At The Drive-In

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author PP date 28/08/12 venue Brixton Academy, London, UK

It should've been a legendary night. It should have been an evening that people who attended the show would talk about for years to come, an evening where unlucky fans without a ticket would voice their jealousy in angry YouTube comments of any video they could find of the show. It could've been a proper send-off, a glorious finale where the last and final chapter of At The Drive-In's post-hardcore legend and enormous influence would finally be laid to rest in one unforgettable frenzy of utter chaos, latin-inspired dance moves, and stage energy that helped inspire bands like The Chariot and The Dillinger Escape Plan today.

Instead, what yours truly and AP experienced was a night most of us want to forget, for reasons that should never have been circumstantial in the first place. People had travelled to be here from all around the UK and elsewhere in Europe, some even further than that, I'm sure, just to be here and experience the first At The Drive-In club show in eleven years and the very last of its kind at the jam-packed Brixton Academy in London, which was sold out in less than five minutes when tickets became available for the general public. In the band's own words, they admitted that this reunion was all about money and nostalgia. But they also did mention that it would be the final show of the "Relationship of Command" tour, so despite initial worry over the reports from their festival shows from around the globe, there was enough grounds for perhaps unrealistically high expectations for the band's performance.

5,500 people in a sold out club venue means a lot of people singing along, after all.

As we all know, the band split in 2001 in a chaotic explosion of egos and disagreements about their future direction shortly after the release of their genre-defining masterpiece "Relationship of Command", at the height of critical acclaim and mainstream popularity. The break-up was sudden: they canceled the last five days of their European tour and the remainder of the World Tour dates, citing "complete mental and physical exhaustion" as the reason on a tour, which among other incidents included the band ceasing to play after just three songs at Big Day Out in Australia, where Cedric Bixler would deliver his now-infamous anti-moshing speech. Those disagreements formed two equally brilliant, but completely different sounding bands, The Mars Volta and Sparta. Bixler went on later to take responsibility by stating that he felt almost as if At the Drive-In was holding him back and that he didn't want his music to be confined to punk or hardcore - that it should encompass many genres and be even more progressive, alternative, and against-the-grain in its nature.

But despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary, 5,500 of us packed into Brixton Academy and hoped that they would reignite the fire once more, just this one night for us, and deliver an unforgettable evening of experimental punk/hardcore or whatever it is that you call At The Drive-In's unique style. Indeed, it should have been a legendary night.

The first sign that something was off tonight was the support 'band', which consisted of an electronic DJ who 'played' all sorts of ambient electronic pieces with his Macbook. 5,500 punk/hardcore/post-hardcore fans all stood in silence staring at the stage in confusion as to who this would benefit exactly, and why the band didn't pick someone, anyone, of the thousands of amazing bands that would've flown over to play tribute to the legends in a heartbeat.

Opener "Arcarsenal". So far so good.

And then eventually the band came on. The first notes of "Arcarsenal" were promising. The crowd went sufficiently mental though upholding the implicit agreement to not to mosh tonight, and roared back at excitement as the first funky guitar riff of the song echoed across the room. It's a chilling effect on you to hear 5,500 people scream their hearts out at a post-hardcore song in an explosion of anticipatory energy, trust me on that one. That vocalist Bixler dumped his set of maracas at the crowd before the first breakdown and screams of the song was like throwing gasoline on an engulfing fire.

But as soon as things settled from the initial excitement, already on song two, "Pattern Against User", it became regrettably clear that tonight was all about money for the band. Rumours about a possible ATD-I reunion were afloat for the last six years, which probably just means that promoters kept laying piles of cash in front of the band each year, and in 2012 they came with enough bags to make it seem like insanity to not take the deal.

But if you take the money, you just promise to be there, not to care or deliver a good show.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, once a flurry of insane footwork (those who have seen the videos know what I mean) and a staple of chaotic, unpredictable stage energy, made it incredibly clear that not only did he disapprove of this arrangement, he actually loathed it. To convey this to the crowd, he symbolically spent the entire night with his back to the crowd moving as little as humanly possible while facing his only amp, turning around only for brief moments to press a pedal. For this guy's ego, he clearly wanted to show that these songs he is forced to play tonight, they aren't him, and they belong to a history he almost wishes didn't exist. I'm almost certain that he feels his work in The Mars Volta and his solo project is infinitely more interesting and better than the songs tonight, which is like pissing in the eye for an entire genre considering the influence these guys have had over the years. This was virtually the case for the entire set from start to finish.

Omar not giving a shit on the left

Then there is vocalist Cedric Bixler, whose stage antics were much better, although still notably lazy and lacking of passion. He did still on occasion throw his mic stand around like in the past, but his problem was more that he was singing to the tune of Mars Volta songs than At The Drive-In tracks. He was probably two octaves higher than he should've been, so every single textured detail about his manic screaming was gone, instead replaced by a high pitch voice that did the songs absolutely no justice. I've never heard so many of my favorite songs being torn apart in such a brutal manner without mercy.

While the rest of the band, who spend their time in Sparta that's much closer to the ATD-I sound , were at least on tune, they too looked a little disinterested in the project. That's the key word for tonight by the way: disinterested. Because as the band were adamant on being a shadow of their former past tonight, the mood in the crowd quickly turned sour, so what could've been an epic sing along from the backs of your lungs from an entire venue now just concentrated at the first couple of rows in the front. I recall people around me almost lip-synching to the words because they knew them and felt obliged to at least pretend to sing along, but compared to the thunderous roar of "Arcarsenal" or the finale of "One Armed Scissor", the rest of the set was quiet and unenthusiastic, arguably disinterested from the crowd's part too.

And so we all stood there and watched 16 songs of what is probably the greatest At The Drive-In set list possible and weren't just confused or scratching our head, but we were angry. But most of all we were disappointed. Disappointed not that the band sucked or that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's ego wouldn't allow for a one last goodbye, but disappointed that we paid actual money to be here to watch our memories and dreams about one of the greatest bands in music history be slowly but surely shattered into a million little pieces. It feels only appropriate to quote Soupy from The Wonder Years here: "Growing up means watching my heroes turn human in front of me".

3

Setlist:

  • 1. Arcarsenal
  • 2. Pattern Against User
  • 3. Lopsided
  • 4. Sleepwalk Capsules
  • 5. Napoleon Solo
  • 6. Quarantined
  • 7. Enfilade
  • 8. Rascuache
  • 9. 198d
  • 10. Chanbara
  • 11. Metronome Arthritis
  • 12. Pickpocket
  • 13. Non-Zero Possibility
  • 14. Cosmonaut
  • --Encore--
  • 15. Catacombs
  • 16. One Armed Scissor

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