Alcest – Kodama

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Kodama
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Kodama
  • Year of Release: 2016
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO 190

The obvious compromise that was Alcest’s fourth album, the mostly disappointing and rather lacklustre Shelter, betrayed a lack of conviction and confidence in the decision to take something of a sideways step in terms of both the band’s sound and aesthetic. The result was an album that, like a soporific drunk after one Scotch too many, fell awkwardly between two stools, on the one hand showcasing some of the band’s most lightweight and indie-leaning material, and on the other, quickly retreating to something approaching Neige’s comfort zone of swirling, alternative rock-influenced shoegaze. It is no surprise, therefore, to see the band immediately retrench to what they know best on the follow-up to Shelter, 2016’s Kodama. As ever with Alcest, significant attention is given not just to the musical content of the album, but also the way in which it is delivered and presented. As a chef understands that the taste of a dish can be altered in the perception of the diner by the way in which it is arranged on the plate, and indeed the colour and even texture of the plate itself, Neige intuitively recognises that an album’s packaging can be an important part of building the band’s all-important atmosphere. Kodama, therefore, is suitably adorned in a stunning Japanese-themed sleeve, which is both supremely evocative and perfectly matched with this particular iteration of the Alcest sonics. The Japanese influence here is more than just a fetishistic affectation too. Kodama is heavily influenced by Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and one can understand why Neige is so enamoured with a film that is centred around an enchanted forest, populated by anthropomorphised animals and elemental spirits. In the film, the Kodama are playful forest sprites who share an intimate connection with the gods that are responsible for ensuring that humanity achieve the mutually beneficial equilibrium with the natural world needed to sustain and enhance life. Clearly, Neige identifies some kind of kindred spirit in the Kodama, and the unifying force that this brings to the album is very welcome after the slightly scattershot Shelter.

At the risk of overstating the influence of Princess Mononoke on Kodama, as the title track introduces what is ultimately a relatively short album (something that it shares with the band’s first two efforts), the Alcest sound seems to have taken on some of the darkness of the film that so inspired them. Leaving Shelter as very much the outlier of their discography, the blackgaze atmospheres of the earlier career return, but where previously the dreamy soundscapes seemed to be imbued by an innocent euphoria, Kodama is the more morose and downbeat counterpoint to this. It is apparent now that the first three albums were an effort to recapture the ineffable essence of the journeys to the enchanted land that Neige claims to have visited during his childhood, and to re-construct that world as it was, perhaps to grasp and pull it into this realm. A decade later, however, while Neige seems as eager as ever to musically recreate the land that he is personally so nostalgic for, his songs now betray a certain futility in his chosen mission, an awareness that not only will others never see the universe in the same way in which he does, but also that for all of his efforts, the listener can only ever experience Neige’s world at one step removed, on some level aware of the artifice. And more than that, the air of despair and even despondency that inhabits the entire album seems to speak to a growing suspicion that continuing exposure to this dimension can only serve to weaken the connection to this magical world that has been so all-encompassing.

While the downbeat nature of the record is not without its drawbacks, and indeed over the course of just six songs, it does feel rather suffocating, it does add an intriguing new perspective on a now-familiar sound. Arguably that new perspective is simply the sound of Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde filtered through The Cure’s Disintegration, but at the very least, it is pleasing not to be confronted with a exact facsimile of their earlier work. Although it is frequently the more obviously mainstream album that attracts tedious ‘sell-out’ accusations (for Alcest that album is clearly Shelter, but we could of course be describing Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, Judas Priest’s Turbo, or even Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake), I would contend that in fact the listener’s ire may sometimes be better directed at the follow-up (immediate or later, depending on the duration of this period in a band’s career) to such albums, where a suitably chastened band retreats with tails firmly between legs, only to be warmly welcomed back into the metal scene like so many victorious soldiers returning from war. Metallica’s Death Magnetic for example, is a perfectly serviceable metal album, even if it is obviously devoid of the kind of magic that they conjured so easily in the mid-1980s, but in comparison to Load, Reload, or even St Anger, it was surely an easy album for the band to release, safe in the knowledge that the merest hint of a more treble-heavy guitar tone and some thrashing tempos would see fans in their droves acclaim the band’s return to heavy metal, their wanderings concluded. It should also be noted that Alcest were hardly the first metal band to so audibly incorporate The Cure’s influence into metal – despite that band historically finding greater kinship across the indie and goth scenes, the darkness that has always been a key component of their frequently haunting dreamscapes and misery-laden lyrics means that they have been comfortable bedfellows for bands across the metal spectrum, with Carpathian Forest’s version of ‘A Forest’ perhaps the most thrilling example of numerous metallic covers of their songs.

Although Alcest don’t actually cover The Cure, almost every track contains a variation on the kind of Eastern-sounding, delay-laden staccato guitar lines that feature most prominently in Disintegration‘s ‘Lullaby’, and the timbre and tonality is so similar that at various points during Kodama, it is difficult not to find one’s mind completing melodic phrases with sections of that track, so strong is the resemblance. This is not to say that Alcest’s re-configuring of this particular sound is not used to great effect though, and the title-track is perhaps the best example. Following a familiar song structure for Alcest, the song moves through a couple of verses and choruses, distinguished mainly by the menacing clipped bassline that dominates the former, while a tranquil chorus neatly resolves the unsettling feel of that which precedes it. The latter half of the song then transitions into a lengthy instrumental section, in which glorious, but unusually stark, guitar figures construct an atmosphere of fierce yearning in the absence of the layers of synths that usually characterise the band’s arrangements. The mellifluous woodwind that adds texture and mystery to the track is yet another nod to Princess Mononoke, giving ‘Kodama’ the air of an alternative soundtrack to the film, something that continues throughout the rest of the album.

‘Kodama’ is an enthralling start, but the album reaches its apex at the halfway point with the stately brilliance of ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’. The chord progression is in the Alcest sweet spot of being both vaguely recognisable, but just different enough to stand alone, and the sweeping melodicism contributed by the use of Neige’s higher register in the vocals is wonderful to behold, and possibly marks the only point during the album in which the listener is truly swept away from the quotidian in the way that they might have been continuously by ‘Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde, or ‘Les Voyages De L’Âme‘. Where ‘Kodama’ deployed a skeletal fragility though, ‘Je Suis D’Ailleurs’ reaches heights of both aggression and grandiosity that the listener may have feared were a thing of the past for Alcest. Initially strongly redolent of Agalloch playing the kind of Cascadian black metal that has been such a popular strain of that particular sub-genre during the last fifteen years, the track ultimately erupts into an utterly majestic and windswept blast, carrying the song forward on waves of tremolo riffing and long-form lead guitar melodies, while continuing to incorporate scales and intervals that tie the track back into the overarching Japanese aesthetic, all of which makes for an absolutely breathless and memorable pinnacle for Kodama as a whole.

Frustratingly though, these heights are so vertiginous because of the fact that they rise to such prominence relative to their surroundings, not unlike Mount Fuji dominating the horizon, overshadowing the Aokigahara Forest which surrounds it. The biggest issue with Kodama is that it is formulaic. Each track follows a similar structure. A downbeat, but still dreamy chord progression lopes its way through verses and choruses, before giving way to several minutes of gradually unfolding instrumental interplay, and the melodies and instrumentation is very similar from track to track. A charitable interpretation of the somewhat repetitive nature of the album would be to suggest that it enhances the way in which Kodama could be seen as an unofficial soundtrack to Princess Mononoke, a companion to the film, in which individual songs are less important than the overall impact of the music, and the way in which it represents the animated images. Seen in this light, with some of the musical motifs of the soundtrack finding their way into the album, Kodama does a credible job of bringing the work that inspired it to life. But purely as a metal album, divorced from a context that many listeners will be unaware of at best, and uninterested in at worst, even across the relatively short running time, there are sections of Kodama which are fundamentally turgid and unmemorable. The vocals bear a considerable amount of the responsibility for this. Alcest’s best songs have always been led by the guitars and (to a lesser degree) the synths, but strong vocal hooks are what elevate them above the ordinary, the counterpoint and complexity of additional harmonic interplay compelling the interest of the listener, as well as providing the unexpected moments of delight that attest to Neige’s mercurial brilliance. These moments of delight do still arise during Kodama – the controlled delicacy of parts of ‘Untouched’ that sound almost as if they have been played by the feathers and bones of dead birds, taking on some of their former beauty; and the final two minutes of ‘Oiseaux De Proie’, a post-apocalyptic minor chord jangle-blast that is utterly magnificent, and would act as a far more suitable conclusion to Kodama than the ambient experiments and backwards masking of ‘Onyx’ which instead closes out an enigma of an album.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that with the band’s indie itch well and truly scratched, Alcest’s return to the sound that suits them so well would be be an unmitigated triumph. It is not, but it is no failure either. Unlike its predecessor, it is a cohesive album, and inarguably delivers Neige’s vision for a Japanese-inflected iteration of their blackgaze sound. There is much to enjoy in the fact that this vision is rendered in starker, more monochrome tones, and it is fascinating to hear Alcest try and deliver the same escapist outcome as they have previously, but via an alternative route. These attempts are not always successful, but they are successful enough that we do not need to write all of Kodama off as a failed experiment, and quite possibly the embryo of future triumphs has been planted in some of the more enjoyable parts of an album that is at times enthralling, even while it verges on tedium at points. One hopes that this is indeed the case. It is, however, difficult to escape the conclusion that Alcest’s most exciting era may already be in the past though, and as such, although Kodama sees an improvement in the calibre of the band’s releases relative to the previous record, it is an improvement that cowers in the looming shadow of their best work.

Score: 63%

Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Liberty & Justice For…
  • Year of Release: 1987
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962252

Just 12 months after the landmark Cause For Alarm album, Agnostic Front surprisingly decided against the obvious progression into psychedelic prog-funk, and instead chose to solidify their position as leaders of the New York hardcore scene with the release of their third album, Liberty & Justice For…, curiously released in the very same year as Metallica’s similarly-titled …And Justice For All. A little like the genre in microcosm, there are no surprises here, just a slight refinement of the formula that served the band so well on their previous record. Some of the youthful exuberance and ramshackle thrill of Cause For Alarm is lost in this process, but in its place comes a greater emphasis on song-writing and vocal hooks, which means that the best songs found here are more considered and fundamentally more impressive than the standout tracks on its predecessor. This is reminiscent of the sort of development (albeit not quite the same quantum leap in quality) that many of their more conventional thrash contemporaries made between their first and second albums. Not unlike, for example, Metallica from Kill ‘Em All to Ride The Lightning, or Anthrax from Fistful Of Metal to Spreading The Disease, the impact of night after night on the stage has contributed to Agnostic Front becoming unavoidably more technically proficient, more professional, and more confident in recording a sound less derivative of their influences, instead settling on the singular and recognisable noise that they would deploy with some alterations for the remainder of their musical career.

Part of this change was perhaps down to the evolving line-up of the band. While the core of Agnostic Front (Roger Miret on vocals, and Vinnie Stigma on guitar duties) has remained unchanged throughout the now-veteran band’s career, one has to imagine that the more extensive supporting cast that have come and gone over time have profoundly impacted the band’s sound, particularly given the paucity of Stigma’s own songwriting contributions. Although he may be a totemic presence, much beloved of longtime fans of the group, and remains a key component of their live show, the composition is usually shared between Miret and whoever else happens to be swelling the Front ranks at any given moment. This time round, Louie Beatto, who was a dextrous and even quirky presence behind the kit on Cause For Alarm is supplanted by Will Shepler, who would remain Agnostic Front’s drummer until their mid-90s hiatus, during which he joined part of their literal extended family, Madball. Steve Martin (not that one) joins on lead guitar for his only studio album with the band, and the line-up is completed by Alan Peters on bass, who sadly passed away in 2020. Martin and Peters are a relatively small part of the band’s history in terms of the time that they spent as members, but their contribution to Liberty & Justice For… was significant. Between the two of them, they wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of the material, outside of a cover of ‘Crucified’, by Washington DC skinheads Iron Cross.

From almost the first notes of the almost title track ‘Liberty & Justice’, which kicks in after a sardonic intro featuring a chorus of young voices intoning their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, it is clear that this is a different album to its predecessor. If one strips away some of the punk elements of Cause For Alarm, what we are left with is often sonically indistinguishable from a thrash metal album, albeit one occupying a space at the less polished and technically proficient end of the thrash spectrum – more Overkill than Megadeth. It’s importance to the crossover thrash movement is undimmed, and the likes of D.R.I. and Corrosion Of Conformity ploughed a similar furrow to similar effect, before themselves evolving and exploring more straightforward thrash and stoner-metal territories in the late 1980s and beyond. Liberty & Justice For…, while still deploying in parts the tremolo-picked thrash riffs and punk chord sequences that defined their earlier sound, is recognisably a hardcore album, in that it more successfully synthesises these elements to create something that is both at once thrash and punk, but simultaneously something distinct from either. ‘Liberty & Justice’ demonstrates this as well as any of the other tracks on the album – an S.O.D. style thrash riff, underpinned by the rumbling double-bass attack of the drums, gives way to multiple stylistic and tempo changes, with an almost oi! punk breakdown slotting seamlessly into the mid-section of a song whose lyrics decry the state of an America divided by racial violence and inner city poverty. One imagines that the band didn’t imagine that all of society’s problems would be resolved a quarter of a century later, but it’s still disappointing that such tales of rage and hate (“Race wars fed by prejudice and hate / The love of a nation for its people burned through the night”) are still so relevant in 2021.

As Liberty & Justice For… continues to regularly disgorge its 3 minute blasts of hardcore across a run-time barely over half an hour, one of the most noticeable differences in the band’s sound, aside from the already-mentioned crystallisation of the hardcore style that the album embodies, is the increased prominence given to Roger Miret’s vocals, and also the clear shift in the style of these vocals. On Cause For Alarm, although the singing is considerably less audible, Miret deploys a rapid-fire bark; perfectly serviceable, but not terribly distinctive. Whether a conscious choice, or simply a natural evolution, Miret adopts a different approach this time round, a much more stylised delivery that sounds strangely like a more intelligible version of John Tardy’s vomiting vocals that make Obituary’s death metal so extreme. Where before, it was tough to discern Miret’s lyrics from the chaotic blur of a voice that was predominantly used as another tonal texture, his now more controlled, but idiosyncratic offering, is clearly addressing the listener, hectoring even, ensuring that his message is no longer lost in the maelstrom, like a lone voice shouting into the wind. It takes some getting used to, and it’s difficult to imagine that at some level it did not start as an affectation, an attempt to represent more realistically the street thug persona that Miret’s lyrics so clearly portray. However, for better or worse, this has become the definitive sound of Agnostic Front over time, and it undoubtedly fits well with the band’s overall sound, as well as creating a clear counter-point to the music which is particularly beneficial when the riffs stray into the kind of more mundane and generic territory that crops up a little too often in the middle third of Liberty & Justice For….

None of the tracks on the album could be characterised as poor, but the highlights generally come at the front and back ends of the record. ‘Strength’, which follows a one minute crash through the rudimentary adrenaline of ‘Crucial Moment’, shows both some musical growth in terms of its comparatively complex structure, and also an increasing ability to fashion rough-shod hooks that serve to make the stand-out tracks that much more memorable, and likely to stand the test of time. Lightspeed thrash bleeds into a mid-tempo march, which evidences tremolo-picked riffs working deftly with rhythmic variations which maintain interest throughout, and frequent modulations into different keys enable new harmonic possibilities, before the whole thing culminates in the kind of rolling riff that Sick Of It All perfected on their own seminal New York hardcore release Scratch The Surface. If ‘Strength’ provides a sonic template for the Koller brothers’ crew, the arrogantly named ‘Anthem’ does the same for another giant of the somewhat incestuous scene, Hatebreed. While it’s clear that at this point the band have found a formula that works for them, and are keen to replicate it over and over – a mid-tempo punk breakdown is bookended by two bursts of breakneck thrash – the brute force of the gang vocals working their way through a chorus which proffers the almost mafia-like importance of the kind of concepts that hardcore bands revisit repeatedly “The Blood / The Honor / The Truth” succeeds in making ‘Anthem’ one of the stand-out tracks of Liberty & Justice For…, not to mention one that cries out to be experienced in the sweaty, and possibly homoerotic, confines of a small club, with stage-divers flinging themselves from the monitors with limited regard for themselves and less for others, with older gig-goers strategically placing themselves just close enough to the surging throng to absorb the atmosphere, while at the same time minimising the considerable risk of injury.

Liberty & Justice For… loses some momentum in the middle section of the album – ‘Another Side’ grinds away rather ineffectually, and although ‘Happened Yesterday’ is an enjoyable throwback to the snotty crossover of Cause For Alarm, it fails to linger long in the memory. Thankfully, the same cannot be said for the excellent trio of tracks that follow, and which ensure that things end on a high, even if final track ‘Censored’ doesn’t quite reach the same heights. ‘Lost’ revisits the kind of downbeat hardcore that the previous album utilised more often, recalling the hopeless despair of Discharge for the only time here, and intriguingly intimating the existence of some internal conflict with respect to the unstinting tales of violence and aggression that the band generally peddle with the line “Man finds himself trapped in aggression” which sits among a set of unusually tree-hugging lyrics that pre-figure the Buddhist hardcore of Shelter by a good few years. ‘Hypocrisy’ is even better, eschewing metal altogether for bright and sparky punk rock, complete with a cathartic singalong chorus that effortlessly raises both fists and smiles. The aforementioned Iron Cross cover ‘Crucified’ is similarly melodic, and the ease with which Agnostic Front slip from metal-thrashing mad into punk rock mode and back is hugely impressive, and a great demonstration of the way in which they are able to straddle underground genres with such authority.

This album is less obviously thrilling than Cause For Alarm, and arguably less important to the development of underground music as a whole. What it does represent, however, is Agnostic Front solidifying the sound of modern hardcore, exhibiting all of the traits that are now so familiar, so well-worn, by the legions of bands that Agnostic Front and their peers inspired. A hardcore checklist including tough guy vocals, singalong choruses augmented with gang chants, weighty mid-tempo leaden (and sometimes lumpen) riffs, would find all boxes ticked in short order during any play through of Liberty & Justice For…, although it is considerably more enjoyable and less generic than that makes it sound. Song for song, with the peaks a little bit higher, it is in fact marginally the superior album, and yet another landmark moment in the development of the hardcore movement.

Score: 78%

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Cause For Alarm
  • Year of Release: 1986
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962242

Cause For Alarm is the second full-length from New York hardcore pioneers, Agnostic Front. Although it has to be said that full-length does not quite mean the same to Agnostic Front as it might do to Iron Maiden, or Tool. The band’s first album, Victim In Pain, ripped through 11 songs in a shade over 15 minutes, and although Cause For Alarm is positively epic by comparison, it still clocks in at a Reign In Blood-beating 24 minutes. Of course, brevity is not an issue here. Short and to the point is absolutely the intention for the kind of raucous crossover thrash peddled by Agnostic Front, and what Cause For Alarm lacks in sophistication and variation, it more than makes up for in its fevered energy and totally authentic delivery. More than that, along with its predecessor, and similar albums issued by their contemporaries and fellow New Yorkers Cro-Mags, Crumbsuckers and Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front were helping to create a genre that endures to this day, and could even, in its boundary-smashing integration of punk rock with embryonic thrash metal, be said to have contributed to the later success of metalcore (in both its pre- and post-2000 senses), and even deathcore.

The musical content of Cause For Alarm is far from poor, but it’s primary value is to be found in its historical significance, having been released at a time when punk and heavy metal were both musically and socially more insular music scenes, an insularity that was occasionally transformed into outright animosity and even violence. That said, it’s important not to overplay this antipathy. The (at the time) underground metal scene of the 1980s made no secret of their love of punk, with Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth all releasing a number of covers of classic punk and hardcore tracks, and even early black metal progenitors Bathory were heavily inspired by the harder-edged sounds of GBH and The Exploited. In addition, Motörhead were of course the band that united punks and headbangers alike, with their super-charged version of rock ‘n’ roll, even if Lemmy frequently, and unsuccessfully, attempted to distance himself from the metal scene that he claimed to disdain. Still, although there was a certain amount of musical interdependence between apparently opposing musical movements, Agnostic Front were undoubtedly a prime mover in knitting together the loose strands of thrash metal and punk rock in a way that gave almost equal weight to both genres, and at the same time created something distinct from either. Cause For Alarm is consequently one of the earliest examples of the New York hardcore sound, a sound that may have been initially confined to a relatively small geographical area, exemplified by the likes of Warzone, Leeway and Sheer Terror, but eventually exploded in popularity thanks to the international success of Sick Of It All, Biohazard and Madball. Decades later, New York hardcore is essentially the recognised sound of hardcore globally, with thriving scenes in London, Belgium and Germany all adopting the aesthetic signifiers of the New York scene as their own, alongside the obvious musical similarities.

It is important to understand the context in which Cause For Alarm was released, as well as its enduring impact. This is because evaluated purely on musical merit, although more than competent, it is difficult to sustain the argument that as the thrash album that it often resembles, it can compete with the more sophisticated and grandiose classics that were released around the same time. Master Of Puppets, Reign In Blood and Darkness Descends were all released in 1986, and all are superior thrash albums. However, none of them combined the low-E chugging and double-bass drum battery of metal with the speedy major key chord sequences and vocal patterns of punk rock as Agnostic Front did, to create a brand new sub-genre, and it is for this reason that Cause For Alarm should be considered a landmark release.

Opening track, ‘The Eliminator’ very much sets the tone for the rest of the album – it’s safe to say that if your interest is not piqued by the brutish punk-thrash of this raging beast, which sounds not unlike Exodus and Minor Threat falling down a staircase together, Agnostic Front are probably not for you. This album is not a journey through changing moods and diverse textures, it is a one-paced howl of rage at society, and that pace is rarely anything lower than extreme velocity. Presumably as a consequence of their twin influences of punk and thrash, the Agnostic Front sound is highly rhythmic, and linear in its riff structures. This is not to say that there is no variation at all – ‘The Eliminator’ contrasts a pounding d-beat snare tracking the verse riff, with a short twin-guitar breakdown which sees Louie Beatto’s drums switch to a more metallic double-bass attack – but across the album as a whole, very similar-sounding riffs crop up repeatedly, and the album’s run-time works in its favour here. It is probably the most significant factor holding this album back from elevation to classic thrash status. Lacking the ability and melodic ingenuity to turn their palpable energy into the kind of unmistakeable and eternally memorable riffs that pepper the early works of Slayer, Metallica and even the slightly less-heralded likes of Testament and Dark Angel, Agnostic Front have to rely on Cause For Alarm succeeding primarily on the emotions it evokes at the time of listening, as opposed to song-writing skill. That it mostly does indeed succeed as a truly visceral experience is down to the authentic intensity that they are able to summon without apparent difficulty.

The songs that leave the biggest impression are those in which Roger Miret’s vocals, a little buried in the mix compared to their later albums, are able to generate the hook that is generally not found in the guitars. The unusual phrasing of the rapid-fire ‘Time Will Come’, which operates as a counterpoint to the simplistic Misfits-style thrashing of the rest of the band, ensures that this track stands tall as a highlight of the album, as do the menacing gang vocals of the excellent ‘Growing Concern’. The latter is something of an outlier; bearing a distinct lack of metal influence, and instead recalling the skate-punk of early Descendents, combined in the chorus with the kind of one-string descending riff that Greg Ginn frequently utilised throughout the middle part of Black Flag’s career, before he decided that utilising any notes at all was passé, and progressed to composing albums made entirely from differing tones of feedback. Similarly good are the anthemic ‘Your Mistake’, (covering this was apparently a contractual obligation for any band signed to Roadrunner Records in the 1990s) making its second recorded appearance on an Agnostic Front album, and the thrilling ‘Bomber Zee’, which recalls Discharge, with its relentless sheet-metal guitars. Discharge, in fact, are an interesting point of comparison for Agnostic Front. A UK band also inspired by punk, they combined an admittedly more primitive version of hardcore with a progressively more metallic bent, and in so doing, were a major influence on the putative thrash scene of the early 1980s, the same thrash scene which saw its chugging riffs coalesce with punk rock on this Agnostic Front record.

Of course, one of the major differences between the two bands is their political outlook. Where Discharge were unapologetic anarcho-punks, Agnostic Front (somewhat counter-intuitively) embraced a more conservative viewpoint. Cause For Alarm contains probably the most unpleasant lyrical example of this – ‘boasting’ such lines as ‘How come it’s minorities who cry / Things are too tough / On TV with their gold chains / Claim they don’t have enough / I say make them clean the sewers / Don’t take no resistance / If they don’t like it go to hell / And cut their public assistance’. Agnostic Front did not actually write these words themselves – the late Peter Steele from Type O Negative (Carnivore at the time), is unfortunately the responsible party – but they had no qualms about including it on the album, and as such they deserve the criticism that they have correctly received for the racist stereotyping and generalisation embodied by the awful lyrics. The most charitable interpretation of this song is that it represents the misplaced ire of uninformed young men, angry at society, and looking for someone to blame for their own benighted lives. That may be the case, but it is nonetheless a stain on the band’s reputation, and a long way from the kind of ‘community’ that hardcore sometimes hypocritically likes to claim it offers its adherents.

The violent, but raucously enjoyable blast of ‘Shoot His Load’ immediately follows, and closes the album in fine style, and at just the right time. Much longer, and the undoubted homogeneity of the chugging riffs would erode their effectiveness fairly quickly, and the huge impact of Cause For Alarm would dissipate. And, once more, it is worth restating that the impact of this album was and is huge. Agnostic Front successfully transferred the sound of the New York streets firstly to wax, and then took that sound to the world. Most of the characteristics of the modern sound of hardcore can be located somewhere on the record, from the dizzying speed of the high-octane punk-rock chord sequences, to the chugging thrash riffs, to the dragging breakdowns, all topped with violent lyrics and chanted gang vocals designed both to ensure that the odd memorable phrase is turned into a hook-laden chorus, and also to provide obvious opportunities for crowd participation at the legendarily chaotic live shows that have always been a huge part of hardcore culture. The songs themselves are good; frenetic slices of pure anger, albeit in a way that sounds less intimidating in the 21st century, when bands such as Converge have taken the hardcore template and twisted it into ever more horrifying shapes. But these songs, together with the knowledge that not only were Agnostic Front one of a small group of innovators, but that they laid the groundwork for any number of bands that came after them, means that it deserves a level of respect that outweighs the music alone.

Score: 77%

Abigor – Satanized (A Journey Through Cosmic Infinity)

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Satanized (A Journey Through Cosmic Infinity)
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Satanized (A Journey Through Cosmic Infinity)
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Scarecrow Records
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: SC01006

And now I begin my somewhat lonely vigil, reviewing the lesser-quality Abigor albums post the triumphant double header of Supreme Immortal Art and Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan. Satanized (A Journey Through Cosmic Infinity) sees the band attempting their first effort without founding member, drummer T.T., taking some small steps to move away from the convoluted chaos black metal of their output to date. The slightly medieval conceits of previous records have been replaced by a more cosmic take on the genre. Even in 2001 this wasn’t entirely original, and ironically seems a retrogressive step for a previously progressive band.

I want to be clear – I don’t think this is a terrible record. In fact, listening back after many years of it sitting gathering dust on a shelf, there’s a fair deal to love here – it’s well produced, giving guitar, bass and particularly drums room to breathe without descending into chaos. The intricacy of previous Abigor albums is still there, albeit tempered by more frequent thrash-type tempos and riffing; I can definitely hear some early Voivod and Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica in some of the song structures, although overall the touchstone remains predominantly Scandiwegian.

So what’s wrong with it? It’s an album defined primarily by what it’s not. Thurisaz is clearly not the frontman that Silenius was; his black metal rasp functional but one-dimensional, without range or texture, and the attempts at clean vocals are charitably described as somewhat laughable. It’s nice to be able hear the bass again, and the guitar production means that Abigor’s trademark convoluted riffing is pushed to the fore, even if it comes across as slightly more straightforward (dare I say punting at classic 80s metal?) than previously, and new drummer (Dornenreich’s Moritz Neuner) is clearly more than competent. But it lacks the depth and intricacy of their previous output to date. The “spacey” moments and keyboard interjections should really be left to the likes of Dødheimsgard and Arcturus. I guess I find it a little bit sad that a band that set themselves apart by doing things like using a flute alongside black metal ending up sounding so generic and dated. They sounded dated when this was released in 2001, and this is not a group going for retro – this is a group thinking they’re going for futuristic, but missing the point resolutely. I want to like this far more than I do. Surely a poor vocal performance on a black metal record, or the occasional misjudged keyboard insertion (see ‘The Redeemer’s Return’) is not enough to damn a record? OK, I’m trying to be as objective as possible – this is a totally fine, middle of the road, early 00s black metal record, not doing anything spectacularly innovative, not rocking the boat, but not disgracing itself either. But for a band of Abigor’s prior calibre that’s just not good enough for this reviewer. If you’re a completist – buy this album. If you are not – buy any of the previous Abigor albums in preference (and indeed its direct successor).

Score: 62%