For some, At the Drive-In is the ultimate rock act. The band with enough sense to break up at the peak of its commercial success. The musical pinnacle of El Paso, Texas, for which all other music is judged. The solution to the battle between the radio-friendly chord chuggers of Sparta (formed after At the Drive-In’s breakup by guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos) and the too-weird-to-be-called-prog-rock of the Mars Volta (formed post-break-up by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez). The answer: neither band is anywhere near as good as At the Drive-In was.
For those fanatics, At the Drive-In’s career retrospective, This Station Is Non-Operational, has enough extra bits that it isn’t a complete waste of their afro-loving, screamo-desiring, Texas-heat-bathing time. All coming at the end, the seven bonus songs include covers of the Smiths’ “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” with Bixler-Zavala humorously stretching to emulate Morrissey’s phrasing, and Pink Floyd’s “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk,” which unsurprisingly sounds like the Mars Volta.
Of the non-cover rarities, “Incetardis” is a B-side off their breakthrough album, 2000’s Relationship of Command. The song shows as much energy as anything on Relationship, the band’s most bombastic album. “Doorman’s Placebo” rides the calm(-er) emo vein that signified At the Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out (1998) material. With its out-of-character techno structure, “Autorelocator” sounds out of place amidst the band’s primarily guitar-driven rock. A bonus DVD contains three videos — “One Armed Scissor,” “Invalid Litter Dept.,” and “Metronome Arthritis” — along with computer wallpaper and buddy icons (yippee). It’s not much of a DVD package, but a documentary is probably way too much to ask at this point.
This Station Is Non-Operational is sequenced in chronological order, but it doesn’t include tracks off the band’s first album, Acrobatic Tenement, released in 1997 on Flipside. Given that the band members hand-selected these tracks, Tenement‘s non-representation is likely because Hinojos’s had yet to join the group. The compilation feels incomplete without the band’s best song, “Starslight,” but a BBC version of “Initiation” is included with the rarities.
From At the Drive-In’s four releases that follow Tenement, two songs come from El Gran Orgo, a 1997 EP that declared the band’s cult following by selling out its initial pressing in three days; four songs from In/Casino/Out; two from 1999’s Vaya EP; and three from Relationship of Command.
Listening through This Station Is Non-Operational will excite longtime fans as well as those interested in what they’ve been missing. But removing songs from their respective albums removes some of their impact as well. “One Armed Scissor” sounds nowhere near as powerful as when it was sandwiched between “Pattern Against User” and “Sleepwalk Capsules.” As a retrospective, This Station Is Non-Operational covers a career story that takes albums to tell, but it won’t transform anyone into a screaming At the Drive-In cult follower. That daunting task is left up to the albums.