When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, fans who marveled at the inventiveness and fire of 2000's ''Relationship of Command'' soothed their despair with the certainty that these guys would be back. No band so full of ideas and emotion would fade into the ether. Sure enough, Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, and Tony Hajjar formed Sparta and released the frenetic, unfocused ''Wiretap Scars'' last August. Meanwhile, Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez became the Mars Volta and put out a scorching EP, ''Tremulant,'' last summer. In ATDI's divorce, Sparta got the emo-driven rawk, the Mars Volta got the Afros and the brainy, spastic elements, and they shared custody of the seething passion.
On De-Loused in the Comatorium, it's clear Bixler and Rodriguez have the better deal. The songs explode with creativity, fusing jazz riffs, tribal rhythms, hardcore bursts of noise, and addictive rock hooks into one of the most compelling discs of the year. It follows the dreamy adventures of Cerpin Taxt (based on a childhood friend of Bixler and Rodriguez's who committed suicide), but the narrative is often hard to discern. The panic, fear, and rage are best expressed in the manic energy that pervades every second of the 10-song cycle (Red Hot Chili Peppers Flea and John Frusciante help supply instrumental acrobatics). Like most concept discs -- especially those by prog-rockers (think Rush, Tool) -- it toes the line of pretension but redeems itself with cathartic, swelling choruses. The band retains ATDI's soft-LOUD-soft dynamics, but with exotic conga and drone interludes, it sounds more like System of a Down. No wonder: ''De-Loused'' was coproduced by System producer Rick Rubin, who has a history of making noisy chaos sound drum-tight.
In 2000, ATDI represented rock's best hope for a smart new direction. When they broke up, we got commendable retreads like the Strokes and the White Stripes instead. Finally, that hope is fulfilled.