...and if this clock keeps ticking away
will a comeback be hesitated?
Oh, how the mighty of fallen.
There's really no sense in bemoaning the state of rock music in 2017. Hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. Synth-pop is back. DJs get more groupies than long-haired guitar wielders. If At the Drive-In had put out a dancey new wave record, they may have been praised for getting with the times or reinventing their sound. Instead, the El Paso post-punk icons, whose seminal breakup album Relationship of Command (2000) was a bold shift away from nu-metal, rap-rock, and whatever The Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing at the time, have essentially tried to recapture lightning in a bottle after a 17-year hiatus. The results are strained and often laughable; sounding very much like men of a certain age trying to rip like it's 1999.
Die hard fans will likely embrace the fact that there's new material from a band long thought extinct, despite the fact that singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López have already exhausted whatever goodwill they had achieved during the early days of prog-psych band The Mars Volta. With Inter Alia, they've ditched founding guitarist Jim Ward but have otherwise tried to reproduce the volatile combination of heaviness and melody from Relationship of Command. Whereas that record stemmed from the explosion of youthful creativity, relentless touring, and bouts of heavy drug use, Inter Alia is caught in an awkward position of mimicking the intensity of youth while also going for mainstream Dad rock. Gone are the knotty riffs, weird instrumental detours, and visceral shout-sung-screamed vocals, replaced here by feigned rage, surprisingly brittle guitar leads, and vanilla Audioslave-esque choruses. Certainly, Cedric still writes puzzle-box lyrical nonsense, but whereas in the past such things worked as a novel asset in the band's appeal, now it simply feels silly.
At 41 minutes, Inter Alia is mostly a record which refuses to have it's own identity. Listen to the band's 1996 debut Acrobatic Tenement, and you can hear the sound of scrawny kids blasting through angular post-hardcore racket before that was even really a thing. Turn up 1998's In Casino Out and witness a unit fully in control of their Fugazi-esque punk bravado. Give the electronic textures and eccentric production of 1999's Vaya EP a spin. And of course, Relationship of Command still slays in all of its overproduced glory. Trying to place Inter Alia into this context is tricky because so much time has elapsed, but there's no question after the opening track "No Wolf Like The Present" that ATDI are sputtering here in uninspired fashion.
Making comparisons to a band's back catalog from a much different time is both understandable and reductive. There's no way ATDI could ever outdo their past efforts during our current musical climate, but a song like “Governed by Contagions”, with it's lame hand-claps and Cedric's hammy vocal delivery, does make one yearn for the intensely catchy velocity of "One Armed Scissor", which, for the record, was dismissed by the group as being something of a sell-out single at the time. Worse of all is the production by Muse alum Rich Costey, who mixes the album so that everything lacks density and tension, resulting in a clean sound that doesn't do the band any favors. Sure, Andy Wallace and Ross Robinson's production on Relationship of Command was similarly polished, but the "bigness" of the mix was reflected in the musical dexterity of the actual songs themselves, which constantly veered off in surprising directions. The tracks here are suitably bombastic, but despite some agile guitar work by Rodríguez-López, who seems like he's at least trying to replicate the band's off-kilter sensibilities, there's very little variation from standard verse-chorus-verse song structure. There's cringe-inducing early aughts emo ("Pendulum In A Peasant Dress"), limp pop punk ("Incurably Innocent"), and Mars Volta-esque prog ballads ("Ghost Tape No. 9"), all of which sound like ATDI without the one thing that can never be regained; the feral uncertainty and drive that comes with being young, angry, and devoid of expectations.
In their attempts at conjuring an anthemic call to arms over the entirety of their comeback album, ATDI misses what made their music so vital to begin with. During these divisive political times, we urgently need rock music that can contextualize how we feel, even if that simply means triggering an emotional response through squealing guitar chords and stream of consciousness rants. Instead, Inter Alia always feels as if it's trying to cram faux-fist pumping passion into every song without stopping to allow the music a chance to worm its way inside the listener's eardrums. Sadly, the return of one of rock's most influential post-hardcore bands feels more like an obligation than a celebration. In the words of Cedric himself from an In Casino Out deep cut , it's in the past...and now we toast.