino/Out is truly a phenomenal record, captured in live sessions which add to the overall sense of anxiety and restless energy, the one unifying element found in every At The Drive-In release. Songs like Alpha Centauri can revitalize your life. Others like Napoleon Solo can stop you dead in your tracks. Shorter releases like Vaya provide quick fixes and bridges to future soundscapes. Their catalog is an odyssey of sonic grammar, culminating in Relationship of Command. Only time will tell where in•ter a•li•a will stand, but I have high hopes for the record’s endurance and appeal.
At The Drive-In are about mythologies. They’re about being deliberately immediate, unstoppable like a timeline driven.
They’re about emotional hardcore.