If the apocalypse were to begin, odds are good that El Paso would be the first to hear of it. Geography’s responsible: The city is located where worlds end. Go any further west in West Texas and Texas turns into New Mexico; to the south of the city, across the Rio Grande, is original Mexico in the form of the twin city Ciudad Juárez. El Paso seemed especially ripe for terminal meditations in the ’90s, a decade taken to be the end of history; one of the signs of this end was a surge in the export of American manufacturing jobs overseas, and thanks to NAFTA no small number of those jobs ended up in the newly built factories of Juárez known as maquiladoras. Tourists, farm products, and factory work flowed south, while drugs, factory products, and farm workers flowed north. The whole process was insane, as the Latin American novelist Roberto Bolaño observed from the south. He would center his last apocalyptic novel, 2666, on the struggle to make sense of the unsolved serial murders of over a thousand young women that took place in Juárez between 1993 and 2003. (Nothing is clarified, but cartels, corrupt policemen, and the cruel new capitalism of the maquiladoras are all somehow implicated.)
Things were dreadful from the north bank too, though in a different manner. When a newly formed El Paso band named At the Drive-In —whose new album in•ter a•li•a is out today, on Cinco de Mayo, nearly 17 years after the band’s last studio release — self-released its first recording in 1994, the 11-minute EP’s title, Hell Paso, was already familiar to its local audience. The story of the band would prove worthy of Bolaño, sharing similar themes with the Chilean-Mexican author. There was a Spanish-speaking connection, for one: A majority of the band’s five members, including lead guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, are of Hispanic descent. But there was also a more intimate affinity: The electrifying sense of permanent crisis is common to the art of both. Much as a crew of impassioned young Mexican poets set out on a journey to find a shadowy older poet in Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, At the Drive-In would go on the road in search of an elusive punk ideal, logging tens if not hundreds of thousands of miles touring tiny venues all across the States. Their talents honed through constant performance, the band carved out a small but very dedicated following. In those pre-internet days their reputation spread slowly, through word of mouth and bootleg live recordings on cassettes, but it never receded.
The band’s sound was evolving rapidly. Though earlier offerings, from Hell Paso up to their second studio album In/Casino/Out, fit more or less neatly into the post-hardcore mold established by Fugazi and others, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala’s taste for stranger influences was slowly coming to the fore. The former had come to excel at strange, compelling angles of attack, rendering dissonance normal and harmony weird; in doing so he was catching up to the latter’s lyrics, whose avant-garde poetry verged on the cryptic without lapsing into gibberish. The band came into its own on 1999’s Vaya, a perfect 24-minute EP where their expansive inclinations and the more stripped-down tendencies advocated by rhythm guitarist Jim Ward (backed by drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos) are forcefully united without suppressing either side. Though lacking Vaya’s absolute concentration, their third album, Relationship of Command (2000), was conceived in the same spirit, and excellent in its own right. The single “One-Armed Scissor,” where Rodriguez-Lopez’s and Ward’s guitars war it out while Bixler-Zavala howls, bellows, and drives various charged particles (“Get away,” “Send transmission from a one-armed scissor,” “I write to remember”) found airtime on radio and television. The album could be bought at Best Buy.
At the Drive-In was emerging from the underground, but the emergence was painful, and would prove to be fatal. The tensions between the Rodriguez-Lopez/Bixler-Zavala camp and Ward’s faction could no longer be held down. The band fissioned into two separate groups. The brain trust formed the Mars Volta and released two very good concept albums (De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute) before slowly tapering off into esoteric banality: They demonstrated why prog rock’s omnivorous zest and omnidirectional energy was a great idea and then showed why it wasn’t, or couldn’t stay so. Sparta, the outfit led by Ward, was a lesser affair: While the Mars Volta risked excess, Sparta suffered from an aesthetic so stripped-down that its default condition was anodyne. There’s no doubt Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala won the argument with Ward. (They even have a Grammy, somehow.) What’s still questionable is whether the band they broke up was better than the one they formed.
After enough time had passed for wounds to heal, At the Drive-In reformed in 2012. Following many tour dates and squabbles (Ward was in, then abruptly out, replaced by Sparta’s Keeley Davis), the band has released a fourth album. Clocking in at 11 tracks over 41 minutes, in•ter a•li•a was never going to match its predecessors: the novelty, youth, and heavy drug use that powered Vaya and Relationship of Command has vanished, never to be replaced. The guitars go heavy, but Rodriguez-Lopez’s isn’t quite as colorful as it used to be; Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics retain their evocative, hide-and-seek semantics, but his voice, though still quite powerful, can’t carry the same voltage it used to.
The album isn’t bad, by any means. What it offers is a chance to hear how durable the band’s aesthetic, developed at the turn of the millennium, has proven to be. Like the Pixies, another band reliant on sudden shifts in volume (and another band that collapsed shortly after mainstream exposure only to reunite a decade later), At the Drive-In now tends to sound like its own cover band. But unlike the Pixies, their sound was never superseded and/or modified for a mainstream audience by other bands while they were inactive. There was no Nirvana for them, much less a Nickelback (the line from Doolittle’s “Hey” to “How You Remind Me” exists, and is shorter than you think), and so they retain, even in their reduced capacity, a sense of freshness and timeliness. It makes sense for them to still exist.
The ATDI album in•ter a•li•a most resembles is In/Casino/Out: There’s a sense of working within established parameters, but doing so very well. The difference is that the parameters are those they themselves established, 18 years ago. As with In/Casino/Out, the tracks tend to bleed into one another. And as In/Casino/Out’s “Napoleon Solo” and “Hourglass” were distinguished by their finer lyrics, there are a couple of tracks, “Continuum” and “Tilting at the Univendor,” that are, thanks to their superior guitar lines, clearly ahead of the pack.
In place of novelty, we have, somehow appropriately, novels. Bixler-Zavala has been reading in his time off: I counted references to Gravity’s Rainbow, Don Quixote, The Executioner’s Tale, and The Handmaid’s Tale; more may lurk somewhere in the lyrical underbrush. Bixler-Zavala’s oblique approach to language has aged well. Eschewing most personal introspection and expression, his lyrics have always been a mélange of poetically distorted social and political observations. (“That’s the way the guillotine claps,” “Cannibal hymns of the bourgeoisie,” “Prolonged exposure to combustible nativism” appear on the present album, though it’s hard to top “Unleash the proletariat” from Vaya.) The incendiary sentiments aren’t really different from those of Rage Against the Machine, another post-hardcore metal band with Latin American roots with whom ATDI toured, but Bixler-Zavala’s baroque locutions can obscure the fact.
Nothing is clarified, but everything is brutally implicated — especially, on in•ter a•li•a, God and the church. Unlike with Rage’s Zack de la Rocha, listeners often have to be savage detectives to decipher his words, with their inflammatory fusion of agitprop and elegy. In Bolaño’s novels, as in Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics, people keep dying and keep needing to be remembered. Their aesthetic logic is identical, though they go by different names: The Savage Detectives dubs it “visceral realism”; the new album calls it “disassociation in the belly of the Beast.”
Much as The Savage Detectives is structured around the vanished actions of an inseparable duo of charismatic poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the story of At the Drive-In has hinged on the presence and disappearance of Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala. If the story in the songs has remained the same — the poor still suffering, the sky still falling — that’s because the world since the ’90s really hasn’t changed. in•ter a•li•a is all right, but what I’d really look forward to is a Bixler-Zavala novel detailing the history of the band and his friendship with Rodriguez-Lopez, or at least a concept album along the same lines, perhaps by the Mars Volta (a project whose eclecticism in•ter a•li•a could have used a bit more of). Youth has the advantage over middle-age in music, but in literature it tends to be the other way around.