Wednesday, October 7, 2009

#85. 'And they made sure that the obituaries showed pictures of smokestacks'

At the Drive-In "Invalid Litter Dept."

I had favorite bands before At the Drive-In, but I can't think of any that were as much of a catalyst for my personal musical journey. God that phrasing makes me sound like a pretentious douchebag...what I mean is that Relationship of Command stands as one of the only albums that really changed my view of what I expected from music. Prior to hearing it I was your stereotypical nu-metal kid. I owned Limp Bizkit albums, I though Korn were one of the best bands ever, I was seriously excited at the possibility of a new Powerman 5000 album...and then I heard this wildly incongruous blast of post-hardcore and nothing on that list applied any more, at least not to the same degree as it did before. In hindsight it's kind of weird that one album alone pretty much dismantled my musical sensibility and rebuilt it in less than an hour, but listening to Relationship again 8 years later it makes a weird amount of sense. It sounds like the exact kind of album that would get a confirmed nu metal fan to open himself up to a more wide-ranging array of sounds. It sounds like the kind of album a 14 year old could build his musical identity upon. It sounds like it was the perfect album at the perfect time, god bless it for that.

The odd thing is that before I acquired the album - I won it in a contest through Muchmusic's LOUD along with a plethora of stuff that was more my speed at the time - the few times I'd heard "One-Armed Scissor" it hadn't done too much for me. It still doesn't to be frank, it's the obvious single but beyond that it still strikes me as a bit lightweight compare to the rest of the album (of course seeing the unbelievable live version from Later solves that problem, also makes me regret never seeing them live.) Following it up with "Invalid Litter Dept." was a bit of genius though. Going from the most readily accessible song on the album to the most representative is a standard move for most bands, but the choice of "Invalid" over something like the more readily accesible "Pattern Against User" was inspired to say the least. Not only is it the band at their most schizophrenic, using one of the calmest moments on the album as a starting point to that crushing breakdown, but its also the most political and personal they get on the album.

The video spells it out much more plainly than the lyrics, which are the usual level of obtuseness from Cedric Bixler-Zavala albeit with more haunting imagery than normal, but the song centers on the frequent rape and murder of Mexican factory workers in Juarez, just across the border from the band's hometown of El Paso. Knowing the impetus for the song does add a lot to it, certain seemingly obtuse lyrical fragments - 'dancing on the corpse's ashes', 'they made sure the obituaries showed pictures of smokestacks' - become poignant and unsettling in this context, but even before seeing the video and connecting the dots the song just struck me as unbelievably powerful. Even before the coda, where Zavala lets loose with a huge, anguished wail that still sends a chill down my spine to this day, it's the most passionate-sounding thing on Relationship, everything from the stream-of-consciousness-esque rants that make up the verses to the weird guitar noise that builds into the chorus is steeped in raw passion. The whole album has that quality to some degree, but "Invalid" is that step beyond the rest in that department.

The passionate nature is perfectly summed up by the chorus. Not only do we get Zavala's soaring vocal, the band behind him does their best work of the entire album for my money. It starts with Paul Hinojos' bass becoming the melodic focus as guitarists Jim Ward and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez move into what I call 'colour riffs,' bits of guitar work that fill the margins and add atmosphere to the track while never fully diverting attention for m the center of the track. Hinojos and Zavala are the central focus, but Ward and Lopez give the chorus it's atmosphere, that haunting feel that enhances the emotion behind Zavala's vocal. When the elements converge back in on each other during the 'wishing well' section it sound positively stunning,showing the band's chemistry in its full effect. The transitions between those two sections are just effortlessly executed, and the way the chorus ties back to the verses on either side is just as well done. The overall effect is almost overwhelming, going from the passionate but calm verses into this juggernaut of emotion, but it's such a stunning piece of work that it's impossible to ignore its power.

It's disappointing that the band broke up so soon after Relationship of Command, but the continued work that the various members are doing, Ward and Hinojos in the previously discussed Sparta and Zavala and Lopez in The Mars Volta is a potent reminder of just how powerful the musicians behind it were. The fact that neither project has matched the impact, on both a critical and emotional level, that Relationship had is just as potent a reminder of how well the two factions worked together, bringing out the best in each other without letting things get too normal or wholly alien. The tension between the two sides was probably responsible for the band's dissolution, but it made for some damn good music while it lasted.

Coming up tomorrow: Rock puts on it's boogie shoes

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