Friday, January 11, 2013

Day Eleven: At the Drive-In - Vaya


Fearless Records ■  F040-1

Released July 13, 1999

Recorded and mixed by Mike Major [1,5,7], Alex Newport [2,4], and Justin Leah & Bobby Torres [6]. Tracks 3,6 produced by Sean Cummings

Side One:Side Two:
  1. Rascuache
  2. Proxima Centauri
  3. Ursa Minor
  4. Heliotrope
  1. Metronome Arthritis
  2. 300 MHz
  3. 198d
I originally decided, because I was starting with an artist that had the same split of releases in my collection, that I would leave EPs by the wayside for artists for whom I owned a full length LP. I decided to skip that "rule" on this occasion simply because I know a number of people who are big fans of this band--other than me, I mean. It also tends to come with a love that drives adamant opinions, and occasionally divides. When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, it was the only time I really noticed or felt the loss of a band--I'd never seen them live (to be honest, even when they reunited ten years later, I did not rush out for the very distant and often festival-based events, either). It also led to the rise of two groups--they'd just released their Nevermind in popularity terms, or maybe just the hint toward it, and that was that--Sparta and the Mars Volta. When I last wrote about them, I was disinclined to make my rather well-known, passionate opinion on that split known. I'm still disinclined: too many times, I've seen expressed opinions on this front devolve rapidly into swearing, shouting matches, and insults. It has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a lot of the time as regards all three bands, which does not make me very happy. As a result, I tend to avoid discussing that as much as I can, even if I still occasionally feel the desire to talk about it.


Anyway, let's set all that aside and look at what, along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is one of my most-played records.

At the Drive-In were a band from El Paso, TX that shifted in shape and sound a lot over the years. They started off with a handful of EPs (more in the 7", 3-5 song variety) like Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!, but moved on to release the full length albums Acrobatic Tenement (plagued by recording as an unintended clean-guitar release, due to confusion about rehearsal sessions) and In/Casino/Out (the full length I actually own on vinyl). Vaya followed all of these, and was the last major release before their semi-major label debut, Relationship of Command in 2000.

The wiki article on the release mentions the sentiment that seems to follow the EP regularly: "The sound of the album bridges the musical gap between In/Casino/Out and their following album, Relationship of Command." That's actually a relatively inappropriate declaration for Wikipedia in light of its policies (from what I can see, most of their articles on Wikipedia are actually horribly written, policy-wise, in the same way), but remains rather accurate despite that. The band was thrown various labels, from emo to punk to post-hardcore, with emo (unsurprisingly) receiving the greatest degree of vitriol. Let's not even get into the problems with attempting to label anything emo in this day and age, and stick with the rather reasonable post-hardcore attribution, which fits well enough not to chafe.

While In/Casino/Out did see the band beginning to play more openly with possibilities beyond the basic rock band instrumentation of their prior recordings, Vaya saw a more emphatic electronic bend added to the works. This is obvious from the beginning of the album--where In/Casino/Out began with "Alpha Centauri"'s  aggressive guitar riffs, Vaya begins with "Rascuache", where the guitars act as echoing background flavouring and brief, intermittent strums. The focus is on a thumping electronic beat--not like a dance song, but like a pulsing set of Morse code. Tony Hajjar's appearance is with tight, light toms, almost as if on bongos, before a quick set of taps on the rim built to by that pulsing beat increasing in speed brings us clean but more persistent guitar from Omar Rodriguez (now known as Omar Rodríguez-López), before a break in Cedric Bixler's (now known as Cedric Bixler-Zavala) singing that lets Jim Ward¹ come in with a distorted incarnation of that same clean riff. The song eventually falls to an instrumental passage, with Rodriguez noodling about as Ward takes on a simple keyboard riff for texture, with Hajjar and bassist Pall (actually Paul, but credited "Pall" on most of their releases) Hinojos. The song ends with a veritable scream from Bixler as he sings the chorus for the final time, holding the last word until the song stops absolutely short--not cut off, but stopped--"Pacemaker pace yourself/You were slowly clawing your way out".

"Proxima Centauri" carries things forward with drummer Tony Hajjar's inexplicably propulsive beat, which seems to trip all over itself yet seem perfectly logical at the same time. Cedric begins to repeat the phrase, "T-Minus, 10 seconds and counting," as Hinojos rumbles underneath him, until the guitars slide, bend and squeal in and the song builds, exploding with energy when the chorus begins, Cedric moving to his emphatic yell. The song brings back a clean, circling guitar riff reminiscent of the sound they (accidentally) carried on Acrobatic Tenement.

When "Ursa Minor" comes in, the pace is slowed, but the energy does not seem lost. It's still a burn, but seemingly a more slow one, with partly call and response verses that move toward a tilt-a-whirl bridge that bounces low to high on the guitar, with Omar and Jim singing with Cedric at the beginning of each line until it all breaks after "They will come and get you tonight", for Jim to whisper, "So I guess this is goodnight", at which point the chorus itself breaks in and the riffs come along furiously and thickly, with more unified voices. There's a momentary break, as with many songs on Vaya, that allows for distant, electronically modified voice, similar to the megaphone approach bands occasionally take but resembling more a distant, poor radio signal. The indecisive and constant movement of Omar's approach to guitar lead into a series of drum rolls under the escalating cries of "Inertia kisses those around me" that drops back into the bridge.

Side One closes with the most frenetic track on the album, "Heliotrope", which blasts out of the gate, not letting up for a moment, Cedric's voice seeming to race to keep up, the monstrous riffs backing away in part to let Omar again jump from fret to fret. The bottom falls out as Paul and Tony relax, Omar lazily bending, and light chords ringing clean. A single held note and muted single string picking, rim-and-cymbal-only percussion, and a bass line that is no more than half its prior pace allows Cedric to calmly state, "It's as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again", all instrumentation dropping out halfway through the line. It's a signal, though, and every instrument kicks in again at full speed as soon as he finishes, his line turned to expand: "Turn slowly for maximum vend".

Side two has some of the longer and more unusual songs on the album, opening with the ominous, lurching rhythm that defines "Metronome Arthritis" (the only song, prior to Relationship of Command, to receive a promotional music video). There's something sinister about it, though it seems to float off with the hushed instrumentation that backs Cedric's initial lines: "Strike this match and let loose the oven's breath/Up the volume that floats with the UHF". The pounding rhythm and the phasing hiss that opened the song return as Cedric's volume returns, but it all leave on a suspenseful note, only Paul and Omar noodling and dancing around the chorus: "Quick to the throat in this ink cartridge funeral/Marble caps lock zip code affiliate/You've got a run on your pharmaceuticals/You better change it 'fore the night grows old". The feeling of criminal activity, paranoia and threat is confirmed and articulated after an isolated series of muted, clean chords brings a cymbal-heavy, staccato section behind Cedric's full-throated yell: "What if forensics finds the answers/What if they stole my fingerprints/Where did I leave my book of matches/We'll find you". It's the only song on the EP with a fadeout.

"300 Mhz", like its followup, moves from juxtaposed words, star names and other seemingly impenetrable words to a pair of tracks that looks like alphanumeric soup at first, though it's not difficult to un-cross one's eyes and see they obviously aren't random at all. It's an odd song in many respects: the semi-megaphone vocals return instead as the focus, but are matched with a low-end heavy song where, like many At the Drive-In tracks, it feels as if the guitar is more a flavouring or accent than defining melodic aspect. A dub-like echo is added to some of Tony's drumming for only brief moments, furthering the peculiar production choices for the song. The riff the song opens with is like a jagged strike from bottom to top, repeated a few times before that low-end feel to the song asserts its dominance, but it returns to back Jim Ward yelling "Malfunction!" in his strained vocal--there's no other word, you can hear the effort when Jim does this, and you can see it if you see him perform--that does not last long, but when the song comes back around to it a second time, it does not return to the simmering beat, it turns, instead, to the title, as the jabbing guitars turn to a repeated roar, Cedric semi-ironically screaming out, "Whispered in the ear, three hundred megaherz," making the pairing of volume and words all the more contradictory as the seemingly whispered phrase receives the greatest emphasis and volume of all. The song eventually falls to guitars let ring, slowing until it finally stops, as do most of the songs, on a dime.

"198d" is one of the handful of "ballad-esque" songs in the At the Drive-In catalogue, built around the insistent, muted keyboard loop from Jim that opens it. It sounds less like the keyboard it is than a distress call floating through space from a non-functional vessel, with a scattered ringing of guitar playing seeming to emphasize an image in this respect. "This is forgiven if the uniform fits/Postponed, at the first showing/This is the tension mold/Of frozen icicles, and it feels like it's snowing" Cedric sings quietly, before a rising guitar riff brings us to Jim's cry of "Walk away," that is answered with Cedric's plaintive, "Born in hearts, etched in cold." Cedric whispers over the quietest moment on the record: an even lighter keyboard riff, lightly played guitar notes, all of it bringing us back around to the final words: "Tremors that hold us", answered with "Nothing bleeds like", before it circles back to the chorus, fading away with "Born in hearts", and the instruments' sounds for once allowed to just ring and fade naturally, away from the pattern of the rest of the album.

I was struck with a peculiar notion, on this, my billionth listen to this record: it's silly and strange, but at moments it feels almost as if there's a thematic, near-concept to the record. I don't mean a strict story, per se, though I could almost hear one in it. Perhaps it was the influence of songs titled after stars and constellations, countdowns, and words like "malfunction", and phrases like "spacesuit togas" and "Saturn's rings"--perhaps I'm just ridiculous. It was as if it was about an attempt to colonize by space torn apart by human failings. I'm not one inclined to make any attempt at analyses like this, but the more I listened, the more I was struck by how consistent it seemed to remain. Of course, I'm inclined to think this is purely my justified perception, rather than the intention of the rather stream-of-consciousness lyrics involved. But the echoes of classical culture ("Proxima Centauri" references Caligula, the phrase "E Tu Brute", togas, "Roman fracture") that seem to imply a familiar ("space time cliché") and inevitable betrayal and wresting of leadership, decadence and internal failure. "Ursa Minor" references "sleep apparatus" and new settlements, "permssion to land/all systems go..."--I don't know, maybe it's just an attempt to puzzle together things that I'm not able to puzzle together, or maybe it just reflects the kind of words that occur to Cedric. Still, there's a sense of a mission launched, of infighting and betrayal and paranoia defining an attempt to reach out.

This kind of politics and cynicism isn't outside the more openly declared lyrical content of At the Drive-In, but it could all be my imagination anyway.

While I have a soft spot for In/Casino/Out, I included a poll to determine the At the Drive-In release specifically because I suspected Vaya would be chosen. In/Casino/Out has varied reasons for my muddled preferences, most of them sentimental or reactionary, instead of respectful and "objective". But that is often the classification of favourites, isn't it? How boring would it be for all of us to always like the most well-recorded, well-played, "accurate", successfully experimental records? Of course, for me: those are the aspects that define Vaya, which is why my opinion remains so muddled. I'll take either over Relationship of Command, but I only find myself caught between the "best" and my "favourite" records when it comes to these two.

¹I admit to guessing, but from live video of the way they play and familiarity with the way each of them play, I'm making my best guess.

Next Up: At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul
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