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.
In 1998, Refused released a record that would revolutionize the hardcore scene for some time. Some still herald it as some of the most revolutionary work since Fugazi, and others saw it as a rip-off of the United States' own Nation of Ulysses, releasing 13 Point Program to Destroy America in 1991. Whether one album and/or band is held higher on your elitist food chain, they're both important notches in the punk scene as a whole. Then there's At the Drive-In, known for their Fugazi work ethic and equally unhinged sound and insane live shows, they ended their career shortly after releasing one of punk rock and hardcore's opuses, Relationship of Command. It didn't destroy the workings of 3OneG or Revelation Records or even Ebullition, but at the same time it was on a spectrum all its own. It stood out like a sore thumb pushing the self destruct button and herald a revolution for all to wake up and attempt to just be creative while maintaining the aggression and political nature hardcore was built on. Like Refused shortly after the release of The Shape of Punk to Come, At the Drive-In called it a day after releasing a record that didn't just resonate throughout the punk rock community, it left a permanent mark on most bands wanting to create some sort of noise in the hardcore and post-hardcore scene alike.
Somewhat seen as two reunions that would never happen in a million years, Monday we were all floored by the fact that both bands would be reuniting, and that both bands would be playing this year's Coachella festival out in the dessert of California. The social networking feeds, our site and many other publications exploded with the news of this. Honestly, I think some people will be selling their property to go out to the festival just to see both of these bands reunite. It's understandable. Even Refused said it in their statement Monday night, "We never did "The shape of punk to come" justice back when it came out, too tangled up in petty internal bickering to really focus on the job. And suddenly there's this possibility to do it like it was intended. We wanna do it over, do it right. For the people who've kept the music alive through the years, but also for our own sakes."
That statement always makes me wonder about why bands even reunite. Money? Boredom? Settling old debt and differences amongst personal tension? Whatever it may be, most of us are happy that it happens. In the past three years I got to see The Get Up Kids, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Jesus Lizard, HUM, Hot Snakes, Wire and Olivia Tremor Control. All of these bands I never got to see at their prime, and thankfully they pulled it off years after creating some of the most memorable music for the respective scenes to date. But even watching David Yow stage dive during the opening song of The Jesus Lizard's set will never compare to people seeing that band in the worst of club settings at their prime. Do you think seeing At the Drive In play in a fucking classroom will even compare to a sea of people watching the band on the main stage of one of the largest music festivals in the world? It just won't. To those people in the basement at Refused's last show - they witnessed something that any reunion at 10,000+ person event won't begin to recreate.
Now, I don't say the following things because I'm bitter or an elitist or know that I, in no way in hell, can afford to make it out to Coachella this year. I'm just trying to make a point that reunions will never compare to the actual experience of the moment we all long to have been a part of. Seeing Portugal. The Man five years ago with 100 people is something special to me. Seeing Pygmy Lush thrash around at a house show is probably the closest I will ever see pg.99. Seeing a kid rip Drew Speziale to the ground in the middle of a song the first time I saw Circle Takes the Square with 50 kids is indescribable. Unless you lived that moment - or was even that kid screaming back in Spezlale's face as he was gripping his shirt in angst and passion, pulling him off the stage - it's a moment like no other to be a part of something that real at a young age, or at the very least, in the same room witnessing it first hand when you're going "Oh fuck, what is this?" over and over again in the back of your mind.
I've been working on a book for three years now, interviewing a lot of my favorite bands about some of the best records that redefined the punk and hardcore scene of the late '90s and early millennium. One sort of unsaid point that lays across every interview I transcribe is that a lot of these bands either (a) were attempting something new for the hell of it or (b) creating something out of a disdain for what was going on in the scene at the time. That's a point that resonates all too well today. Want to know why the punk and hardcore community is getting bigger? Kids are tired of being lied to. No one can manufacture that moment and put it on a stage for a summer to call it the next best thing. The greatest things to come out of punk rock were generally more organic than you think they were. Kids are going to basement shows and intentionally seeking out new and exciting music. They feel close to it because they are close to it. While some will call what's happening now a bit of idol worship to peers of the Midwestern scene and angst Northeast screamo of the day, at least there are a few doing it justice at the moment.
Let us rejoice for today that we finally get to see something like this go down. But know that history never repeats itself often. I'm not denouncing any of these reunions, or any reunions that have or will ever happen. I'm just saying, if you're excited about a particular band (subjectivity be damned) and that band makes you rethink what you know about music thus far in your life - go see them. Buy their limited vinyl and with technology today, film and archive as much of it as possible. Have you seen the Fugazi documentary Instrument? I think those gymnasiums and those VFW halls would be way more packed if more kids knew then, what we know now. You never know who is going to churn out the next important history notch in punk rock - that's why this scene is so exciting to be a part of. Heed this: If you feel it, reach out and experience something 10,000+ people wish they were a part of a decade earlier.