At the Drive-In

This Station is Non-Operational

(Fearless; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 September 2007

My personal soundtrack from September to October of 2000 was At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command. I really didn’t know too much about the band before picking up the album, and though I have since invested in the impressive back-catalogue (both Vaya and In/Casino/Out are on relatively frequent rotation), it hardly seems necessary. Relationship of Command is one of those albums so brutally hard that it barely matters what comes before or after. Of course, as it turned out, Relationship was the end of the line for ATDI, and though interesting and challenging projects have been spawned in the form of Sparta, The Mars Volta, and Omar Rodriguez’s solo work (perhaps the best of the bunch), none of it has packed the punch of ATDI.

ATDI weren’t colossal like Mastodon or Isis, or as overly political as Rage Against the Machine, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t smarter and more vicious than any of those three. Try listening to “One Armed Scissor” without feeling the emotional pull of that final coda; see if you can make it through “Chanbara” without snapping your head forward; take a crack at denying the brilliant burned-out funk of “Rascuache.” While Relationship is very arguably their finest album — the sound quality is a leap above anything else they did and perfectly crystallized that mix of dread and aggression that defined their music — the earlier material is impressive in its own right. This Station is Non-Operational gets by because it does a decent job of presenting the music (especially some of the rarer pieces) of a great band, not because it’s truly a great anthology of the legacy of ATDI.

What the compilation does well is to present much of their older material at a sound quality that matches Relationship. “Chanbara” writhes with a passion that I sometimes miss on my beat up old copy of In/Casino/Out. The inclusion of “Lopsided” and the classic “Napoleon Solo” from the same album make up for leaving off both the poppy “For Now…We Toast” or the lovely ballad “Hourglass,” a song that challenges anyone who would question Cedric Bixler’s songwriting skills.

It’s especially nice to see Vaya so well represented. The hugely sinister and vaguely latin “Metronome Arhritis” is everything that could have been right about Frances the Mute, while “198d” is a good gauge of ATDI’s quieter side (an element which is downplayed far too much here). Perhaps the compilation’s greatest sin is the dreadful quasi-dub Latch Bros. remix of “Rascuache,” a version that misses the point entirely and ends up overloading a song built on the tension inherent in the emptiness.

If you assume that anyone picking up this comp already has Relationship, then you can justify the presence of only three songs from that album. Still, it’s a shame to see “At.The.Drive.In. Anthology” printed on anything that doesn’t have “Arcarsenal,” “Pattern Against User,” or “Invalid Litter Dept.” on the track list. Some of the b-sides and EP material is interesting, especially the positively anthemic “Doorman’s Placebo,” but it doesn’t match up to those songs. Not surprisingly, the band fares much better with the progged-out Pink Floyd cover that closes the compilation than with the cover of The Smiths’ “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” though neither is particularly interesting.

Maybe one of these days the bonds will be healed between those with ‘fros (The Mars Volta) and those without (Sparta) and At The Drive-In will rise again. Considering the direction both of these bands has taken, one can only imagine it as a good move for all involved. Cedric and Omar are too crazy for their own good (and I say that as someone who does enjoy much of Frances the Mute), and Tony, Jim, and Paul don’t have quite the imagination or drive to take it to that next level that made ATDI great. Together they were one of the most impressive rock bands of the ‘90s, and while This Station is Non-Operational doesn’t quite do them justice, it’s nonetheless a good introduction.