Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
- Album: Agorapocalypse
- Year of Release: 2009
- Country: USA
- Label: Relapse Records
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: RR 7037
It’s difficult for the initial reaction to Agorapocalypse not to be one of disappointment. Through three albums, and innumerable split releases and EPs, Agoraphobic Nosebleed had developed into one of the most extreme and uncompromising bands ever to commit their noise to tape, refining an insane melange of drug-addled grind and electronic noise into ever more psychedelic and mind-bending shapes, assisted by entirely programmed drums which allowed the band to experiment with the kind of velocities and dense instrumentation rarely found in music rooted in rock and metal. This reached an apotheosis on the utter madness of Altered States Of America, which took the band’s supercharged grind to it’s logical conclusion on its release in 2003. Having manoeuvred themselves into a position of strength, from which they could strike out in almost any direction, it is therefore something of an anti-climax to discover that their next full-length is little more than a standard issue death-grind record, displaying a considerably more conventional approach to song structure, and dialling back the white-hot intensity of their earlier output for a more measured, and riff-based sound. What is left is far from poor – indeed much of Agorapocalypse is high quality grind – but it is frustrating to witness such a distinctive and singular band intentionally retreat into the pack that they had so artfully distanced themselves from, when one imagines that any number of alternative, more interesting paths were available to a band that had virtually total freedom from conventional genre constraints.
All of the above theorising, however, is a long way from the listener’s mind when the brief guitar pyrotechnics that introduce the first track (excluding the usual hidden song at track 00) give way to the aptly-named, crazed grind of ‘Agorapocalypse Now’. It may sound rather contradictory, given the above misgivings about the prospect of ANb releasing a straightforward grind album, but paradoxically, the most frustrating facet of their previous albums was the fact that when the band occasionally alighted on a thunderous riff, the extreme brevity of the tracks meant that the listener was denied the opportunity to truly luxuriate in the satisfying feeling of a guitar figure or groove that truly hits the spot, something which represents one of the greatest pleasures that metallic music can offer. Therefore, although this album’s approach is less innovative and less individual than their recorded output to date, it is also undeniably gratifying to hear ANb for once eschew some of their wilful obtuseness, and simply barrel through a couple of minutes of ordinary punk-metal, gleefully riding a groove; teetering on the edge of chaos, like a surfer cutting a swathe through a gigantic wave. This song, along with a number of other tracks on which Kat Katz contributes her intense vocals to an already intense sound, benefits from the fevered mania that her high-pitched scream brings to proceedings, and serves to compensate in part for the distinct lack of electronic sounds this time round. Sadly, Katz would leave Agoraphobic Nosebleed in 2018, departing in a flurry of not-very-strenuously denied and not terribly surprising accusations of misogynistic behaviour, following the release of her segment (Arc) of an intended and as-yet incomplete series of EPs based, Kiss-style, around the contributions of one of the band’s members.
Agorapocalypse contains a number of tracks that are the equal of the opener, but as a whole can’t help but feel a little disjointed, as it strangely groups the speedier grind workouts as the first and final thirds of the album, together bookending a somewhat stodgier middle section, which focusses on a more mid-tempo death metal assault. We’re not quite talking Bolt Thrower or Amon Amarth levels of steady, unyielding barrage here, but certainly by Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s own standards, the velocity is noticeably dialled-down from their normal breakneck pace. Although this does contribute a new sense of dynamics to their sound, the odd sequencing of the tracks means that this is not as effective a device as it might have been. Still, before the album hits the skids during the middle third, there is plenty of ingenious grind to get one’s teeth into first. As unpleasant as it may be, the completely over the top pornographic lyrical content of the otherwise excellent ‘Dick To Mouth Resuscitation’ is impossible to ignore and undeniably memorable; and due to the unusually prominent vocals rendering the words audible for a change, it has to be said that the band actually stand a chance of offending an unsuspecting listener for once, not that there can be too many of them stumbling upon a band as resolutely anti-commercial as ANb. ‘Moral Distortion’ is even better, and possibly the highlight of the entire album – relentless and riffy, the white-hot grind bears some similarity with early 21st century era Napalm Death, and the fact that it would sit comfortably on their stellar Enemy Of The Music Business album is testament to the calibre of material that ANb are capable of producing when the urge takes hold.
As we enter the second third of the album, and perhaps as a consequence of the band pulling back the throttle this time round, it becomes increasingly apparent that the overall mix seems considerably less harsh than on their previous enamel-stripping efforts. While this has a detrimental effect on a drum-sound featuring a hollow and overbearing snare which raises the unwelcome spectre of St Anger during ‘Timelord One (Loneliness Of The Long Distance Drug Runner)’, it has huge benefits for the bottom-end of the band’s sonic spectrum. The same track is home to a filthy distorted bass tone which ensures that the overall production is more rounded, and covers a wider range of frequencies. This helps, to a degree, to plug the gap left by the conspicuous lack of the snatches of power electronics that the band have utilised so well before. Initially, it is intriguing to hear the band exploring sludgier, noisier territories. The down-tuned guitars of ‘Hung From The Rising Sun’ are simultaneously sharp and thick, like razor blades cutting through treacle, and sounds like Meshuggah covering early Immolation. Similarly, the palm-muted guitar runs and staccato, syncopated riffing of ‘Question Of Integrity’ holds the attention even before Scott Hull signs off with an amusing programmed drum solo, which, unlike many such historical examples, is exactly as good an idea as it sounds. By the time we hit ‘Timelord Two (Paradoxical Reaction)’ though, the album starts to drag horribly. The hackneyed heavy metal-themed lyrics are frankly tragic (“Seventh bastard son of the seventh bastard son / Locust abortion technician with deicidal tendencies”), and the knuckle-scraping riffs are not interesting enough to overlook such embarrassment, however much the intention of the band might be to mock this kind of self-referential metal trope. Thankfully, the magnificently-titled ‘White On White Crime’ immediately redeems this error, and although it doesn’t herald a return to the warp-speed grind that best serves ANb, the chromatic climbing riff is possibly their most memorable to date, applying ANb’s off-kilter approach to extreme metal to the kind of riff structure that Pantera specialised in on Far Beyond Driven, layered with the kind of brusque, brutish noisecore favoured by the criminally underrated Unsane. If one listens carefully, some jazzy lead guitar is even buried in the mix under swathes of other sounds, suggesting that there is a level of musicality at play here that the band only occasionally deign to display tantalising glimpses of, and potentially it provides a sketch of some alternative possibilities for ANb to flesh out more fully as they continue to evolve.
As interesting as it is hearing Agoraphobic Nosebleed slow things down and experiment with other textures and compositional techniques though, the reality is that on this evidence, other bands simply do this kind of thing with more compelling results. Cephalic Carnage, for example, jump more effortlessly between extreme metal genres, without losing their sense of authenticity, and Botch, and even Isis, blend left-of centre noise with pulverising riffs in a way that feels more natural than ANb’s own attempts at jagged sludge. What the listener really wants from an Agoraphobic Nosebleed album is the kind of smoking grind that can reduce a building to dust in seconds. Gratifyingly, this is exactly what we get from the closing section of Agorapocalypse. As if suddenly tiring of the more measured approach that they had briefly adopted, the final three tracks of the record are the sound of ANb throwing all of their ideas against a wall simultaneously in a blur of maniacal action, and magically, almost all of it sticks. The mutant thrash of ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ absolutely slays, successfully assimilating the more drawn-out tones and seasick harmonics of the slower tracks into the dizzying rush of modern grind, and ‘Ex-Cop’ briefly returns to the kind of complex, mind-melting grind that littered the brilliant Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope. Saving the best for last, the stop-start blasting of the majestic ‘Flamingo Snuff’ is more than enough to satisfyingly close the album, even before the band unfurl an almost triumphant classic metal riff, before whirling chugging prepares the listener for a final, cleansing blast of grind, completed by manic finger-tapping lead guitar blazing an unstoppable path to the stunning conclusion of an occasionally excellent album.
It seems rather strange to suggest that an already short album would be improved by editing it further, but oddly, Agorapocalypse would be a considerably better album were the worst tracks omitted from a flabby middle section, and the track-listing of the remaining songs reconfigured to create a more varied flow of sonics and tempos. As it is, the exhilarating buzz of the undoubtedly high quality grind that wraps around the slightly more turgid and less thrilling tracks that dominate a substantial chunk of its running time cannot mask the fact that it is an album that falls short of the high bar that their previous releases have set as often as it manages to vault clear of that same barrier. Agoraphobic Nosebleed have earned the right to experiment, and to criticise a band, particularly one as capable as ANb, for trying to do something different is pointless, particularly given the numerous bands that repeat themselves endlessly to diminishing returns. But we must also recognise when achievement doesn’t match aspiration, and, on balance, it has to be said that overall this is the case here. Agorapocalypse is very much worth hearing – ‘Flamingo Snuff’, ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ and ‘Moral Distortion’ are probably the best tracks they’ve released thus far, and indeed some of the best grind released by any band in the 21st century, but sadly, when considered holistically, we must conclude that it is little better than average.