A Love Letter To At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command
It can be tempting in this age of endless, envy-driven self-reflection to pick away obsessively at the flaws in our character, the mistakes in our memory. To tease out the what ifs and what-could-have-beens into epic biopics that eventually take on a life and a logic of their own, running parallel and in real-time alongside reality until each choice we make is informed by the ghosts of every girl that got away, every friend let down and lost, every tube train missed.
Whenever things slow down and go soft-focus long enough for us to reminisce, we see these innumerable lost worlds as a kind of heaven for moments, or a purgatory, or a hell, depending on how much of your life to date you’d be willing to cleave off and trade in for a chance to start all over again.
I am a late person. I’ve been late for almost every type of event or experience I’ve had so far in my life: bus, train, taxi, air and boat journeys; birthdays, funerals and weddings; football matches, pan-continental family reunions, debt repayments, work deadlines and brain scans. I have missed stag dos entirely and missed my cue on festival stages, I have arrived apologetic and tardy at futile relationship salvation summits and been refused entry to job interviews; I am late to the point that I think lateness must somehow be trapped in my blood. But on one occasion, at least, it paid off, as I packed in a rush for the trip half an hour before it began, chucking in the first and only CD I could find: At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command.
What’s the blackest black you’ve ever seen? I was 15 when I woke up on a coach full of other 15 year olds somewhere in the middle of the Black Forest, on a two-week school history tour that took in various World War II horror-sites in Belgium, Germany, France, Poland and the Czech Republic. It was so dark that the night sky out there in the middle of rural nowhere seemed to swallow all the light from miles around, the silhouette of the trees pressed up tight against it like an oil spill. Most of what went on during the trip is a haze now – I remember some of us bought a load of knives, fireworks and ninja stars after getting smashed at a bar in Prague, but other than that what has stayed with me are the shoes at Auschwitz and the sheer amount of time spent on that coach with the same 20 or so people, cutting a laboured path across Europe, with the sole musical escape of five wraithlike post-hardcore kids from El Paso, Texas, flanked by Ross Robinson and Iggy Pop.
Relationship of Command is not a record that will have soothed many people to sleep; it doesn’t contain lullabies, it is in places as full-on and as febrile as you can get without venturing into the realms of Satan or Merzbow, and yet for that fortnight visiting some of the most harrowing and haunted places on the European continent it was the only CD I had to turn to for solace. From the first minute to the last, Relationship of Command is unrelenting; opener Arcarsenal is a cult leader of a song, one that deserves a whole article in its own right, snarling out of the traps in a way that makes other band’s attempts to snarl seem poxy and futile. The way the bass and guitars turn on themselves in the song’s instrumental middle eight ties my guts in knots every single time I hear it, it is blistering, exhilarating, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s opening salvo of “I must have read a thousand faces / I must have robbed them of their cause” sending a tidal wave of electricity pulsing out beneath the thin skin on the back of the neck, uprooting every hair in its path.
Watch this, it feels like going to war:
From here, Relationship of Command pummels its way through another 50 minutes of sui generis guitar music that somehow finds a way to crush and soar simultaneously. Not for a moment do the jabs or the hooks – whether vocal or musical – subside; Pattern Against User is a gorgeous mid-song breakdown cocooned in intricate polyrhythms and riffs the size and incline of the Hoover Dam; One Armed Scissor the flagship “single” that still soundtracks Robbie Williams’ most terrifying fever dreams; Sleepwalk Capsules, Mannequin Republic, Cosmonaut and Catacombs – the latter a Europe-only bonus track – kick on and by like rally chants for a bloodbath while Invalid Litter Dept, the record’s most pensive moment, is a piano-led excursion into space-age spoken word wrapped in the textures of Talking Heads. Stylistically, “post-hardcore” seems an inadequate label – the album is hardwired with traces of dub, psychedelia, punk, metal, art-rock and salsa. The scope and ambition of it are dizzying, dwarfed only by the execution.
The three tracks that most bring back if not the memories then the gut feelings of that teenage atrocity road-trip run through numbers seven to nine on the album’s tracklisting: Enfilade, Rolodex Propaganda, Quarantined. These seem to exist as a kind of self-governed island within the album as a whole, the first starting with Iggy Pop on the phone, demanding “10,000 kola nuts” as a ransom for a kidnapped son. “I’ll be the hyena, you’ll see,” concludes Pop before hanging up, the cue for “Enfilade” to kick into gear. Conspiratorial air duly summoned, the song skids along with a sense of motion that just seemed to make sense when hurtling across the vast and apparently endless expanses of the European mainland, the choral refrain “Sacrifice on railroad tracks / freight train coming, freight, freight train coming / Un-un-unconscious, tied and gagged” suggesting Pop and his poor captive will soon be forcing a train driver into therapy sessions.
Rolodex Propaganda features Pop more prominently, his voice straining and keening through the gaps in the mix during the chorus, while Quarantined is the spiralling, totemic masterpiece at the album’s heart: beginning and ending in driving rain, climaxing over and over in a chorus that could swallow a whale whole. There is something awe-inspiring about Relationship of Command that perhaps explains why its cultural impact could never be anything other than wholly self-contained; it wasn’t a flag-bearer that allowed other bands to charge in behind and stake out their own turf, simply because no other band could come close to this, the years have shown that. It wasn’t the product of a scene and it didn’t allow anyone or anything to bathe in its glory apart from itself, its devotees and the people who created it. In that way, it was like the night sky hanging above the Black Forest, something that pulled light into itself and refused to spit it back out, a black hole of a record that leaves as its anecdotal legacy a string of awe-struck reviews, some afro jokes, a lucid case against moshing and that profoundly weird encounter with Jools Holland, two creatures from distant continents meeting for the first time and not really knowing how to deal with each other.
There is one part of At the Drive-In that will surely remain forever unknowable. The band function today almost as a shorthand for lyrical opacity; plainly put, even 18 years after its release, barely any of the words they say on the album seem to make any sense. Let’s look at some examples:
“Shackled the grapple and the sentinels found / binoculars watch cardboard towns” – from “Quarantined”
“Intravenously polite, it was the walkie-talkies that had knocked the pins down / as their shoes gripped the dirt floor in the silhouette of dying” – from “Invalid Litter Dept.”
“Mechanical panaceas absolved by history / phonetic paralysis inflicted through morality / the seed that it nurtured was a wilted bouquet” – from “Rolodex Propaganda”
“Circus carny guarding / the gates of heaven / like stuck in limbo induction” – from “Pattern Against User”
“Orchestra influenza / drawn and quartered pets / it dwells and grows” – from “Non-Zero Possibility”
“Taser taser / kindergarten / nap nap time” – from “Sleepwalk Capsules”
And yet the way that the lyrics flew by, wrapped in the organised chaos of the music, held its own value to me. In the vacuum they created my mind was free to impose and inflict its own meaning on the record, a meaning that can’t not have been affected by the things I saw and thought on that trip, the relics of a conflict and mass displacement almost impossible to comprehend in its scale of awful rupture. In that way, the cryptic nature of Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics really did work; they became a home for feelings and emotions generated by Auschwitz, Krakow, Prague, Berlin, the Black Forest and all the rest that otherwise might have been much more difficult to place. If they couldn’t draw the sting from the sheer weight of human suffering that my senses were being flooded with, then at least in their apparent nonsense they were able to provide a modicum of ambiguity and relief.
During the performance of Big Day Out from which that earlier video of Arcarsenal is pulled, Bixler-Zavala takes the time to urge the crowd to listen to Mark E Smith, a personal obsession of his that might seem weird until you look at the lyric sheet. The frontman – and he was a frontman rather than a singer or vocalist, the physicality of his performance every bit as important as the notes, words and melodies – has a way with words that draws you in. At the Drive-In, just like The Fall, are a band who draw you into a world that runs according to their own logic, and in this world meaning isn’t something you arrive at immediately – instead, you inch closer to it in a kind of tightening circle, prodded in the right direction by a combination of words and delivery that hint at something larger than anything more straightforward would be able to convey. It was this as much as anything else that marked them out from their contemporaries.
In March 2001, six months after the release of Relationship of Command, At the Drive-In went on “indefinite hiatus” – the first time I had ever heard those words used together but a phrase that will now live with me always – citing stress, pressure and exhaustion. I was never lucky enough to see them live, but watching videos of past performances, you can understand how being At the Drive-In could exhaust you, stress you out to the point of despair, even if at the time it seemed awful and strange that they were breaking up just when they seemed ready to become one of the biggest bands on the planet. The pressure it was necessary to operate at to be At the Drive-In essentially exploded them, and while they returned last year with new album Interalia, it’s not the same – and that’s not a slur, it simply never could be the same. You can only explode something once. At the same time, I’m so glad for the lateness in me, for without it I likely wouldn’t have given the album time to force itself into me, setting me on a musical journey that has followed many roads without ever fully shaking the presence of its most dynamic, powerful and unexplainable formative force.