Day Fifty: Cursive – Burst and Bloom

Saddle Creek ■ LBJ-35

Released July 24, 2001

Produced by Mike Mogis and Cursive
Recorded by Mike Mogis
Mastered by Doug Van Sloun

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sink to the Beat
  2. The Great Decay
  3. Tall Tales, Telltales
  1. Mothership, Mothership, Do You Hear Me?
  2. Fairy Tales Tell Tales

If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.

A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.

What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.

“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.

After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.

“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.

Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing.  Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.

The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.

“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”

Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.

Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.

There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.

I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.

  • Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?

¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.


Day Fourteen: Autechre – Gantz_Graf

Warp Records ■ WAP 256
Released: August 6, 2002

Produced by Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown)

Side a:

  1. Gantz Graf
  2. Dial.
Side e:

  1. Cap.IV

While my love for the work of Aphex Twin is well-known enough that more than a few people remember checking him out solely on my recommendation, I can’t really pretend I know as much about electronic music as that kind of weight might indicate. Insofar as the more modern incarnations, I’ve stuck almost exclusively to about four artists, with smatterings of others occupying my collection over the years (2 Lone Swordsmen, Flunk, Lemon Jelly, Burial, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, BT, Terminal Sound System, TRS-80) and haven’t ever been serious (or at least accurate) in claiming anything like knowledge. Now, that aside, when it comes to Aphex Twin (and AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, and his billion other pseudonyms), Autechre, Squarepusher and µ-Ziq, I tend to have something to say. They each occupy overlapping but distinct corners of the “intelligent dance music” (though I’m inclined to agree with Mr. James that that name is stupid and pretentious–with no other takers, I shruggingly accept his nomenclature of “braindance”, as it also seems pretty accurate) and so I’ve followed each semi-consistently. RDJ in all his various identities occupies the greatest part of my collection (both physical and digital, and in physical both vinyl and CD), with Squarepusher coming in a close second, µ-Ziq at a strong third and Autechre at a semi-distant fourth.

Aphex’s work is the most intensely varied, as he has seemingly gotten bored with or distracted from various sounds–his interviews, despite being generally rather opaque and often obtuse, give an idea of the sort of collective identity of his work. When he talks about smelling the grooves of vinyl, or getting a “hoof mod” for the goat he uses to help compose and record, the idea that he’s taking the piss is not really difficult to grasp. But once in a while he’ll also be free and clear, as when he expressed his opinion of the “IDM” name, or when he made the mistake of giving his perfectly relaxed opinion of Radiohead.¹ Squarepusher, by contrast, has stayed a bit more in the background, and is almost defined by the live element of his sound: he’s an amazing bass player, and often layers his playing over the electronic sounds he puts together. µ-Ziq has the most accessible sound, treading into experimental territory far less often, and building around and relying on melodies more often than the rest.

Autechre, however, I’ve always seen as somewhat nebulous: the immediate feeling I always get from them is that of the most inhuman sound. This doesn’t seem to be an unfair feeling–the first video Chris Cunningham directed was for the band (their song “Second Bad Vilbel”, from the Anvil Vapre EP) and the most abstract one he has released in a career that became defined by his Aphex Twin videos (which contain characters, plots, and human figures). The video released for “Gantz Graf” is also incredibly abstract and, like much of their cover art, is focused on geometry and straight lines. Only Oversteps from 2010 has cover art with any sense of chaos–but it’s still controlled: a painted circle with messy outline, but a pretty accurate circle in spite of that method. The fact that they’ve made releases like LP5 and Tri Repetae only makes things worse: the actual external art for the latter is devoid of any markings whatsoever once unwrapped, and the former only says “autechre” and “ae” on it, both embossed into the packaging itself. Indeed, LP5‘s CD formatting has no indicators at all of which side is which, though the LP does have track listings. Even Amber, the only release with a natural photographic cover, chooses an unblemished rock formation in Turkey, one that still hints at pre-conceived, naturally defined elements.
This is a bit of a contradiction, I realize. Machinery and natural lines are somewhat inappropriate to group: one is decided by millennia of reactions to the elements, one is manufactured by man-made hands. But there’s still something in common with both: neither resembles mankind. Even if a human engineers, designs, manufactures and assembles a machine, the end result is unlike man, while nature’s inorganic elements–another shared feature–don’t resemble the curves, flexibility, and softness of humanity. This always seems appropriate in light of their work. While it is definitively designed by human hands, it is designed in a fashion that leaves it more in mind of manufacture than impulse, even as it still maintains the sense of design and intention.
Gantz Graf is not, by any means, an exception to this. Many of their albums edge more toward the Aphex or µ-Ziq side of electronic music, with some drifting toward ambient, some toward the melodic and catchy side of things and tempos varying, but more accessible elements tend to be a commonality. Gantz Graf is the kind of work people call “challenging” or “experimental” or “difficult”, and with reason. The title track opens the EP with controlled chaos: it reminds me, in some ways, of some of the “jokes” of RDJ (like aka “Formula”/”Equation” or “Bonus High Frequency Sounds”) but being less abrasively constructed. It sounds as if the song can’t find its sound or footing as it starts, with various contrasting mechanical sounds bouncing off each other only to come back together for brief moments, no clear tempo established, but a clear sense of pattern that prevents it from being simply random. It slowly morphs and mutates, as if being restricted or attempting to correct itself, spikes of sound splintering and jumping off it like sparks as it is wound and tightened back in on itself. It’s like the energy of a machine designed to move forward but held in place: it unthinkingly spins tires or works legs, expending great energy, but unable to actually move.

“Dial.” follows and closes the first side (marked only by the “a” of their condensed logo) and is more easily followed. The glitch-y (in the sense of both the immediate understanding of “glitch” and the subgenre of electronic that orients itself around that kind of auditory glitch) beat is backed by a wild-eyed, constantly ascending semi-melody, as if the song is climbing stairs and appears to be reaching a top that only becomes the next flight. There’s only a mild dissonance, as the sounds chosen for the notes are half-flat and squashed into strange shapes. A vocal sample is distorted enough to be effectively unrecognizable, and this and other elements become the portions designed to move the song forward and create something new, as the beat and the “stairclimb” loop to propel it forward into those new spaces. Squeaks and bleeps, buzzes and hums float in and out, as if running up those same stairs at different speeds but finding their floors on occasion.

The second side (marked by the stylized “e” in the photo I included, which actually also has the vertical line of the a“, but of course on the left side instead) consists entirely of one track: “Cap.IV”. By itself, it’s almost as long as the other two tracks, though it doesn’t lift the entire release to even a 20 minute running time. It shares the distorted variety of vocal samples that “Dial.” contained, though even more filtered and obscured (reminding me of the “Mashed potatoes? Why do you hate mashed potatoes?” sample from Aphex’s “Every Day”, and proving how limited my frame of reference is). It uses a beat based around a heavily chopped and higher-pitched hit, one that is occasionally blurred into a seeming stream of hits, while an actual melody–though ethereal, as always for Autechre–does occupy the background, between that vocal sample and the beat. The beat maintains its dominance though, with wiry energy and the feeling that it cannot sit still for more than a moment–if that. Eventually, the beat seems to feel it has not yet achieved total dominance and begins to blur and strike more and more often, overtaking all the rest of the track until it’s nothing but a blur of constant vibration and gyration overtaking everything else.

While Autechre can occasionally have warmer, softer, curvier inorganic sounds (on Amber and Quaristice, for example), this is a very angular and remote release. The video for “Gantz Graf” itself is definitive, indicative of the kind of inhuman sound that is signature, and also semi-impenetrable, even as you can recognize its perfect match to the beats and sounds of the track itself.
I do wish I had a bit more electronic on vinyl, and, indeed, that I had something by Autechre other than a single EP (as I’ve noted before, EPs are not my preference here, but it’s the only thing I have by Autechre at all). I’ve meant for ages to expand my knowledge of electronic music, but considering it can be assembled (even if poorly, as I’ve done myself a few times, though never been stupid or shameless enough to distribute) by anyone, technically, it makes it difficult to know who or where to go–and the sheer variety of subgenres, which I generally can’t tell apart, even if I try, most definitely doesn’t help either.
Still, this is a solid release, and, while “difficult”, never gives me the impression that it crosses into the realms of the kind of pretension and “experimentation” that I find, ahem, difficult to take seriously or as anything other than an attempt to “prove” intelligence or complexity. Autechre are often reckoned as the smarty-pants side of the “IDM/Braindance” stuff, and it doesn’t seem unfair, but maybe it just comes down to how difficult it is to find humanity in the sounds they construct, which sound more like a machine might have constructed them, even as the overarching sense is a clear awareness that it was two humans.
Next Up: Bad Brains – ?

¹The oh-so-controversial statement was “I wouldn’t play with them since I don’t like them.” and inspired a legion of backlash from Radiohead fans, followed by a reactionary backlash from Aphex fans. It was all very stupid.
He did later elaborate with more inflammatory (but still not messianic, Final Arbitration-type comments):

“I don’t like them. I heard maybe five or six tracks and I thought they sounded really really cheesy.”


“Yeah, really obvious and cheesy. I mean I’m just comparing it to my favourite music and I think it’s terrible compared to that. But compared to all the shit boring R&B tracks it’s probably alright. Compared to those teen punk sort of bands or whatever they are supposed to be called, who think that they are really anarchic and stuff like that, they are probably amazing. If you’re only exposed to that kind of stuff and then Radiohead come along you will probably think that they are geniuses.”

Day Eleven: At the Drive-In – Vaya

Fearless Records ■  F040-1

Released July 13, 1999

Recorded and mixed by Mike Major [1,5,7], Alex Newport [2,4], and Justin Leah & Bobby Torres [6]. Tracks 3,6 produced by Sean Cummings

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Rascuache
  2. Proxima Centauri
  3. Ursa Minor
  4. Heliotrope
  1. Metronome Arthritis
  2. 300 MHz
  3. 198d

I originally decided, because I was starting with an artist that had the same split of releases in my collection, that I would leave EPs by the wayside for artists for whom I owned a full length LP. I decided to skip that “rule” on this occasion simply because I know a number of people who are big fans of this band–other than me, I mean. It also tends to come with a love that drives adamant opinions, and occasionally divides. When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, it was the only time I really noticed or felt the loss of a band–I’d never seen them live (to be honest, even when they reunited ten years later, I did not rush out for the very distant and often festival-based events, either). It also led to the rise of two groups–they’d just released their Nevermind in popularity terms, or maybe just the hint toward it, and that was that–Sparta and the Mars Volta. When I last wrote about them, I was disinclined to make my rather well-known, passionate opinion on that split known. I’m still disinclined: too many times, I’ve seen expressed opinions on this front devolve rapidly into swearing, shouting matches, and insults. It has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a lot of the time as regards all three bands, which does not make me very happy. As a result, I tend to avoid discussing that as much as I can, even if I still occasionally feel the desire to talk about it.

Anyway, let’s set all that aside and look at what, along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is one of my most-played records.

At the Drive-In were a band from El Paso, TX that shifted in shape and sound a lot over the years. They started off with a handful of EPs (more in the 7″, 3-5 song variety) like Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!, but moved on to release the full length albums Acrobatic Tenement (plagued by recording as an unintended clean-guitar release, due to confusion about rehearsal sessions) and In/Casino/Out (the full length I actually own on vinyl). Vaya followed all of these, and was the last major release before their semi-major label debut, Relationship of Command in 2000.

The wiki article on the release mentions the sentiment that seems to follow the EP regularly: “The sound of the album bridges the musical gap between In/Casino/Out and their following album, Relationship of Command.” That’s actually a relatively inappropriate declaration for Wikipedia in light of its policies (from what I can see, most of their articles on Wikipedia are actually horribly written, policy-wise, in the same way), but remains rather accurate despite that. The band was thrown various labels, from emo to punk to post-hardcore, with emo (unsurprisingly) receiving the greatest degree of vitriol. Let’s not even get into the problems with attempting to label anything emo in this day and age, and stick with the rather reasonable post-hardcore attribution, which fits well enough not to chafe.

While In/Casino/Out did see the band beginning to play more openly with possibilities beyond the basic rock band instrumentation of their prior recordings, Vaya saw a more emphatic electronic bend added to the works. This is obvious from the beginning of the album–where In/Casino/Out began with “Alpha Centauri”‘s  aggressive guitar riffs, Vaya begins with “Rascuache”, where the guitars act as echoing background flavouring and brief, intermittent strums. The focus is on a thumping electronic beat–not like a dance song, but like a pulsing set of Morse code. Tony Hajjar’s appearance is with tight, light toms, almost as if on bongos, before a quick set of taps on the rim built to by that pulsing beat increasing in speed brings us clean but more persistent guitar from Omar Rodriguez (now known as Omar Rodríguez-López), before a break in Cedric Bixler’s (now known as Cedric Bixler-Zavala) singing that lets Jim Ward¹ come in with a distorted incarnation of that same clean riff. The song eventually falls to an instrumental passage, with Rodriguez noodling about as Ward takes on a simple keyboard riff for texture, with Hajjar and bassist Pall (actually Paul, but credited “Pall” on most of their releases) Hinojos. The song ends with a veritable scream from Bixler as he sings the chorus for the final time, holding the last word until the song stops absolutely short–not cut off, but stopped–“Pacemaker pace yourself/You were slowly clawing your way out”.

“Proxima Centauri” carries things forward with drummer Tony Hajjar’s inexplicably propulsive beat, which seems to trip all over itself yet seem perfectly logical at the same time. Cedric begins to repeat the phrase, “T-Minus, 10 seconds and counting,” as Hinojos rumbles underneath him, until the guitars slide, bend and squeal in and the song builds, exploding with energy when the chorus begins, Cedric moving to his emphatic yell. The song brings back a clean, circling guitar riff reminiscent of the sound they (accidentally) carried on Acrobatic Tenement.

When “Ursa Minor” comes in, the pace is slowed, but the energy does not seem lost. It’s still a burn, but seemingly a more slow one, with partly call and response verses that move toward a tilt-a-whirl bridge that bounces low to high on the guitar, with Omar and Jim singing with Cedric at the beginning of each line until it all breaks after “They will come and get you tonight”, for Jim to whisper, “So I guess this is goodnight”, at which point the chorus itself breaks in and the riffs come along furiously and thickly, with more unified voices. There’s a momentary break, as with many songs on Vaya, that allows for distant, electronically modified voice, similar to the megaphone approach bands occasionally take but resembling more a distant, poor radio signal. The indecisive and constant movement of Omar’s approach to guitar lead into a series of drum rolls under the escalating cries of “Inertia kisses those around me” that drops back into the bridge.

Side One closes with the most frenetic track on the album, “Heliotrope”, which blasts out of the gate, not letting up for a moment, Cedric’s voice seeming to race to keep up, the monstrous riffs backing away in part to let Omar again jump from fret to fret. The bottom falls out as Paul and Tony relax, Omar lazily bending, and light chords ringing clean. A single held note and muted single string picking, rim-and-cymbal-only percussion, and a bass line that is no more than half its prior pace allows Cedric to calmly state, “It’s as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again”, all instrumentation dropping out halfway through the line. It’s a signal, though, and every instrument kicks in again at full speed as soon as he finishes, his line turned to expand: “Turn slowly for maximum vend”.

Side two has some of the longer and more unusual songs on the album, opening with the ominous, lurching rhythm that defines “Metronome Arthritis” (the only song, prior to Relationship of Command, to receive a promotional music video). There’s something sinister about it, though it seems to float off with the hushed instrumentation that backs Cedric’s initial lines: “Strike this match and let loose the oven’s breath/Up the volume that floats with the UHF”. The pounding rhythm and the phasing hiss that opened the song return as Cedric’s volume returns, but it all leave on a suspenseful note, only Paul and Omar noodling and dancing around the chorus: “Quick to the throat in this ink cartridge funeral/Marble caps lock zip code affiliate/You’ve got a run on your pharmaceuticals/You better change it ‘fore the night grows old”. The feeling of criminal activity, paranoia and threat is confirmed and articulated after an isolated series of muted, clean chords brings a cymbal-heavy, staccato section behind Cedric’s full-throated yell: “What if forensics finds the answers/What if they stole my fingerprints/Where did I leave my book of matches/We’ll find you”. It’s the only song on the EP with a fadeout.

“300 Mhz”, like its followup, moves from juxtaposed words, star names and other seemingly impenetrable words to a pair of tracks that looks like alphanumeric soup at first, though it’s not difficult to un-cross one’s eyes and see they obviously aren’t random at all. It’s an odd song in many respects: the semi-megaphone vocals return instead as the focus, but are matched with a low-end heavy song where, like many At the Drive-In tracks, it feels as if the guitar is more a flavouring or accent than defining melodic aspect. A dub-like echo is added to some of Tony’s drumming for only brief moments, furthering the peculiar production choices for the song. The riff the song opens with is like a jagged strike from bottom to top, repeated a few times before that low-end feel to the song asserts its dominance, but it returns to back Jim Ward yelling “Malfunction!” in his strained vocal–there’s no other word, you can hear the effort when Jim does this, and you can see it if you see him perform–that does not last long, but when the song comes back around to it a second time, it does not return to the simmering beat, it turns, instead, to the title, as the jabbing guitars turn to a repeated roar, Cedric semi-ironically screaming out, “Whispered in the ear, three hundred megaherz,” making the pairing of volume and words all the more contradictory as the seemingly whispered phrase receives the greatest emphasis and volume of all. The song eventually falls to guitars let ring, slowing until it finally stops, as do most of the songs, on a dime.

“198d” is one of the handful of “ballad-esque” songs in the At the Drive-In catalogue, built around the insistent, muted keyboard loop from Jim that opens it. It sounds less like the keyboard it is than a distress call floating through space from a non-functional vessel, with a scattered ringing of guitar playing seeming to emphasize an image in this respect. “This is forgiven if the uniform fits/Postponed, at the first showing/This is the tension mold/Of frozen icicles, and it feels like it’s snowing” Cedric sings quietly, before a rising guitar riff brings us to Jim’s cry of “Walk away,” that is answered with Cedric’s plaintive, “Born in hearts, etched in cold.” Cedric whispers over the quietest moment on the record: an even lighter keyboard riff, lightly played guitar notes, all of it bringing us back around to the final words: “Tremors that hold us”, answered with “Nothing bleeds like”, before it circles back to the chorus, fading away with “Born in hearts”, and the instruments’ sounds for once allowed to just ring and fade naturally, away from the pattern of the rest of the album.

I was struck with a peculiar notion, on this, my billionth listen to this record: it’s silly and strange, but at moments it feels almost as if there’s a thematic, near-concept to the record. I don’t mean a strict story, per se, though I could almost hear one in it. Perhaps it was the influence of songs titled after stars and constellations, countdowns, and words like “malfunction”, and phrases like “spacesuit togas” and “Saturn’s rings”–perhaps I’m just ridiculous. It was as if it was about an attempt to colonize by space torn apart by human failings. I’m not one inclined to make any attempt at analyses like this, but the more I listened, the more I was struck by how consistent it seemed to remain. Of course, I’m inclined to think this is purely my justified perception, rather than the intention of the rather stream-of-consciousness lyrics involved. But the echoes of classical culture (“Proxima Centauri” references Caligula, the phrase “E Tu Brute”, togas, “Roman fracture”) that seem to imply a familiar (“space time cliché”) and inevitable betrayal and wresting of leadership, decadence and internal failure. “Ursa Minor” references “sleep apparatus” and new settlements, “permssion to land/all systems go…”–I don’t know, maybe it’s just an attempt to puzzle together things that I’m not able to puzzle together, or maybe it just reflects the kind of words that occur to Cedric. Still, there’s a sense of a mission launched, of infighting and betrayal and paranoia defining an attempt to reach out.

This kind of politics and cynicism isn’t outside the more openly declared lyrical content of At the Drive-In, but it could all be my imagination anyway.

While I have a soft spot for In/Casino/Out, I included a poll to determine the At the Drive-In release specifically because I suspected Vaya would be chosen. In/Casino/Out has varied reasons for my muddled preferences, most of them sentimental or reactionary, instead of respectful and “objective”. But that is often the classification of favourites, isn’t it? How boring would it be for all of us to always like the most well-recorded, well-played, “accurate”, successfully experimental records? Of course, for me: those are the aspects that define Vaya, which is why my opinion remains so muddled. I’ll take either over Relationship of Command, but I only find myself caught between the “best” and my “favourite” records when it comes to these two.

¹I admit to guessing, but from live video of the way they play and familiarity with the way each of them play, I’m making my best guess.

Next Up: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul