How you choose to regard At The Drive In most likely hinges on a single question: Is the venerated post-hardcore band one of rock’s great lost opportunities of the last 20 years, or did ATDI get out at precisely the right time?
There are worthy arguments on both sides. On one hand, when At The Drive In announced that it was taking an “indefinite hiatus” — the two most dreaded words in all of music flackdom — due to “complete mental and physical exhaustion” on the eve of a major U.S. tour in early 2001, the group appeared to give up on the verge of stardom. Just the previous fall, ATDI released their third and best record, Relationship Of Command, which beefed up the proggy punk of the band’s previous two LPs, 1996’s Acrobatic Tenement and 1998’s In/Casino/Out, with first-rate radio-ready production courtesy of rap-rock impresario Ross Robinson. Command spawned a sorta-hit, “One Armed Scissor,” that granted ATDI entry to late-night TV shows like The Late Show With David Letterman and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where the band showed off its kinetic live prowess for millions of viewers. At The Drive In seemed to have it all: Powerful songs, genuine stage presence, a photogenic and charismatic frontman in Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and credibility to burn. But within six months of Command‘s release, ATDI was finished.
Frankly, for years after At The Drive In’s break-up, I subscribed to the “lost opportunity” argument. A few years after Relationship Of Command dazzled critics and won over a growing fanbase, a new generation of emo bands led by Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance was ascendent. And yet the void left by At The Drive In was palpable — this was a band that back in 2000 seemed like it could’ve potentially been the Led Zeppelin or Radiohead of its genre, a legacy act that set the tone for a legion of musical followers. Instead, At The Drive In split into two lesser bands, The Mars Volta and Sparta, which cleanly divided ATDI into not wholly satisfying “sleek alternative rock” and “absolutely bonkers prog-rock” halves. It was hard not to contemplate what had happened to this promising band felled in its prime and wonder “what if?”