When I was fifteen-sixteen years old, the ending to "Invalid Litter Dept." was one of the most intense moments in music that captivated me and forever left a violent influence on the rest of my musical spectrum. But it wasn't intense in the general realm of metal or hard rock or, er, white-belt grindcore - it was something that I heard and felt throughout my nervous system. It was deep belly and snarl of anguish felt in the pit of one's stomach, untouched by anything i had felt prior. Relationship of Command was the first time I heard something that was deemed "hardcore" by the general consensus. Ten years later, and I witnessed At the Drive-In leave anything that would deem them "hardcore" in the past and play what I would be safe to say their best sounding set to date. For some of you who were there Monday night in Austin, or in Dallas last night, I'm sure you'll disagree with me on some level. I walked away after an hour and ten minutes with mixed emotions and a better understanding of out-growing punk rock to an extent.
I never saw At the Drive-In when I was young for two reasons: I lived in suburbia and I rarely went to shows at that age. A lot of us my age or younger never saw At the Drive-In for that same reason. They were one of those bands that some of us missed the boat on or were too young to fully grasp. The truth is, when they were around, the band played to small rooms that would barely sell out in the States. (An older friend of mine said the last time he saw the band, they played off campus here in Austin at a record store to about 20 people.) What about At the Drive-In leaves us all yearning for these reunion shows? Why were they so special? Some will tell you it's because "they changed the face of hardcore music," a genre for which they hated. So many bands can cite their favorite moments of an At the Drive-In record, but none of those moments have ever been re-imagined or challenged on a level worth noting since. Relationship of Command was like the Revolutionary War of hardcore records. It's an impact that forever changed the game, but one few can still recount being a part of when it landed. It's a record on a pedestal in a genre for which it didn't want to be. It took risks, fought the status quo of punk and was tossed aside in an era of nu-metal many of us would like to forget. To those who lived it and saw the spastic showcase of the band's youth would probably be disappointed in the decade of growth that happened Monday night at Red 7 in Austin.
As the band launched into "Arcarsenal," everyone went to ten and the place exploded. But after three songs in, the band decided to move along to the songs that separated them from the pack. When it came to the jam session of an extended version of "Quarantined," I realized that not only did I not care if they played "Invalid Litter Dept." at that point, I also heard the best version ever of a song that lacked the fury of most fan favorites. I thought it was the cornerstone of the set, especially following a tightly executed "Napoleon Solo" at that. I think if I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I would have been disappointed with the set list, but now that I have experienced a larger palette of music to reflect back on, the set was an even mix of perfection. I screamed my lungs out to "Enfilade" and was amazed the guys pulled out "Non Zero Possibility" before "One Armed Scissor" in the mix.
Just last week I went on a These Arms Are Snakes kick. Now, back in the day I always loved the quick spastic hits and larger than life rockers the guys had to offer, but as I was shuffling through songs, I noticed my love in all the slow burners or enormous builds and swells the band offered in their time. It hit me on the afternoon drive to work flipping from "Tracing/Your Pearly Whites" and "Ethric Double" instead of "The Shit Sisters" to "The Blue Rose" that my tastes really had changed. The college years of indie pop and nights falling asleep to post-rock that came after discovering punk and hardcore in my youth evolved my tastes for the better and in that challenge, I grew into a better understanding of what punk rock really can be - defined past what history, elitist crust punks and the general media of "know-it-alls" that we all learned about the term from when we were naive. As At the Drive-In flawlessly strode through "Quarantined," it hit me how over traditional punk rock I truly was. While I thought I was going crazy with emotions of the show walking back to my car, I immediately called my friend, and he shared the same sentiments.
I wasn't crazy. I had grown up. I'm no longer a kid who is searching for what punk rock is or isn't. I've grown to see and experience what it can be and what it grows into as a term. It's not spin kicks. It's not crowd surfing. It's not seeing how many stage dives you can do to one Gorilla Biscuits song (though I would like to know who holds that record). It's not not selling out. The most punk rock thing any band can do, whether they succeed or fail, is to be themselves. That's what's really behind some of the most heralded records - a bunch of youth with nothing to lose and everything to try on their own terms. If that's the idea in the beginning, generally those same artists will continue to push that idea as their career moves on. You either recognize that, or you'll forever be stuck in the past. If you do get held back with mental expectations, you should know that special moments are created, but they are rarely ever re-created. The members of At the Drive-In have long moved on from something special they once gave to the music world who half ignored them, and as my friend said of the more toned down show Monday night: "At least they didn't come out and fake it."
I'm not writing this to tell you that At the Drive-In's reunion was a bust, because it wasn't whatsoever. If you have a ticket or a way to see this, go see it and sing your heart out. Just know that you're not seeing young musicians deconstructing a genre of music. You're going to see a band play their work better than it was ever recorded since recording and writing pieces of music well removed from their young career. Monday night I saw At the Drive-In play the set I believe they always wanted to play. They performed their songs the way they were intended from the moment they were pieced together, but never came into fruition because the musicians didn't have a decade of experience and practice at their craft behind them. There's a part of me that's disappointed I never got to see what some will deem as the "glory days," but there's a bigger part of me that's glad he saw a group of musicians perfect the chops they fought hard to at least bring attention to so long ago. Take that statement as you will, leave your expectations of the past at the venue door and enjoy the moment until the station is no longer operational once again.