Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
  • 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.

Score: 63%

Agnostic Front – One Voice

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – One Voice
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: One Voice
  • Year of Release: 1992
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relativity Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RO 9222 2

Despite their enduring status as firstly, innovators of crossover thrash and hardcore and latterly, widely respected elder statesmen of the heavy music scene, Agnostic Front have largely failed to capitalise on their reputation either commercially or critically, with the possible exception of the acknowledged importance of their first two albums to the genesis of a strain of punk rock that has arguably been refined and improved upon by a number of bands that they themselves have inspired. If they were ever going to break through and enjoy more sustained mainstream success, it is likely that One Voice was their best opportunity. The release of Metallica’s monstrously successful self-titled effort, which found stratospheric popularity in 1991, redefined the possibilities for more extreme sounds, and in the years that followed, bands such as Fear Factory, Machine Head and Biohazard all found the kind of success that has always eluded Agnostic Front with sounds that owed more than a little to the music that had filled the scuzzy clubs of New York City in the mid-1980s. Part of the reason for this might have been the fragmented nature of a band that had become used to losing their main songwriters after the release of every new album, and had also been hampered by the prison sentence of lead singer and primary lyricist Roger Miret. But fundamentally, the main reason that Agnostic Front were unable to seize the opportunity presented to them by circumstances was that One Voice is a mediocre album that lacks the sonic heft and precision song-writing of the albums that it ultimately trailed in the wake of.

Some of this mediocrity is a consequence of poor sequencing, which breaks one of the unwritten rules of album production, and loads the majority of the best tracks on the record towards the back end. While this does ensure that One Voice finishes strongly, it leaves the listener with a misleadingly positive impression of the album as a whole, which never quite recovers from the disappointment of the slew of average songs that litter the first half of the album. It’s as if what should have been the perfectly smooth and pristine concrete foundation has been spoiled by a careless footprint, left by a construction worker clocking off early. As if to underline the sense of anticlimax, first track ‘New Jack’ raises hopes, with a blizzard of feedback and chugging guitars that are surely, inevitably, the prelude to the all-out brutality of a legendary thrash riff to rival ‘Angel Of Death’, or ‘Battery’. However, the anticipated explosion fails to ignite, and in its place is a middling blast of rather generic D-beat punk rock. ‘New Jack’ is the sonic equivalent of returning home from the supermarket to find that you’ve unwittingly bought non-alcoholic beer instead of 7% IPA to chug down in front of the big game, or caffeine-free coffee the morning after you just haven’t had enough sleep, and it appears that the simplistic excitement that Agnostic Front could be relied on to supply even if the songs weren’t quite there has been mislaid in a bid to sound a little more professional, a little more considered, a little more musical.

The title track, which appears as the second track in, exemplifies the issues that afflict the album, consolidating a number of problems into a 3 minute blast of unfortunately forgettable hardcore. Although compositionally, Agnostic Front achieve probably their most natural balance between punk and metal to date on One Voice, sonically, the album is very much a metal album. The guitars, presumably in part because of the arrival of Matt Henderson on lead guitar, replacing Steve Martin (not that one, again), favour the scooped-mid crunch that had become the most imitated tone in metal since the release of the aforementioned Black Album, and the overall mix swaps the full and organic tones that tend to pre-dominate in punk rock for a heavily (in fact over-) compressed and dry metallic scree, which seems to reduce the entire possible frequency range to a monotonously narrow spectrum, which can’t help but leave the record feeling a little undercooked and even sterile. Particularly egregious is the dreadful drum sound which, prefiguring one of the more disappointing production trends of the 21st century, opts for a trebly click instead of a thunderous bass-drum bottom end, ensuring that the many sections of the guitars galloping their way along the low-E string in synch with Will Shepler’s sterling double-bass work sound tragically underpowered. The production issues are compounded by the odd choice of a minute-long instrumental (‘Infiltrate’) as the third track in, which is not quite an intro or interlude, but simply a snatch of chunky, moderately diverting riffing which goes precisely nowhere. Frankly, it all speaks of a band that hit the studio armed with a clutch of good songs, but no real vision of the album that they wanted to emerge with, all the while nursing the belief that they would be sufficiently inspired by the recording process to magically produce a masterpiece. ‘Infiltrate’ is evidence enough that this belief was to prove hopelessly optimistic.

Their inability to produce consistent quality across the entire is especially unfortunate, as the highlights of One Voice are actually among the best tracks of the band’s career thus far, and good enough to transcend the sub-par production. ‘The Tombs’, which appears to be an autobiographical tale of rough justice inspired by Miret’s own experiences of the US prison system, is a rare example of the band exhibiting an uncharacteristic level of musical dexterity and capacity to progress and develop which has remained largely untapped to this day. A punk sense of harmony crashes headlong into thrashing riffs that verge on Voivodian in their dissonance, the vocal phrasing is rhythmically intriguing and Henderson’s guitar solo decorates a speedy bridge section with a surprisingly fluid virtuosity which underlines the metal component of their sound spectacularly. From this point in, the overall calibre of the music trends mercifully skywards. The stuttering riff and bouncy hardcore of ‘Over The Edge’ is vital and refreshing, and ‘Crime Without Sin’ utilises the space between the blunt-force riffs and hanging chords in a way which resembles Biohazard covering Helmet to brilliant effect. Until now, Agnostic Front had generally filled every available second of their traditionally short running time with breakneck crossover thrash, failing to heed the lesson offered by many of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands that the sense of dynamics and tension that can be derived from the notes un-played can be one of the most powerful weapons in a band’s arsenal. ‘Crime Without Sin’ shows that Agnostic Front have themselves reached this important realisation and it brings a welcome variety to the album.

Best of all is the penultimate track ‘Force Feed’, which demonstrates all of the most thrilling facets of the band’s sound, but crucially, allies the serrated chugging of the D-beat thrash with the kind of memorable vocal hooks that are generally lacking from the rest of One Voice. There’s nothing overly poetic or cloaked in mysterious metaphor about a chorus that repeats the phrase “Force fed lies”, but it does demonstrate the enduring power in aggressive music of a rudimentary slogan used well; and in the same way that “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” will never fail to elicit a reaction in the live arena, on a smaller scale, the same is likely to be true for ‘Force Feed’, precision built for the band’s live show. The song would be perfectly adequate even without the absolute demolition caused by the ripping mid-tempo mosh riff that dominates the final section, but its addition elevates the track from very good to classic-adjacent, and almost demands the pressing of the repeat button as soon as things draw to a close.

All told, One Voice is a frustrating album. Mystifyingly back-loaded, it provokes a certain amount of musing on the question of how important pacing and sequencing is to an album. Would the same songs in a different order create a different artistic statement? Perhaps on the more naive and visceral likes of Cause For Alarm, all about the temporal experience of the sound, the order of the songs is relatively less important. But One Voice has designs on offering something more than energy and excitement, and has clear pretensions in terms of representing some form of definitive and lasting statement of exactly what Agnostic Front should be at this point in their career. And therefore, correspondingly more thought needs to be given to creating something coherent that flows from the first to the last track, something that most of the successful metal bands of that era were adept at producing. Had Agnostic Front deconstructed One Voice and put it back together, Frankenstein-like, in a different configuration, the songs individually would clearly be no better, but the album as a whole could be improved. The other factor which weighs against Agnostic Front in 1992 is that where once they were at the forefront of creating something novel and even extreme, One Voice pales a little bit in comparison to the records it was up against at this point in time. Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power, for example, was released in the same year, and delivered a potent cocktail of ultra-muscular metal which out-performs the not dissimilar One Voice on almost every criteria imaginable. ‘Fucking Hostile’ is the sound that Agnostic Front are reaching for, but failing to grasp, and nothing on One Voice comes close to replicating the kind of intensity that Pantera seemed able to maintain effortlessly, albeit blessed with the kind of sharp, punchy production that Agnostic Front so desperately needed. As it is, One Voice is an occasionally brilliant, but mostly average record that just cannot compete with the best that the metal and hardcore scenes had to offer in 1992. Musically, it is probably the band’s most accomplished album thus far, but lacking the pure exhilaration of their earlier releases, it is ultimately less essential, less vital, and less worthy of your time.

Score: 66%