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%

Abigail – Forever Street Metal Bitch

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail – Forever Street Metal Bitch
  • Artist: Abigail
  • Album: Forever Street Metal Bitch
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: Japan
  • Label: Drakkar
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: DKCD031/2

And so we come to Abigail’s second full-length studio recording, the tastefully-titled Forever Street Metal Bitch. Yasuyuki Suzuki had spent the intervening years between this and Intercourse & Lust releasing a number of EPs, and a live album, all under the Abigail moniker; but also, importantly, a similarly prolific output with the punkier thrash group Barbatos. There is a marked stylistic shift on Forever Street Metal Bitch, and a cursory look over the recordings Suzuki was making around this period gives you a pretty clear idea about where his head was at.

While the vocals remain harsh (to the extent that they are nearly indecipherable even with a lyric book), there has been a conscious move away from the black metal of the previous album and demo material, towards a much more straightforward thrash metal sound, with prominent influence from the more jagged end of the NWOBHM. The most striking thing about this album is how much it rocks out, evoking Motorhead, early Venom, Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica – all a far, far cry the usual ultra-serious black metal put out by Drakkar. This is a real oddity for the label, but clearly those hardened misanthropes had a moment of madness and thought, “Fuck it, let’s release something for a bit of fun.”

And fun it is, in its own slightly absurd and over-the-top way. I challenge any old school metal fan to listen to this and not air-guitar/drum/headbang at frequent (and possibly involuntary) intervals. The lyrics are beyond ridiculous, even given the language barrier, revolving around the standard tropes of Satan, damnation, being in a metal band etc. with the addition of the horrendous likes of ‘We’re The Pussy Hunter’. With the last in mind, there are at least two different versions of the front cover, neither of which is SFW, and neither of which does the band any favours.

There is a merit-worthy increase in the degree of melody on display, with a particular emphasis on classic rock soloing, and includes contributions from members of the way more interesting Sigh (Shinchi provides extra guitar, and Mirai himself contributes some organ solos and “session vokills”). Most of the songs clock in at under 3 minutes, but I have no problem with that, as this style of music needs to not overstay its welcome. Stand-out tracks include solid rocker ‘Damned In Hell’, the Motorhead-esque ‘Black Metal Thunder’, and the slightly deranged ‘Struggle To Death’.

So I guess the question is, do I really recommend this album (and indeed, band), and if so, to whom? If you’re a fan of that classic 80s collision of NWOBHM, thrash and sort-of black metal, there are far better records you could pick up than this one, but it remains genuinely entertaining in a fairly minor and forgettable way. It’s fun for the half an hour that it sticks around, but ultimately I doubt any of the tunes will stick in the head after it’s finished, which given how catchy the tunes are at the time, might be damning with faint praise. It’s not encouraging me to rush out and buy any more Abigail albums at any rate. Bet they’re killer live though.

Score: 55%

Abigail – Intercourse & Lust

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail – Intercourse & Lust
  • Artist: Abigail
  • Album: Intercourse & Lust
  • Year of Release: 1996
  • Country: Japan
  • Label: Fallen-Angels Productions
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: AngeL29

After a few demos and a decent debut EP, Abigail present their first debut album proper. They have a dizzying and impenetrable back catalogue of split EPs, 7” releases and live albums that I’m never going to cover with adequate completeness having picked up their early demos collections and the first couple of albums, but I feel sated with that, as – great as I think it is – I’m kind of done here.

There is a notable step-up here in production here for this, their first full-length, although stylistically little has changed. But I’m not sure whether there has been a sea-change in attitude, or whether I’ve just got my ear in more, because this sounds absolutely (thrashingly) brilliant. The bass in particular is deliciously high in the mix, and the whole thing harks back to the glory days of their heroes Venom, Bulldozer, NME, early Bathory et al. There are even frequent uses of the Tom G. Warrior “oof” throughout, and while this is undeniably black metal, it is clear that Yasuyuki Suzuki and his not-so-merry men have imbibed heavily of both Celtic Frost and most importantly Motorhead. This is evident in the band’s commitment to (largely shunned in the mid-90s) guitar solos, and actually writing proper songs, rather than soundscapes. This is music meant to be played live to the headbanging hordes, not to simply be “appreciated” by the chin-stroking so-called cognoscenti.

Lyrics are a bit hit and miss – although the extremity of the vocals mean little can be deciphered at any rate. The lyric sheet suggests that MetalEnglish does feature, but it’s no worse than elsewhere. What I like about this album is the fact that despite this being ostensibly a straightforward blackened thrash-fest, there are actually moments of light and shade (such as in the acoustic guitar in the brilliant ‘Mephistopheles’, or the keyboards and spoken words on the title track. ‘Hail Yakuza’ starts as a standard pedal-to-the-metal thrash attack, before becoming a much more interesting Sabbath-influenced track interspersed with samples from cult Japanese crime-flicks (or so I am reliably informed).

This is a blinding debut album, covering many bases, from outright black metal a early Mayhem and the rest, to more tuneful and rocking mid-80s thrash acts. Clearly this didn’t get enough exposure when first released, and at this rate I may have to reassess and rank them higher than the Japanese Sabbat (although neither band touches the genius of the British Sabbat, ploughing a more intricate thrash field).

A note on editions: The version I have also contains the tracks from Abigail’s first demo (reviewed earlier – rawer and more bruising than the LP itself, but the more I listen the more respect I have).

Score: 80%

Abigail – The Early Black Years – 1992-1995

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail – The Early Black Years – 1992-1995
  • Artist: Abigail
  • Album: The Early Black Years – 1992-1995
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: Japan
  • Label: Drakkar
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: DKCD043

Yasuyuki Suzuki and his project Abigail have been a perennial feature on the Japanese thrash/black metal scene since the early 90s, and in this sense have a kinship with that other great blackened thrash band Sabbat, although they’ve never received quite the same accolades and recognition as that outfit, and have certainly not had any of the same kind of western appreciation that the more experimental band Sigh has, for example. They have been confined to a journalistic camp that simply accepts that the Japanese have a different way of appreciating and appropriating western forms of making metal and punk music, which has resulted in some great, and some ill-judged (from a western perspective) recordings. Abigail (and to a slightly lesser extent Sabbat) fall into this latter category.

Release details first: this compilation gathers Abigail’s first two demos from 1992 and 1993 respectively, pre-production recordings of their Descending From A Blackened Sky EP (1994), a couple of random live recordings from 1992, and some rehearsals from the years 1992-1995. So something of a mixed bag all told.

For those familiar with Abigail’s later, thrashier work, this may come as something of a surprise being blacker, albeit just as filthy-sounding as the likes of Intercourse and Lust or Forever Street Metal Bitch. The band describes their music as “street metal”, but this being a sub-sub-sub genre that I’m not aware really exists, it primarily reminds me of the early likes of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Bathory, maybe even (very) early Mayhem. The production is predictably and probably deliberately paper-thin, with drums and screaming vocals predominating. This is simplistic to the max as befits any band so blatantly worshipping at the altars of Venom and Thomas Gabriel Fischer. But it has a kind of OTT exuberance and energy that lift this above many western imitators of this style, which gives this a kind of buzz. There are real songs in here, and the tempo varies from early black metal ultra-thrash to doomier thudding, with melodic breaks spread throughout. BD Joyce used the term “gonzo” when reviewing one of their later recordings, and I actually think that’s not an inappropriate word here – the band clearly envision a world of bandanas, spiky wrist-bands, bullet-belts and metal shirts as de rigeur, and there’s something appealing about this juvenile, absurd, dedicatedly retro outlook on metal. The band are clearly not hiding their influences either, with a total of four covers – two Bathory, plus one each from Sodom and Bulldozer.

It’s difficult to try and highlight stand-out tracks, but the first two demos are more cohesive than the rest, and because of the nature of the collection, the production varies a fair bit. If you’re interested in Japanese extreme metal, or indeed just like the early proto-black metal sound of the aforementioned bands, this might be worth your while, although I’d recommend starting with their albums rather than a demo collection. This is a release for die-hards ultimately, but that’s no bad thing.

Score: 68%

Absu – Absu

Author: BD Joyce

Absu – Absu
  • Artist: Absu
  • Album: Absu
  • Year of Release: 2009
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: Candle220CD

After 8 years, a brief hiatus, and a label move to Candlelight, Absu finally followed up their high watermark Tara in 2009, commencing what is still due to be the first in a second trilogy of albums. This quasi-eponymously titled series (Absu, Abzu, Apsu) is as-yet incomplete, but Absu is a fine start. It is worth noting that even before the listener opens the CD case, the splendid Kris Verwimp artwork bewitches with its spectacular imagery, and this sets the tone wonderfully for the music found within.

After such a long period of inactivity, it is not surprising that Absu’s sound has evolved once again, and in many respects, Absu forges a twisting, turning path almost equidistant from the Scandinavian-influenced black metal sounds of their early career, and the more death metal stylings of Tara. Although ‘Between The Absu Of Eridu & Erech’ retains the constant tempo changes, and off-kilter technical riffing style that the band are known for, the ubiquitous use of minor key tremolo blast sections throughout the thirteen tracks that comprise Absu place their sound firmly in the black metal realm this time round. The occasional folky melodies and Celtic feel of Tara is also conspicuous by its absence, and the lyrical focus, possibly inspired by Proscriptor’s tenure in Melechesh, is predominantly on Sumerian mythology, befitting the title of the album.

Not unusually for Absu, or in fairness almost any good band that falls just short of greatness, the album is very much front-loaded. The opener’s astute use of melody manages to convey an epic feel despite it’s relatively brief length, and is embellished by Proscriptor’s outstanding drumming, particularly the complex snare work that enlivens the track. The syncopated Slayer-like thrash of ‘Night Fire Canonization’ is almost reminiscent of Volcano-era Satyricon, and after the strangely novelty feel to the oddly bluesy riff that bookends ‘Amy’, the stately chord progression of the main section of the song, together with an unusually tasteful guitar solo develops a classic metal approach to songwriting hinted at on the previous album which really suits their sound.

After such a stellar and memorable opening section, the remainder of the slightly overlong Absu is inconsistent. Although the Akercocke-style chromatic riffing of ’13 Globes’ is intriguing and proves that Absu have paid some attention to some of the extreme metal released during their protracted absence, the song overall is aimless. We have to wait until the multi-part epic ‘…Of The Dead Who Never Rest In Their Tombs Are The Attendance Of Familiar Spirits…’ before the album reaches such heights again. As so often is the case with Absu, it is when they add a little variation to their core sound that they really soar. Combining furious demonic black metal with a waltzing bridge containing a violin solo verging on klezmer, and culminating in an eerie 70s synth workout that evokes a deserted fairgound setting, ‘…Of The Dead…’ is a wholly successful experiment that holds the listener’s attention throughout.

The middle-Eastern modal melodies of ‘Magic(k) Square Cipher’, and the soothing acoustic mid-section of ‘Those Of The Void Will Re-Enter’ which provides a pause for breath and reflection are both highlights of the latter half of the album, and things finish on a high note with the superb ‘Twix Yesterday, The Day & The Morrow’. The close stands out courtesy of a discordant intro which returns as the chorus riff later in the track, and again makes an impression by being just different enough from the majority of what precedes it.

Absu is a superbly well-crafted and very competently played album of thrashing black metal. Instantly recognisable as Absu, despite the evolution of their Tara sound, the dry but punchy production is well-matched to the style. In many ways, this album is their most consistent to date, but it audibly lacks some of the vicious fervour of its predecessor, sounding a little too safe at times. Consequently, although its floor is somewhat higher in quality than Tara, its ceiling is lower. The dizzying tempo and riff changes are initially exhilarating, but ultimately fatiguing, and one can’t help but feel that allowing some of the better riffs and grooves to breathe a little more, together with a bolder approach to sonic experimentation would benefit Absu hugely, and possibly add the magic that would elevate this record to above the good, but not quite great level that it attains.

Score: 79%

Absu – Tara

Author: BD Joyce

Absu – Tara
  • Artist: Absu
  • Album: Tara
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Osmose Productions
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: OPCD098

Tara completes a trilogy that began with 1997’s The Third Storm Of Cythraul, and continued with the EP In The Eyes Of Ioldanach, and demonstrates beyond doubt that after the slightly scattershot, and somewhat derivative Scandinavian black metal stylings of their earlier works, Absu have truly found a singular sound that allows them to stand apart from the crowd, and plough a furrow very much of their own.

Just in case anyone was under the impression that Absu were outgrowing their Celtic obsession, the album opens with a lone piper describing a plaintive melody, very much the calm before the furious storm unleashed by the first track proper. Ever the knowing employers of classic metal cliches, ‘Pillars Of Mercy’ commences with a huge and extravagant tom-tom cascade, a fraction of a second before the Slayer plays Morbid Angel attack of the vicious riffing eliminates all traces of the black metal Absu, replaced with a sleek death / thrash hybrid. The restless melodic and tempo changes remain, but coalesced into a seamless and unrelenting barrage, with tight, focussed songwriting. When the inexorable speed of McGovern’s double-bass work synchronises with the guitars in the chorus, the results are irresistible.

The mayhem continues through exhilarating variations on Absu’s signature sound; ‘A Shield With An Iron Face’ prefaced by a riotous Araya-esque scream from McGovern, and ‘Manannan’ punctuated by demonic tritone harmonies that open up an intriguing melodic element to Tara that is not explored as fully as it might be. The first part of the record culminates in the majestic ‘The Cognate House Of Courtly Witches Lies West Of County Meath’. Although not quite challenging Bal-Sagoth in the prolix title stakes, the cumbersome title belies a perfectly judged combination of tremolo blasting, mid-paced chugging and an unreasonable amount of outstanding riffage.

Perhaps understandably, given the cornucopia of ideas displayed in the opening section of the album, things sag a little in the middle. The obviously triggered drums of ‘She Cries The Quiet Lake’ are a little intrusive, and the desultory meander of both this and the unnecessary interlude that follows rob Tara of some of the momentum built up thus far. Thankfully, the dizzying velocity and thrilling guitar / drum interplay of ‘From Ancient Times (Starless Skies Burn To Ash)’ delivers an immediate recovery, and forms the introduction of a wonderfully varied second half of the album.

‘Vorago (Spell 182)’ is the pinnacle of Tara. The impenetrable magickal numerology suggested by the lyrics creates an arcane mystique that wraps around epic thrashing death metal. The song showcases a more technical side to Absu, and climaxes with an instrumental section that employs Middle-Eastern modal scales to bring the song to a furious conclusion. At times recalling Nile, who were surging in popularity around the time of Tara’s release, these sounds are familiar but not derivative, and represent a splendid addition to the Absu armoury.

Following the brilliantly over the top ‘Stone Of Destiny (…For Magh Slecht And Ard Righ)’, which although being somewhat incongruous with its combination of Sabbathian power metal riffing and King Diamond falsetto vocals, brings some much-needed dynamics to Tara as well as signposting the evolution of sound that would find a more developed expression on 2009’s self-titled effort, a final bagpipe outro brings things full circle. The calm before the storm becomes the calm after the storm, the melody calling to mind a single mournful survivor surveying the carnage of a broken battlefield, smoke rising in the distance. Arguable a career-best effort, Tara stands toe to toe with almost anything produced by the extreme metal scene in 2001, and thanks to its punchy and vibrant production still sounds as good as it ever did.

Score: 86%

Absu – The Sun Of Tiphareth

Author: BD Joyce

Absu – The Sun Of Tiphareth
  • Artist: Absu
  • Album: The Sun Of Tiphareth
  • Year of Release: 1995
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Osmose Productions
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: OPCD 029

The Sun of Tiphareth is Absu’s second album, released in 1995, and is very much a product of its time. With a slightly thin production featuring buzzing treble-heavy guitars and clattering drums, it’s a throwback to the kind of 90s black metal that Osmose absolutely flooded the market with at a time when relatively limited competition emanated from mainstream labels yet to understand the commercial potential of the new underground forms. The only surprise is that Absu hail from Texas, with a sound that leans heavily on European influences. Although the sound itself is not especially startling, the fact that is was generated by an American band in the mid-90s certainly was.

‘Apzu’ kicks things off in fine style, showcasing the various elements of the Absu sound, juxtaposing thrashing black metal, with Celtic melodies and clean female vocals. The interesting rhythmic interplay between the guitars and drums, a feature of Absu’s sound throughout their discography, elevates the composition above many of their more mediocre peers, and demonstrates the value of boasting Proscriptor McGovern as not just their drummer,but unusually, their vocalist and key songwriter. McGovern once reportedly came close to replacing Paul Bostaph in Slayer, but here in his own band, he gives a tour de force performance behind the kit, and indeed the mic.

The rest of the record, aside from a short atmospheric keyboard interlude, is an unrelenting barrage of black / death metal. At times Absu call to mind Celtic Frost with the barreling arrogant riffing of the monstrous album highlight ‘Feis Mor Tir Na N’Og’, and at others early Bathory if only they had incorporated a human drum machine, such as on ‘Cyntefyn’s Fountain’.

As may be apparent from the song and album titles, Absu have a fairly unusual thematic and lyrical approach. While esoteric theological and occult themes and metal are frequently comfortable bedfellows, Absu choose to combine the predominant Celticisms with Crowleian Satanism and Sumerian mythology in a somewhat bewildering combination. Although these concepts may not hang together as a coherent belief system, it is difficult not to admire the completeness of Absu’s bizarre vision and depth of their imagined worldview, and it undoubtedly adds a layer of intrigue to an already compelling proposition. Not unlike Melechesh (probably the nearest musical comparison, and a band that McGovern briefly joined), and even Nile, Absu often bring the influences to bear musically, which adds a welcome dimension to music that occasionally threatens to be little more than a collection of riffs and tempo changes.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at what is a frequently enjoyable album, it is the fact that the songwriting ultimately fails to match the obvious ambition of musicians that have the skill to execute almost anything they compose. The Sun Of Tiphareth is labyrinthine in scope, but not as sophisticated as one imagines Absu thought it could be. Transitions between riffs are generally perfunctory, and not infrequently, the band pile riffs atop one another while failing to develop some of the ideas with the most significant potential – the brilliant duelling riff that occupies the first section of the closing title track being the foremost example. It is, however, never less than an intriguing early milestone in the developing career of a superb band who would truly hit their stride in the albums to follow.

Score: 76%