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%

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%

Afghan Whigs – Congregation

Author: BD Joyce

Afghan Whigs – Congregation
  • Artist: Afghan Whigs
  • Album: Congregation
  • Year of Release: 1992
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Sub Pop
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: SPCD 130 / 98787-0130-2

Congregation is Afghan Whigs’ third album, and their second on the pre-eminent label of grunge, Sub Pop. Despite being in the right place at the right time though, and despite the album itself receiving considerable acclaim on release from a broad range of publications, it failed to catapult the band to the kind of gigantic success enjoyed and endured by some of their contemporaries. In 2020, it is largely a footnote in the history of that particular era of rock ‘n’ roll, even if lead Whig Greg Dulli went on to enjoy a certain amount of low-key success after the band split, temporarily as it transpired, in 2001. This came firstly with the critically-adored Twilight Singers, and then also as half of The Gutter Twins with kindred spirit Mark Lanegan, whose career has followed a similarly circuitous route to its current esteem. Although their music shares many of the traits of their more popular contemporaries, the fact that Afghan Whigs failed to so much as hitch a ride on the coattails of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney in the early 90s is fairly easy to understand. Congregation is simply too scrappy and difficult, striking out in numerous directions and containing plenty of moments of inspiration, but lacking either the pure thrill of the white-hot punk rock riffage employed by the bands at the heavier end of the grunge spectrum, or the broad melodic appeal of Pearl Jam or Pixies, the record found no natural audience, and as such Afghan Whigs were ever-destined to exist as the outsider’s outsiders.

A low-key intro sets the tone for the rest of the album, a sparse drum beat emerging from the silence quickly joined by a crash of brittle, discordant guitars, and the haunting voice of Miss Ruby Belle intoning the menacing lyrics “Eat my imagination / Taste my imaginary friend / I know your ass is fine / But I’m the only one who can say… / That it’s mine”. Belle is reputedly personifying the opiate pull of heroin, and Dulli’s dark, fascinating and even confrontational lyrics are one of the most intriguing elements of Congregation as he explores the darker sides human intimacy in a way that sets the Afghan Whigs apart from some of their more quotidian peers. The brief ‘Her Against Me’ segues directly into the thematically similar ‘I’m Her Slave’ which casts off any ambiguity, making very clear that the ‘Her’ of the title is most certainly not a lady that one should involve oneself with, and perhaps one that Dulli can never untangle himself from: “Get off that stuff, she said / And I’ll stone you instead / Unchain yourself said she / And tie yourself to me”. It’s unclear to what extent Dulli is performing a role here in terms of the sometimes dissolute characters that he inhabits across the album, but there is a gritty authenticity to his delivery that suggests that Dulli is writing from at least a modicum of experience. If ‘Her Against Me’ prepared the listender for an album of gothic folk, in the vein of Chelsea Wolfe, this notion is quickly disabused by the ultra-90s sounds of the first track proper. A scratchy, swirling guitar figure combined with a tom-heavy tribal drum feel makes for a percussive verse, leavened by a tender chorus, and the obvious touchpoints are Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, and any number of early 1990s bands rushing into the open space in the mainstream cleared by the the incipient alternative rock revolution led by Nirvana, Janes Addiction et al. It’s a curious phenomenon that in a 21st century rock scene that sometimes appears dominated by retrogressive sounds, the kind of noisy, but vaguely tuneful off-kilter rock pedalled by the Afghan Whigs has fallen dramatically out of favour, and as such, Congregation cannot help but sound rather dated, not that this lessens its considerable appeal.

The element of the Afghan Whigs sound which really separates them from the pack is the unusual influence of funk and soul, snatches of which bubble to the surface from time to time. Their love of these forms of music is not an affectation – the band followed up Congregation with Uptown Avondale, a covers EP including versions of Supremes and Al Green tracks among others, as well as incorporating other standards into live sets – but we should also not overstate the presence of these influences in their music either; this is not a Nation Of Ulysses or Minutemen album after all. On Congregation at least, the band’s noisy guitar scree dominates proceedings, but there is a subtle use of clipped funk guitars throughout some of the more interesting tracks, the rhythm guitars channelling Nile Rogers. This serves to highlight the Afghan Whigs ability to assimilate a wider array of sonics than the average grunge band, whose listening habits start at Black Flag and end at Black Sabbath. To be clear, there are worst bands to emulate than Blacks Flag and Sabbath, but it is refreshing to hear a band that is able to deploy a broader modes of expression, as it expands the emotional range of the work. It is no surprise that the songs that in many ways define the album are both the most successful at synthesising the various facets of the band’s sound, and also the most dynamic in terms of volume and melody.

The first track that makes a lasting impression is the splendid ‘Conjure Me’. Once again, a funky guitar line, this time run through a wah-pedal, is practically ever-present, and the guitar lines of Dulli and Rick McCollum dance across each other constantly, tracing deceptively clever patterns, weaving the “web of conspiracy” of which Dulli sings, suggesting one perspective of a tempestuous relationship. For the first time of the album though, ‘Conjure Me’ really takes flight when it reaches the chorus. The way in which Dulli’s wounded wail breaks as he sings in a higher register gives it an especially heart-breaking power, before a more spacious and open bridge section releases the pent up tension of the song, the band collectively releasing a breath that they didn’t know that they were holding. The title-track is even better, the highlight and centrepiece of the album in fact. ‘Congregation’ is an up-tempo driving beast, which gradually escalates to an almost celebratory chorus. Dulli is found here in full preacher mode, standing tall on the dais, hands raised invoking almight power, screaming “I am your creator!” It’s a thrilling moment, and demonstrates just how good a band the Afghan Whigs might become were they able to compile a whole album of songs of this calibre.

Unsurprisingly though, for a band that were clearly still developing their sound, Congregation contains a number of songs that are rather less impactful than the aforementioned highlights. This really starts to show during the mid-section of the album which drags horribly, as similar sounding songs begin to merge together, lacking the kind of memorable hooks or transcendent vocal melodies to distinguish them from one another. ‘This Is My Confession’ is the best track of this part of the record, Dulli’s all too honest lyrics adding an unsettling quality to a sparse musical accompaniment, which pairs intricate folky guitar lines with a more conventional, early REM-style song structure. Lines such as “I’m lyin’ now / I always do / I know my way around the truth” certainly open the band to accusations of misogyny, but I would argue that they are laden with enough self-awareness to suggests the possibility of redemption. ‘Dedicate It’ explores exactly the same sound, which is rather wearying, however, and at this point the listener may feel that they are ingesting a bland meal in which the base ingredients are all present and correct, but the chef is not quite skilled enough to add the right mix of seasoning at the right time to transform the dish into layers of interesting flavours. The slightly incongruous cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Temple’ from Jesus Christ Superstar actually fares a little better, with the odd 7/4 time signature grabbing the listener’s attention due to it’s off-kilter rhythms, and a superb and wonderfully prominent bassline ensuring that the attention, once grabbed, does not wane.

The album concludes with ‘Miles Iz Ded’, originally a secret track, but thankfully upgraded to official status on the represses of Congregation, and this off-the-cuff tribute to the legendary Miles Davis is a fitting end to the album. In many respects, bearing no resemblance to the jazz man that it pays tribute to, it is the album’s most straightforward and succinct track. Raging crashes of chords provide a visceral and exciting backdrop to Dulli’s melodic yelp, repeating the chorus refrain over and over again – “Don’t forget the alcohol / Ooh baby, ooh baby”. Not quite as sophisticated as the more overtly poetic wordplay that peppers the rest of the album admittedly, but the immediacy of a hook reputedly based on an answerphone message left for Dulli on the night of Davis’s death in 1991 is perfectly suited to the grunge-punk fervour of a track that is every bit the equal of the kind of raw, but melodic, punk that Nirvana, Fugazi and Mudhoney were purveying at the same time. ‘Miles Iz Ded’ is a good argument for intuition over conscious thought when it comes to rocking out, and suggests that perhaps Congregation might have been a better album had the band let rip with a little more freedom a little more often. As it is, Congregation is a more than solid album that is at its best when it fuses discordant rock with infectious melodies, and plays on the band’s ability to infuse their slightly offbeat indie-punk with shards of funk, folk and strafing slashes of noise. There is plenty to enjoy here, but no songs strong enough to really transcend the context of the album in a way that might have given the band the kind of underground hit that could have raised their profile at a time when they were within touching distance of mainstream popularity. Congregation reveals talent and potential in abundance, but not the songwriting nous or focus to fully capitalise on either. As such, it will likely remain a good example of credible 1990s rock, but will also remain undisturbed by adventurous rock fans looking for overlooked albums ripe for rediscovery.

Score: 68%

The Adverts – Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts

Author: BD Joyce

The Adverts – Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts
  • Artist: The Adverts
  • Album: Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts
  • Year of Release: 1978
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Essential
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: ESMCD451

Over 40 years after UK punk burst into mainstream consciousness, it’s fair to say that The Adverts don’t enjoy the profile of The Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Damned, bands generally credited with popularising the iconoclastic scene in a blaze of televisual profanity, outrageous fashion and riotous gigs. In fact, they don’t even quite enjoy the profile of some of the lesser lights of the late 70s punk scene, such as Stiff Little Fingers or Sham 69, perhaps because they’ve never properly reformed. This is a shame, as The Adverts debut album, released close enough to 1977 for the band to be able to claim the credibility of original, rather than copycat, punks, is an enjoyable blend of melodic hooks and lyrical content that represents an authentic voice of working class youth.

Although their star may have fallen somewhat in the intervening decades, when Crossing The Red Sea… was released, the band were enjoying a rapidly rising profile, powered by a brace of successful singles, including the Top 20 hit ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ which saw them perform on Top Of The Pops in the summer of 1977, mere months after the enormous controversy generated by The Sex Pistols own inimitable Silver Jubilee celebration, the seminal single ‘God Save The Queen’. The band had very much been there at the genesis of the movement, playing frequently in the London punk clubs in 1976/77 after relocating from their native Devon, including gigs with such luminaries as The Jam and The Damned. Incidentally, despite its success, ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ was omitted from the original pressing of their debut, although it was added to the track-listing on the re-issued version that is the subject of this particular review.

Despite their associations with the nascent punk scene, however, Crossing The Red Sea… is not festooned with the buzzsaw guitars and snarling vocals that might be expected. Although the tempos are relatively speedy throughout, much of The Adverts music employs a minor key jangle of the type that would be considered indie a few short years later, and in many ways has more in common with the post-punk of bands like Magazine, Wire or (early) The Cure. Opener ‘One Chord Wonders’ amusingly mocks the accusations of more serious musicians that the punks couldn’t play, proving that even the famous ‘three chords’ of punk as outlined in punk fanzine ‘Sideburns’ were two too many, when a single chord would do the job even more efficiently. The title is very much tongue-in-cheek though – the song itself contains considerably more chords than it would suggest, but the celebration of DIY minimalism is still brilliantly energising.

‘Bored Teenagers’ is even better, a ragged blast that truly captures the ennui of suburban British kids with nothing to do and everything to lose. It forms a real expression of the inner emotions of a generation growing up in tough circumstances, wanting and hoping for something better, but struggling to articulate anything beyond the impotent rage of young adults unable to build the world that they want to live in. When T.V. Smith’s inimitable English accent intones the anthemic and melodious chorus ‘We’re just bored teenagers / Looking for love / Or should I say emotional rages / Bored teenagers / Seeing ourselves as strangers’, he surely speaks for a large proportion of his contemporaries, not just across the UK but across the wider world.

The rest of the album, as good as it frequently is, does not quite maintain the heights scaled on the second track. Not uncommonly for the genre, individual songs tend to carry more power than a full-length, delivering a short, sharp shock to the system. There are, of course, truly great punk albums – Never Mind The Bollocks, The Clash, Raw Power – but mere anger, or rage, is not quite enough on its own to produce a masterpiece. And for a band as relatively musically rudimentary as The Adverts were at this point in their career, across a slightly wearing 13 songs, they produce something very good, but not great. The aforementioned ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’, considerably more sinister than it sounds on first listen, once the listener discovers that the eponymous anti-hero is in fact a convicted killer who left the titular eyes to science, is magnificent, the unforgettable descending melody of the chorus representing their most memorable contribution to punk. ‘New Church’ is nearly as good, as 50s rock ‘n’ roll inflected vocals and wall of guitars approximate the sound of the Ramones circa End Of The Century, with Phil Spector in the producer’s seat. Unfortunately, these highlights contrast sharply with the stodgy boogie of ‘No Time To Be 21’, and the listless ‘Drowning Men’.

Crossing The Red Sea… is an album whose importance as a cultural document marginally outweighs its musical quality. A gritty, claustrophobic listen, it represents a vivid and visceral portrayal of life in the UK in the late 1970s for a certain cross-section of young people whose natural youthful optimism was coming into conflict with the harsh realities of life in a time of significant disruption to working class life, as a failing Labour government gave way to a right-wing administration that altered the nation in ways that still reverberate several decades later. As punk splintered into post-punk and goth, many bands would produce arguably more sophisticated and interesting music, but The Adverts’ debut retains a startling and authentic quality to this day that will ensure a small but dedicated audience will continue to keep their name alive for some time yet.

Score: 72%