Return to Rock is an exploration and reevaluation of the music that seemed important at a particular time. What was it like to get in to an album the first time, and has my opinion held up over time?
For many years in late high school and early college, a bunch of my friends lived on the edges of what I supposed was “punk.” There were plenty of backpacks floating around the hallways with the stitched patches of the Bouncing Souls, H20, and NOFX (especially NOFX). As I was more into classic rock at the time, straightforward modern punk didn’t really resonate with me, and were in many ways the antithesis of albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Legend had it that punk and prog were mortal enemies, and thus there was no coherent way to be of fan of both simultaneously without deep risk to personal, high school integrity.
It was in this context that I first heard At the Drive –In during the summer on 1998. In the early internet days, it pretty stunning that a little band from El Paso could have already filtered across the US into Pennsylvania on the strength of their shows rather than airplay (though their legendary, kinetic stage show no doubt had an impact.) Nonetheless, when presented with a mixtape with Alpha Centari from In/Casino/Out on it, I was hooked, and had to have more. Although it is difficult to listen to ATDI without thinking about what became of the band over the last 15 years, their first LP Acrobatic Tenement services as a time capsule of pure youthful exurberance.
The opener Starslight rears out of the gate, leaving the listener trying to catch up like a matador chasing a bull in a china shop. The craziest thing that always struck me about Starslight is that the band gets “it” done in 71 seconds. It is definitely strange considering in about 10 years it would take some of these guys 17 minutes to get the message across (i.e., Tetragrammaton.) The album just keeps going from there.
Going back to the punk/prog dichotomy, we all know that path the Cedric and Omar took from ATDI to the Mars Volta, and some of that tension is evident in songs. Schaffino just explodes and pulses with energy that surges, recedes and builds ago. Embroglio hints at themes, both musically and lyrically, that would reappear in later songs/albums/bands. The breathless Communication Drive-In teems with voltage, ending with a definitive exclamation point.
However, some of the lyrics do come across as especially clunky in the way that emo did. Despite the awesome music and triple-vocal song structure, Initiation could have been penned by a 14 year old Cedric. Portifo Diaz rants against the rich kids and fakes of the world. Considering that Cedric was 21 when Acrobatic Tenement was recorded, it does sound like leftovers from a high school poetry journal
Nonetheless, Acrobatic Tenement stands as testament to a group of guys just figuring out what to do with their creative energy. Over the next few months, I’m going to be frequently going back through the whole ATDI family tree (Sparta included!) to revisit who these krazy kids were and try to find out what exactly happened to the bottled dynamite we hear on Acrobatic Tenement.