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%