If you like the current alternative rock scene, then you have At the Drive-In to thank for influencing a lot of it. The five members who make up At the Drive-In come from El Paso, Texas, and from past EPs like Hell Paso, one gets that the feeling that they were more than a little ticked off by their hometown experiences. But At the Drive-In has definitely become more than just an angry punk band. They started out as a bunch of kids addicted to Fugazi, Black Flag, and the Pixies and they waded through a lot of shit to get to where they are. For a long time, the band stuck to a dying DIY ethic, living out of their van, eating Taco Bell for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and playing countless clubs with thankless listeners. So even if you don’t love their music, you have to appreciate their heart and ability to stick together for as long as they did.
But something that never changed, and probably remains emblazoned in the mind of anyone who attended one of their shows, was ATDI’s white-knuckled, teeth-clenching energy. Their live shows were legendary, with members flying across the stage and jumping off of anything that could support their weight. However, the band constantly tried to balance their on-stage insanity with the struggle of showing their audience that their music wasn’t just generic headbanger rock. With the arrival of their fourth and final EP Vaya, At the Drive-In definitely gained ground on that front.
Although Vaya is by far one of the best EPs the band produced, one of its few pitfalls is the lack of individuality for each song. The track “300 MHz” starts out like a fueled protest on society’s crap. I was about to grab my Free Tibet shirt out of the closet when I heard them fall back on the same guitar part that seems to run throughout three other songs. But whatever minor shortcomings Vaya may have, they’re more than made up for by the band’s energy on every track. A large part of that is due to vocalist Cedric Bixler’s fiery ranting. The lyrics are rooted in the society bashing themes of underground, punk but definitely bring a smarter, edgier element into the mix. With verses like, “Stampede is coming / Mastadon infantry / Radiate this frequency”, Bixler undoubtedly gets lost in the moment, but that’s the beauty of this EP.
There are more than a few tracks on Vaya that really bring out the alternative rock sound in ATDI. Songs like “Ursa Minor” and “198d” really show the band’s flexibility. Between the excitement and mad shouts come moments of genuine reflection, which attest to the band’s rigorous tours and growth over the years. To keep things fair, you can also sense a growing trend towards a more “emo” sound, but hey, those were the times, right? Nevertheless, this combination of hardcore and alternative punk definitely works well together, even if the transition from song to song does feel a bit awkward.
One of the definite highlights of Vaya is “Metronome Arthritis”. You can tell ATDI pulled out all the stops for this one. Distorted vocals that run alongside a guitar put through a myriad of effects make you realize how far the band came musically and technically since their first EP.
While listening to Vaya, I can definitely feel two different sounds trying to come out on the EP: the safer side of ATDI, rooted more in mainstream rock, versus its other more progressive side. This conflict of interests is what ultimately spelled the end for this awesome band. ATDI soon split into the Mars Volta and Sparta shortly after the release of Vaya, but fortunately the band left us with some great stuff to jump around to.