"Acrobatic Tenement": The raw essence of At the Drive-In's debut album

At the Drive-In released a decent debut in 1996. It's a solid example of an album that's raw, overlooked, and worth checking out.
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In performs during Splendour in the Grass 2016 on July 23, 2016 in Byron Bay, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In performs during Splendour in the Grass 2016 on July 23, 2016 in Byron Bay, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images) / Mark Metcalfe/GettyImages

Acrobatic Tenement is the debut studio album by the American post-hardcore band At the Drive-In. The album was released on March 26, 1996, on the independent record label Flipside. At the Drive-In, hailing from El Paso, Texas, gained prominence for their energetic and experimental approach to post-hardcore and punk rock, from a band widely attributed with changing post-hardcore. "Acrobatic Tenement" is rough around the edges, but adequately showcases the band's early sound, characterized by intense and passionate performances, unconventional song structures, and lyrics that often touch on social and political themes. 

The album features a raw and aggressive sound, with influences from punk, post-hardcore, and emo. There are powerful tracks like "Star Slight," "Incetardis" "Initiation," and "Proxima Centauri." While the album did not achieve widespread commercial success initially, it laid the foundation for At the Drive-In's future work and garnered critical acclaim over time.

At the Drive-In would go on to release more successful albums, most notably In/Casino/Out (1998) and Relationship of Command (2000), which offered up their greatest hit song, "One Armed Scissor.” The latter album is often considered their breakthrough album, gaining them mainstream attention (without necessarily being "mainstream sounding") and solidifying their status in the post-hardcore scene. Despite their later success receiving more attention, Acrobatic Tenement remains a significant part of the band's discography and history, and is also still listenable (well, to those who are open to such emotionally heavy fare, anyway).

At the Drive-In personnel (for this album):

  • Ryan Sawyer – drums
  • Jim Ward – guitar, backing vocals
  • Adam Amparan – guitar
  • Omar Rodríguez – bass guitar

Are At the Drive-In embarrassed by the album?

There’s a reason to think the debut album may not be their proudest effort. For example, the 2005 retrospective compilation album This Station Is Non-Operational by the band includes just one track from Acrobatic Tenement, showcasing "Initiation" in a live BBC recording. Obviously, it also does not feature any hit singles. Still, in my view, every song on this album could be a single in its own right.

It also has a lot of what you’d want from this subgenre. Though the album is not exactly brimming with joy, it does give the oddly positive feeling one gets from listening to energetic rock music. Sure, the album was not met with the positive reception the band would later receive, as it  was released pre-fame, and recorded for only $600 (relatively cheap for a studio album recording). 

So, even though not many critics were there calling it a "real classic" or "one of the most innovative and distinct music records to be released in the 1990s," it could still regarded by some as one of the most important releases in the alternative rock movement of the time. It also established these artists. Without this album being worked out, At the Drive-In probably wouldn't have gone on to create "One Armed Scissor," which, again, is pretty much the band's biggest song. Also, if you listen carefully, you can hear some elements of The Mars Volta (a future project) threatening to emerge in some of these songs. Yes, even in some post-hardcore (or regular punk), you can sometimes hear a bit of prog bubbling beneath it all.

Also, with a new documentary on Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López coming out soon, these musicians will have an opportunity to gain more listeners in the near future.

More music news and analysis