"For 17 years a lot of you people have been obsessed with this band," At the Drive In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala stated ahead of "One Armed Scissor," his group's final song Saturday at St. Paul's Palace Theatre. Not a year, month, week, or message board comment went by since ATDI's 2001 split without that fact being reiterated by fans, he explained, sounding simultaneously grateful and exhausted.
The beloved post-hardcore band from El Paso, Texas, is two years into a reunion, and fresh off the release of their first album in 17 years, May's in•ter a•li•a. On Saturday, At the Drive In 2.0 delivered 1.5 hours of pummeling rock 'n' roll theatrics, two-thirds of which sounded as emotionally charged and exhilarating as ever. The other part sounded like in•ter a•li•a.
Drugs and in-fighting derailed At the Drive In just as they seemed poised for stardom, back when rock bands still had chances at stardom. Divergent stylistic factions within the band played a big role, too. Guitarist Jim Ward (the lone original ATDI member not participating in the reunion), drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos left for the meat 'n' potatoes alt-rock of Sparta. Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López had sky-reaching ambitions that were realized as the Mars Volta, their sometimes stunning, sometimes bloated prog-rock outfit.
That's what makes the new LP a little ironic: the flat, ATDI-by-numbers in•ter a•li•a is as adventureless as Sparta.
What the new songs lack in vision, they made up for with oomph in a live setting. At the Drive In roared into the Palace with new song "No Wolf Like the Present," sounding crisp and explosive as blinding stage lights fluttered. Bixler-Zavala, now 42, began his aerobic evening of leaping, twitching, writhing, floor humping, amp climbing, and mic swinging. Only ATDI collaborator Iggy Pop does it better.
Bixler-Zavala spit like a speed-addled rapper and crowd-surfed through "Pattern Against User," off the band's most popular album, 2000's Relationship of Command. With regard to volume, you got the sense At the Drive In could have filled stadiums had they not imploded. Eardrums were granted no reprieve as ATDI charged into "Cosmonaut," a relentless bruiser that could have ripped a hole through the freshly remodeled theater. By its end, Bixler-Zavala had collapsed onto the floor, still screaming into his mic.
The audience matched that passion for older cuts, but only politely moshed during the onslaught of new stuff. Bixler-Zavala's manic enthusiasm wouldn't allow in•ter a•li•a material like single "Governed by Contagions" to sound boring, though the thunderous delivery couldn't mask a lack of purpose.
His soft touch on slower jams like "198d," featuring a gentle falsetto that erupts into pained shouts, revealed another shortcoming of the comeback LP: a lack of sonic nuance. On record and at the Palace, At the Drive In shines on dynamic, tempo-shifting tracks like "198d" and "Invalid Litter Dept," the latter of which bubbled with paranoid rage beneath its rapid-fire beat poetry. Ditto for "Napoleon Solo," a song that saw ATDI flex every muscle that makes them great -- urgency, heart, surreal wordplay, and pure ass-kickery.
Bixler-Zavala was short on banter throughout the night, save for yelling "Fuck Bill Cosby!" (agreed), calling Rodríguez-López the "Puerto Rican Gilfoyle" (sure), and a few other moments. And his energy was mostly at 10, save for a quick lounge session atop an amp as his band vamped on "Enfilade." His bandmates' stage moves haven't maintained the same verve.
Despite the heavy presence of in•ter a•li•a in the setlist, At the Drive in concluded with scorching runs through Relationship tracks "Arcardenal" and, of course, fan-favorite "One Armed Scissor."
"This is for you guys," Bixler-Zavala said before launching into ATDI's signature tune. Presumably, so were the new ones, but the band knew better than close with 'em. After all, they're aware reunions are about nostalgia, and they can read a room.
Click here to see our photo slideshow of At the Drive In
Notes on the opener: Mexican punk band Le Butcherettes maintain close creative ties to Rodríguez-López; singer Teri Gender Bender is an unhinged powerhouse.
Critic's bias: At the Drive In -- along with the Blood Brothers, the Locust, and Thursday -- introduced me to aggressive rock 'n' roll in high school. I have fond memories of drinking warm Hamms and rocking the fuck out to "Cosmonaut," though I'm ride/die for 1998's In Casino Out.
The crowd: Older millennials, with normcore and punk looks equally represented.
Random notebook dump: Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon are spiritually similar songwriters -- polysyllabic, stream-of-consciousness lyricism that sounds weighty but ultimately proves baffling.
Setlist: Think Cedric's vocals are difficult to understand on record? Imagine the blared muddying in a live setting. Unscientifically, I can say it about a 50/50 split between in•ter a•li•a and Relationship of Command, with a handful of tracks from the first 2.5 albums sprinkled in.