Akhlys – Melinoë

Author: BD Joyce

Akhlys – Melinoë
  • Artist: Akhlys
  • Album: Melinoë
  • Year of Release: 2020
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Debemur Morti
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: DMP0194

Akhlys initially started as the a dark ambient project of Naas Alcameth of Aoratos, Nightbringer, and a number of other underground bands, but over the course of their short career, the black metal of his other bands has seeped, as if via some kind of sonic osmosis, into Akhlys. The result of this convergence of the various sides of Alcameth’s musical personalities is the nightmarish, but addictive, soundscapes of the band’s third record Melinoë. Paradoxically epic, and at the same time oddly concise, Melinoë is comprised of just four fairly lengthy tracks and a short instrumental interlude, but very much feels like a full length album, rather than the EP it could almost be classified as, due to the extreme emotional intensity that the album wrings from the band’s fascinating blend of sounds, which leaves the attentive listener feeling exhausted at the conclusion of closing track ‘Incubatio’. It’s an impressive achievement to create an album so immersive and involving, but which is brief enough to facilitate the repeat listens required to truly understand and appreciate the considerable breadth and scope of the Akhlys experience, given the general absence of metal’s more basic and easy pleasures (memorable riffs and choruses, for example) which would ordinarily generate the immediate attachment needed to stimulate the curiosity that drives the listener to return again and again to what is, after all, a punishing experience.

Everything about Melinoë seems deliberately calibrated to achieve maximum sonic devastation. The album is bifurcated by the aforementioned eerie ambient interlude, which provides a necessary pause for breath and momentary respite amidst the still smoking wreckage wrought by the relentless pummelling of the first two tracks, before Akhlys somehow ratchet up the intensity to even more eye-bleeding levels across the second half of this magnificent album. The blasting drums which open ‘Somniloquy’ sound a portentous fusillade, soon to be joined by a churning maelstrom of guitars, ostensibly constructing patterns that are recognisably black metal, but without clearly resembling the orthodox shapes of the kind of second wave riffing that to this day tends to be the most obvious signifier of the black metal sound. Instead, Akhlys play the kind of apocalyptic, psychedelic black metal that prioritises feeling and atmosphere over an adherence to traditional metal tropes, the kind of black metal whose most obvious adherents are bands such as Blut Aus Nord, Schammasch and Ruins Of Beverast, all bands who are responsible for making some of the most exciting extreme music of the 21st century. Clearly, Akhlys aspire to join the ranks of the modern day black metal greats, and on the evidence of their third record, their time is likely to come sooner rather than later. What really separates Akhlys from the chasing pack is their fascinating use of synth. Of course, keyboards and midi orchestrations are hardly a new feature of black metal – from the moment that Ihsahn plastered the majority of In The Nightside Eclipse with electronic augmentation and inspired a pantheon of symphonic black metal bands, not least the commercial behemoths of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth, the instrument was here to stay, and for many bands has been a simple tool to add depth and harmonic complexity to what can be a monochrome form of metal (albeit sometimes intentionally and enjoyably so). Akhlys, however, use synth in a way that feels novel, and totally individual. As opposed to employing the kind of neo-classical flourishes favoured by many bands, or using synths to fill out the chords underpinning tremolo riffing in the guitars, Akhlys employ the kind of electro tones that one would more typically find in trance or techno, and which utterly dominate the tonal range of their music, essentially becoming the lead instrument. At times, the combination of the whirring percussion, understated guitars and day-glo keyboards is almost nauseatingly difficult to listen to, staying just the right side of grating noise, but its tractor beam effect unerringly draws the listener in, almost against one’s better judgement. The overall effect is unsettling, bringing a twisted carnivalesque dimension to their iteration of black metal, not unlike the sideshow symphonies of Arcturus, but considerably less arch and knowingly pretentious. It also has the function of furnishing the songs with oddly catchy melodies, amid a sound that would otherwise offer little in the way of hooks, setting simple slow motion motifs against the unstinting velocity of the rest of the instrumentation, all coming together into a sound that is complex, without being overly technical.

Akhlys’s gradually shape-shifting sound suggests something enormous gradually coming into view, a looming object of such scale that humanity itself, and everything it has yet achieved, feels transient and infinitesimal in comparison. The way in which the brilliant ‘Pnigalion’ gradually opens out into a perma-blasting epic feels like a continuous camera shot initially showing a what appears to be a substantial spacecraft against the backdrop of a rock face, only to slowly and incrementally pull back to reveal that the craft is shadowed by an almost inconceivably large celestial body, becoming tiny, and eventually disappearing, reminding us of the brevity of humanity’s entire existence when seen from a universal perspective. The drums are once against set to perma-blast, operating almost as a drone of background radiation or static, and the amorphous, sinister synth lines once again dominate the mix and drive the song forward until the tempo shifts downwards for a final few moments of stilness, calm, and even redemption before the inevitable assault begins once more. Brief snatches of ambient sound, the aimless communications of a lost civilisation perhaps, offer a small amount of breathing room, delaying the inexorable advance towards the inescapable black hole that Akhlys are piloting the listener towards.

Things come to a monumental conclusion with final track ‘Incubatio’, which is final proof, if indeed proof were needed, that Akhlys possess the ability to vary their mode of attack just enough to find new ways to intrigue, and to ensure that the initial thrill of their singular sound does not dissipate by the end of the record. After ‘Ephialtes’ does much the same thing as the first half of the album to similar effect, there is a danger that Akhlys would prove themselves a one-trick pony. A trick worthy of a master magician, admittedly, but a single trick all the same. ‘Incubatio’, however utilises the same basic formula as the rest of Melinoë, but imbues the output with a greater degree of grandiosity, forging an even stronger emotional connection than the other tracks manage to build. ‘Incubatio’ represents the inevitable final stages of the omni-directional interstellar traverse that the album as a whole has embodied, and consolidates all of the key elements of their sound, before, crucially, adding ever more layers of sound, progressively building a black metal masterpiece of stunning proportions. The track transports the scale of ambition of Burzum’s landmark Hvis Lyset Tar Oss into modern avant-garde black metal, bringing together the feel and spirit of the second wave with the broader range of influences and compositional techniques available to a metal band in the 2020s. It’s a sensational updating of the classic, hypnotic black metal template laid down in the mid-90s, and achieves the same kind of transcendental alchemy that so many of the classic records of that era resonate with. Synth lines meander and gradually coalesce until it appears that the full spectrum of audible frequencies is saturated with sound, until finally and cataclysmically, the universe Akhlys have created implodes, collapsing under the unbearable weight until suddenly nothing is left, only the vacuum of space remains.

Truthfully, this is not quite of the same quality as the canonical releases of the golden period cited above, although this is hardly a significant criticism, given the vanishingly small number of black metal releases that exist in the same tier of elite superiority. Akhlys do, however, absolutely succeed in delivering a highly cinematic and evocative release, which immediately positions the band at the forefront of the contemporary extreme music scene. Melinoë marks the arrival of a highly distinctive and utterly convincing take on black metal, composed and performed with appropriate gravitas and bug-eyed intensity. If black metal is a spiders web, gradually radiating outwards from the seminal first and second wave bands, contemporary iterations often seemingly disparate, but simultaneously connected to everything that came before by a strong, but imperceptible thread, Akhlys find themselves on the outer segment of this silken web, alongside a number of the most intriguing bands in metal. It will be fascinating to discover what patterns they are able to weave as they continue to develop, because as superb as Melinoë is, and as fully-formed a statement as it represents, one imagines that having set controls straight for the heart of the black hole this time round, if they are able to allow a small amount of light to permeate the darkness on their next album, almost anything is possible.

Score: 87%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Agorapocalypse
  • Year of Release: 2009
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 7037

It’s difficult for the initial reaction to Agorapocalypse not to be one of disappointment. Through three albums, and innumerable split releases and EPs, Agoraphobic Nosebleed had developed into one of the most extreme and uncompromising bands ever to commit their noise to tape, refining an insane melange of drug-addled grind and electronic noise into ever more psychedelic and mind-bending shapes, assisted by entirely programmed drums which allowed the band to experiment with the kind of velocities and dense instrumentation rarely found in music rooted in rock and metal. This reached an apotheosis on the utter madness of Altered States Of America, which took the band’s supercharged grind to it’s logical conclusion on its release in 2003. Having manoeuvred themselves into a position of strength, from which they could strike out in almost any direction, it is therefore something of an anti-climax to discover that their next full-length is little more than a standard issue death-grind record, displaying a considerably more conventional approach to song structure, and dialling back the white-hot intensity of their earlier output for a more measured, and riff-based sound. What is left is far from poor – indeed much of Agorapocalypse is high quality grind – but it is frustrating to witness such a distinctive and singular band intentionally retreat into the pack that they had so artfully distanced themselves from, when one imagines that any number of alternative, more interesting paths were available to a band that had virtually total freedom from conventional genre constraints.

All of the above theorising, however, is a long way from the listener’s mind when the brief guitar pyrotechnics that introduce the first track (excluding the usual hidden song at track 00) give way to the aptly-named, crazed grind of ‘Agorapocalypse Now’. It may sound rather contradictory, given the above misgivings about the prospect of ANb releasing a straightforward grind album, but paradoxically, the most frustrating facet of their previous albums was the fact that when the band occasionally alighted on a thunderous riff, the extreme brevity of the tracks meant that the listener was denied the opportunity to truly luxuriate in the satisfying feeling of a guitar figure or groove that truly hits the spot, something which represents one of the greatest pleasures that metallic music can offer. Therefore, although this album’s approach is less innovative and less individual than their recorded output to date, it is also undeniably gratifying to hear ANb for once eschew some of their wilful obtuseness, and simply barrel through a couple of minutes of ordinary punk-metal, gleefully riding a groove; teetering on the edge of chaos, like a surfer cutting a swathe through a gigantic wave. This song, along with a number of other tracks on which Kat Katz contributes her intense vocals to an already intense sound, benefits from the fevered mania that her high-pitched scream brings to proceedings, and serves to compensate in part for the distinct lack of electronic sounds this time round. Sadly, Katz would leave Agoraphobic Nosebleed in 2018, departing in a flurry of not-very-strenuously denied and not terribly surprising accusations of misogynistic behaviour, following the release of her segment (Arc) of an intended and as-yet incomplete series of EPs based, Kiss-style, around the contributions of one of the band’s members.

Agorapocalypse contains a number of tracks that are the equal of the opener, but as a whole can’t help but feel a little disjointed, as it strangely groups the speedier grind workouts as the first and final thirds of the album, together bookending a somewhat stodgier middle section, which focusses on a more mid-tempo death metal assault. We’re not quite talking Bolt Thrower or Amon Amarth levels of steady, unyielding barrage here, but certainly by Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s own standards, the velocity is noticeably dialled-down from their normal breakneck pace. Although this does contribute a new sense of dynamics to their sound, the odd sequencing of the tracks means that this is not as effective a device as it might have been. Still, before the album hits the skids during the middle third, there is plenty of ingenious grind to get one’s teeth into first. As unpleasant as it may be, the completely over the top pornographic lyrical content of the otherwise excellent ‘Dick To Mouth Resuscitation’ is impossible to ignore and undeniably memorable; and due to the unusually prominent vocals rendering the words audible for a change, it has to be said that the band actually stand a chance of offending an unsuspecting listener for once, not that there can be too many of them stumbling upon a band as resolutely anti-commercial as ANb. ‘Moral Distortion’ is even better, and possibly the highlight of the entire album – relentless and riffy, the white-hot grind bears some similarity with early 21st century era Napalm Death, and the fact that it would sit comfortably on their stellar Enemy Of The Music Business album is testament to the calibre of material that ANb are capable of producing when the urge takes hold.

As we enter the second third of the album, and perhaps as a consequence of the band pulling back the throttle this time round, it becomes increasingly apparent that the overall mix seems considerably less harsh than on their previous enamel-stripping efforts. While this has a detrimental effect on a drum-sound featuring a hollow and overbearing snare which raises the unwelcome spectre of St Anger during ‘Timelord One (Loneliness Of The Long Distance Drug Runner)’, it has huge benefits for the bottom-end of the band’s sonic spectrum. The same track is home to a filthy distorted bass tone which ensures that the overall production is more rounded, and covers a wider range of frequencies. This helps, to a degree, to plug the gap left by the conspicuous lack of the snatches of power electronics that the band have utilised so well before. Initially, it is intriguing to hear the band exploring sludgier, noisier territories. The down-tuned guitars of ‘Hung From The Rising Sun’ are simultaneously sharp and thick, like razor blades cutting through treacle, and sounds like Meshuggah covering early Immolation. Similarly, the palm-muted guitar runs and staccato, syncopated riffing of ‘Question Of Integrity’ holds the attention even before Scott Hull signs off with an amusing programmed drum solo, which, unlike many such historical examples, is exactly as good an idea as it sounds. By the time we hit ‘Timelord Two (Paradoxical Reaction)’ though, the album starts to drag horribly. The hackneyed heavy metal-themed lyrics are frankly tragic (“Seventh bastard son of the seventh bastard son / Locust abortion technician with deicidal tendencies”), and the knuckle-scraping riffs are not interesting enough to overlook such embarrassment, however much the intention of the band might be to mock this kind of self-referential metal trope. Thankfully, the magnificently-titled ‘White On White Crime’ immediately redeems this error, and although it doesn’t herald a return to the warp-speed grind that best serves ANb, the chromatic climbing riff is possibly their most memorable to date, applying ANb’s off-kilter approach to extreme metal to the kind of riff structure that Pantera specialised in on Far Beyond Driven, layered with the kind of brusque, brutish noisecore favoured by the criminally underrated Unsane. If one listens carefully, some jazzy lead guitar is even buried in the mix under swathes of other sounds, suggesting that there is a level of musicality at play here that the band only occasionally deign to display tantalising glimpses of, and potentially it provides a sketch of some alternative possibilities for ANb to flesh out more fully as they continue to evolve.

As interesting as it is hearing Agoraphobic Nosebleed slow things down and experiment with other textures and compositional techniques though, the reality is that on this evidence, other bands simply do this kind of thing with more compelling results. Cephalic Carnage, for example, jump more effortlessly between extreme metal genres, without losing their sense of authenticity, and Botch, and even Isis, blend left-of centre noise with pulverising riffs in a way that feels more natural than ANb’s own attempts at jagged sludge. What the listener really wants from an Agoraphobic Nosebleed album is the kind of smoking grind that can reduce a building to dust in seconds. Gratifyingly, this is exactly what we get from the closing section of Agorapocalypse. As if suddenly tiring of the more measured approach that they had briefly adopted, the final three tracks of the record are the sound of ANb throwing all of their ideas against a wall simultaneously in a blur of maniacal action, and magically, almost all of it sticks. The mutant thrash of ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ absolutely slays, successfully assimilating the more drawn-out tones and seasick harmonics of the slower tracks into the dizzying rush of modern grind, and ‘Ex-Cop’ briefly returns to the kind of complex, mind-melting grind that littered the brilliant Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope. Saving the best for last, the stop-start blasting of the majestic ‘Flamingo Snuff’ is more than enough to satisfyingly close the album, even before the band unfurl an almost triumphant classic metal riff, before whirling chugging prepares the listener for a final, cleansing blast of grind, completed by manic finger-tapping lead guitar blazing an unstoppable path to the stunning conclusion of an occasionally excellent album.

It seems rather strange to suggest that an already short album would be improved by editing it further, but oddly, Agorapocalypse would be a considerably better album were the worst tracks omitted from a flabby middle section, and the track-listing of the remaining songs reconfigured to create a more varied flow of sonics and tempos. As it is, the exhilarating buzz of the undoubtedly high quality grind that wraps around the slightly more turgid and less thrilling tracks that dominate a substantial chunk of its running time cannot mask the fact that it is an album that falls short of the high bar that their previous releases have set as often as it manages to vault clear of that same barrier. Agoraphobic Nosebleed have earned the right to experiment, and to criticise a band, particularly one as capable as ANb, for trying to do something different is pointless, particularly given the numerous bands that repeat themselves endlessly to diminishing returns. But we must also recognise when achievement doesn’t match aspiration, and, on balance, it has to be said that overall this is the case here. Agorapocalypse is very much worth hearing – ‘Flamingo Snuff’, ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ and ‘Moral Distortion’ are probably the best tracks they’ve released thus far, and indeed some of the best grind released by any band in the 21st century, but sadly, when considered holistically, we must conclude that it is little better than average.

Score: 63%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Altered States Of America
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6533-2

Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s previous album Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope remains one of the most startling and high calibre grind albums of the 21st century, cleverly combining the visceral thrill and buzzsaw guitars of classic grind with elements of modern technical death metal, and electronic noise. If that album was still relatively conventional in its presentation, Altered States Of America sees the band not just jumping off the deep end, but completing an elaborate and flamboyant diving routine before hitting the water, quote possibly while wearing a clown suit. Altered States Of America sees ANb offering their own chemically-enhanced state of the union address, and it’s very much a sick parody of the American dream. It is ostensibly the band’s third full-length, although this description is something of an oxymoron, giving the 20 minute run-time. Not for the first time, Agoraphobic Nosebleed seem to be having fun with the classic tropes of grind recordings, while also making a performance art statement. A 20 minute album, at least in this genre, is not especially remarkable. This particular 20 minute album though, features 100 tracks of extremely short duration, all contained within a single 3 inch CD. Were it not for the sheer fevered intensity of the music that comprises the album, it would be easily to conclude that at this point, ANb are having a joke at the expense of anyone foolish enough to invest in such a ridiculous artefact. And of course, they clearly are taking the piss, at least in part. However, Altered States Of America is far from devoid of musical merit, and in many ways takes their particular brand of grind to some sort of logical conclusion – once a band has released something this heavy, this fast and unrelenting, verging so close at times to unstructured noise, in many ways it opens two possibilities – annihilation, or alternatively, total liberation.

In reality, while far from the conventional albums that it might be compared to, Altered States Of America is not exactly 100 discrete tracks. While it’s true that the album does contain a multitude of miniscule songs, almost as if the listener is looking at grindcore through the lens of a powerful microscope, there are also longer sections which function as separate movements of a single piece of music, or ambient interlude. The album covers many of the same touchpoints as previous record Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope – pornographic sex, extreme violence and enough drugs to fuel a South American civil war, but, as indicated by the title, the emphasis this time round is very much on the pharmaceutical dimension of that particular trifecta. If Woodstock and Altamont represented the end of the hippie dream in a haze of marijuana and bad acid, Altered States Of America is the American dream turned sour 40 years later. The water supply is contaminated with hallucinogens, and humanity is turning on itself against the backdrop of a lysergically-animated landscape, slowly circling the drain before the final descent into oblivion.

Prior to the first thematically linked suite of songs, Altered States Of America actually commences properly (after an annoyingly difficult to find track 00) with a solid slab of grind, following a more traditional compositional structure, a track which would not be out of place on their less outlandish album of 12 months previous. Running to very nearly an entire minute, ‘Spreading The Dis-Ease’ is very much the ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘2112’ of this particular record, and gleefully careers out of the traps, courtesy of a rolling, almost swinging groove riff, which recalls prime Nasum or even Terrorizer, albeit featuring a drummer sporting a pneumatic drill in place of a pair of sticks. This is followed by ‘Ark Of Ecoterrorism’, which continues the unexpectedly gentle descent into the acid-fuelled madness of the majority of the record, consisting entirely of an infectious mid-paced mosh section, which would undoubtedly spark an energetic pit if played live, for the 13 seconds that elapse before it concludes. Presumably, these tracks are the sound of Agoraphobic Nosebleed waiting for the drugs that they have imbibed to take effect, because from track 3 onwards, the remaining 97 tracks pass by in a nauseatingly psychedelic blur, as if the listener were force-fed mind-altering narcotics, before being strapped into a centrifuge and spun for the remainder of the album.

As a succession of micro-blasts hurtle by, ANb alternate between grind played at the kind of manic velocity which transforms it into formless noise, and shards of something that is recognisably heavy music, riffs and breakdowns occasionally emerging through the static to make a brief impression, before the listener is overwhelmed by the noise once more. The classic metal twin guitars of ‘Guided Tour’ raise a wry smile, as does the spidery thrash riff sported by ‘Ten Pounds Of Remains’, while ‘Honky Dong’ displays the mind-boggling dexterity of Dillinger Escape Plan, and ‘Removing Locator Tooth’ answers the admittedly not oft-asked question of what Nile would sound like, were they to channel their labyrinthine technical modalities into 6 seconds of white-hot grind.

The first set of connected songs (the track divisions are essentially relevant for administrative purposes only, and also, one assumes, for pushing the overall track count to a round century), concern the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks, perpetrated by adherents of the Aum Shinrinko cult. Under the provocative (and, it has to be said, reprehensible) heading ‘Free Shoko Asahara’, 14 tracks are occupied by a soundtrack of drones and power electronics, over which distorted vocals intone portentous lines such as ‘”Japan’s Aum doomsday cult / that masterminded / the fatal nerve gas attack / on Tokyo subways / considered spraying the drug LSD / from the sky”. Given ANb’s determination to shock and offend, the extent to which they truly endorse the cult’s chemical weapon attack which injured thousands of innocent commuters is debatable, but one assumes that they do at least align themselves philosophically with Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, in their enthusiastic advocacy of the merits of strong psychedelic drugs. Regardless of whether or not the listener chooses to partake in such activities or not before experiencing this album, the churning noise and scattershot approach to grind that Altered States Of America represents is likely to render the listener unsettled, confused, and not a little exhilarated.

The second set of interconnecting tracks is the centrepiece of the album, a succession of tracks detailing the band’s own 12 days of Sodom. Unsurprisingly, this is lyrically an exercise in outrageous, and frequently abhorrent profanity, and musically the tracks are virtually indistinguishable – a drum fill, a couple of seconds of warped grind, and garbled vocals screaming frequently nonsensical tirades, the most amusing of which take aim at the rather pious Boston hardcore scene exemplified by the excellent, but easily mocked, Hydrahead Records. As the twelfth near-identical song ends, it is not difficult to wonder whether Agoraphobic Nosebleed have simply concluded that due to the fact that it exists primarily to evoke an instantaneous and visceral emotional reaction to primal noise, and to evoke that same reaction every single time, musical variety in grind is ultimately redundant. And if that is the case, then why not simply release an album that endlessly repeats the same 5 seconds of noise, ad infinitum? The joke here is very much on the listener, however much they believe they are laughing along with the band.

After abnormal service is briefly resumed with ‘Poland Springfield Acidbag’, the remaining 10 minutes of Altered States Of America oscillates between light-speed grind, and sheet-metal noisescapes. No song lasts for long enough to merit the description of a highlight exactly – even as the listener is forming an opinion on ‘For Just Ten Cents A Day…’, which is the sound of Slayer filtered through a building site, or the odd amalgam of drum ‘n’ bass and Cephalic Carnage-style schizophrenic death metal of ‘Neural Linguistic Programming’, or even the laughably unfathomable grind brutality of ‘Shotgun Funeral’, several more songs have been and gone, each filled with complex rhythmic ideas, overwhelming programmed drums, and monumentally heavy guitars. It’s a whirlwind of noise, and no amount of repeat plays can commit more than a few seconds of the album to memory. To do so would require a level of repetition which simply cannot be found on an album that is predominantly comprised of songs that are over more quickly than the average Olympic 100m final. Arguably though, this does give rise to one of the more interesting facets of the album – almost every time it is played, it is experienced differently, as the ear alights momentarily on something previously unheard or overlooked amid the unrelenting and unremitting maelstrom.

It is, perhaps, a relief when the anti-climactic closing track ‘Placing A Personal Memo On The Boss’s Desk’ completes an album that is less considered musical statement, and more a succession of hands entirely constructed from extended middle fingers. Although Agoraphobic Nosebleed apparently hate everyone, it is difficult not to conclude that they reserve their harshest loathing for their own listeners, such is the endurance test that they subject them to. And yet, Altered States Of America is grimly fascinating, a drug-addled freakshow that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes and ears from. It is not unusual for metal, particularly traditional heavy metal, to take as its lyrical and conceptual theme the heroic crusade of the courageous warrior, standing alone against impossible odds, armed only with a longsword, and the strength of his convictions. Musically, the triumphant heroism of the music is designed to match this image. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, on the other hand, are the sound of this warrior slowly realising that humanity is doomed, before making sure of it in a blaze of machine-gun fire, and finally turning the gun on themselves. This sound is sometimes staggeringly impressive, sometimes forgettable, and sometimes even painful and irritating, but perhaps it is the sound that we deserve.

Score: 71%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Year of Release: 2002
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6530

Agoraphobic Nosebleed, if the name alone were not clue enough, have long been arch provocateurs of the grindcore scene, taking the basic template of the genre – warp-speed riffing, relentless blastbeats, and short, sharp songs lasting seconds rather than minutes – and deconstructing it, before feeding it piece by piece into a psychedelic blender, and lacing the resulting slurry with a liberal (and quite possibly libertarian) dose of offensive, irreverent humour. Grind is often a form of extreme music infused with the (generally left-wing) political ideology of its creators; bands such as Napalm Death, Brutal Truth and Insect Warfare have commonly used both their lyrics and public statements as a platform for their beliefs, advocating strongly anti-capitalist and pro-animal rights ideological positions. However, almost as a direct reaction to both these viewpoints themselves, and also perhaps the po-faced and sometimes overly earnest stance of much grind, there has long been a strain of the genre which has sought to embrace the inherent absurdity of sounds which are, due to their extremity, unintelligible and frankly unpalatable to all but a small proportion of music fans, translating this sonic absurdity to the lyrical content. Probably due to their none-more-offensive name and song titles, Anal Cunt are the most well-known and notorious proponents of this version of grind, and it is fairly easy to draw a straight line from that now unavoidably defunct band (two of the Cunts are dead) to Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Not least because the single consistent member of ANb, guitarist / drum programmer Scott Hull, spent a couple of years as the Anal Cunt guitarist, presumably because he shared both that particular band’s musical and thematic preferences. Of course, much of the evidence suggests that despite Anal Cunt arguably aiming to position their outrageous themes as some kind of post-modern artistic statement, deploying racism and homophobia in deliberate provocation of liberal sensibilities, not unlike punks embracing Nazi imagery in the 1970s, in actual fact they meant much of what they said, and were fundamentally just objectionable, abhorrent individuals. The same cloud of suspicion cannot help but hang over Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and not unlike their distant cousins, they actively welcome and even weaponise the antagonism, in a blaze of gross-out humour and hyper-sexualised lyrics and samples that litter their albums, including this, their second full-length.

Even in the hands of extreme metal bands, the album tends to be a device that is aimed very much at guiding the listener through a carefully planned exploration, traversing the peaks and troughs that can be created by a judicious use of dynamics, tempos and song arrangements. If Agoraphobic Nosebleed are taking the listener on a journey, however, it is a one-way joyride downwards, through a progressively more hideous hellscape, during which the vehicle reaches terminal velocity almost instantaneously, before finally immolating itself and all of its flayed passengers in a thermonuclear explosion that frankly comes as a demented relief from the demented soundtrack to the apocalypse that Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope represents. Like landmarks seen from the window of a speeding bullet train, which loom into view momentarily, before evaporating in a blur as the landscape continually reconfigures itself, the songs pass by so swiftly that it is almost impossible to grasp them in any kind of meaningful way, riffs and drums piling on top of one another in an unending, shapeshifting perpetual motion.

After a brief intro, second track ‘Bitch’s Handbag Full Of Money’ sets the tone for the rest of the album – guitars like razor blades work through 30 seconds of taut warp-speed grind riffing, while the programmed drums offer a passable impression of an indiscriminate assault by machine gun. Indeed, the replacement of the more conventional human skin-beater with a drum machine, is one of the key points of difference for ANb, in comparison to the average grind band. In fact, one can’t help but feel that, in keeping with their enfant terrible aesthetic, this is another way in which the band use their position within the grind scene as a platform to poke fun at the rest of the scene, so fond of boasting of the (undeniably impressive) superhuman prowess of drummers like Dave Witte of Discordance Axis, who are able to blast their way athletically through song after song of insanely complex noise. In place of the all too superhuman timekeeper, ANb instead opt for a truly inhuman mechanised backdrop to their grind and, due in no small part to the masterful programming abilities of Scott Hull, it is hugely successful. What Agoraphobic Nosebleed lose in the feel and visceral thrill generated by a four-limbed drummer operating at the limits of their capacity, they gain in the manic intensity of a the relentless pounding of a drummer whose energy never wanes. There are also songs where the electronic capabilities available to the band allow them to push the envelope in ways that conventional instrumentation do not permit – ‘Hungry Homeless Handjob’ utilises a cold, throbbing techno drum part which pushes the tone and velocity into gabber territory, well outside the standard parameters of grind, and the delightfully titled ‘Shit Slit’ comes close to the kind of pure white noise that it is virtually impossible to produce organically. It is in these moments that ANb transcend their sometimes inherently gimmicky nature and transform into a more substantial, and frankly more interesting proposition than they may appear to be at first glance.

In fact, the more attention that one pays to each individual slab of grind mayhem, flying by at something approaching the speed of light, the more apparent the complexity and ingenuity that underpins many of their best songs becomes. In many respects, the grind of ANb is less the hardcore punk taken to its logical conclusion of their forbears such as Extreme Noise Terror or Napalm Death, and in actual fact more the kind of technical death metal popularised by a slew of Relapse label mates in the late 1990s (Dying Fetus, Origin etc), albeit compressed into the sort of dense and concise explosions of fury that tend to characterise grind. The death metal leanings can be detected with ease in the impenetrable drum flurries of ‘Ceremonial Gas Mask’, the churning Immolation-style riffing of ‘Dead Battery’ drenched in lugubrious pinch harmonics, and the energetic, chromatic thrashing of ‘Repercussions In The Life Of An Opportunistic, Pseudo-Intellectual Jackass’, which features a vocal cameo from Pete Ponitkoff of Benümb, a band that ANb show frequent similarities to in their less schizophrenic moments.

There are, of course, a number of tracks on which the more technical elements of the band’s sound are dialled down in favour of pure, heads down grind madness, more in the vein of a less crusty, and if we’re being truthful, less good Nasum. ‘Kill Theme For American Apeshit’ is malevolent grind, a fuzzy, almost black metal, guitar sound adding a woozy, seasick quality to the disorientating interweaving guitar lines, all of which acts to set the stage for a ‘Siege Of Power’-style mosh section to decimate the second half of the track. Similarly, the crunchy chugging of ‘Crap Cannon’ the tremolo-picked urgency of ‘Protection From Enemies’ and molten wall-to-wall blasting powerchords of ‘Double Negative’ offer plenty of opportunities for bug-eyed speedfreaks to get their conventional grind kicks, ANb packing an incredible amount of almost steroidal energy into galactically heavy bursts of high-velocity rage.

But, as previously mentioned, it’s the left turns and more off-kilter experimental moments that really catch the ear on Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope, and elevate the final result above the legions of 20 minute blastfests and split 7 inches that comprise the average grind act’s discography. This is not to criticise such releases, very much the lifesblood of the grind scene globally – Agoraphobic Nosebleed themselves have a typically labyrinthine back catalogue full of the kind of output that poses a severe challenge to any self-respecting completist. However, the format of a full-length studio album on a prestigious extreme label such as Relapse demands something a little more sophisticated, and ANb’s ability to combine the generic traits of grind with facets of power-electronics and noisecore ensures that they deliver on this count. Standout tracks in this vein include the electronically-augmented hyperblast of ‘Bovine Caligula’, bouncy punk-metal soundclash of ‘Time vs. Necessity’ (which is oddly reminiscent of Atari Teenage Riot), and precision legato guitar runs adoring the Dillinger Escape Plan stylings of ‘Ambulance Burning’, Most startlingly of all, ‘Organ Donor’ offers an alternative take on early-80s post-punk, before abruptly changing tack and unfurling the kind of monstrous, monolithic riff that Botch once made their speciality. Indeed, this is probably the only time that the album proffers anything catchy enough to be described as a hook, with the honourable exception of a maniacal cover of Nuclear Assault’s classic ‘Hang The Pope’, which features that band’s Dan Lilker assisting ANb in pushing the already extreme velocity of the borderline grind of the original to the point at which it triumphantly becomes indistinguishable from the band’s own material.

As ‘Fuckmaker’ closes the album with yet another contrarian gesture – a couple of minutes of completely incongruous trip-hop after 37 tracks of breakneck grind, followed by a couple of minutes of silence before the album expires in a haze of rapid-fire blasting and a final unpleasant sample – it is difficult not to conclude that Agoraphobic Nosebleed have contributed a work of high calibre that, while not exactly genre-smashing, does develop and progress the genre in some exciting directions. It doesn’t have the coherence and elite level songs of From Enslavement To Obliteration, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses or World Downfall, thus missing out of top tier status, but it does deserve to be considered one of the better modern examples of grind, and has been surpassed by relatively few records within the genre in the nearly 20 years since its release.

Score: 82%

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%

Agalloch – Ashes Against The Grain

Author: BD Joyce

Agalloch – Ashes Against The Grain
  • Artist: Agalloch
  • Album: Ashes Against The Grain
  • Year of Release: 2006
  • Country: USA
  • Label: The End Records
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: TE719-2

Ashes Against The Grain is the only Agalloch album in my collection, and if Agalloch mastermind John Haughm were to be believed, I’ve chosen badly. Haughm believed it to be the band’s worst album, although his judgement could be said to have been impaired by a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the label that released it, The End. Indeed, the band’s next record was to be released on cult metal imprint Profound Lore, and evidently this relationship was more productive, at least until the eventual split of the band in 2016. Having no other point of reference, it’s impossible to confirm the veracity of Haughm’s statement, but what I can assert with certainty is that if this is indeed the band’s worst album, the rest of their discography must be magnificent, as Ashes Against The Grain is an imperfect, but largely enjoyable piece of work. It’s also pleasingly difficult to categorise, not quite sitting comfortably in any single sub-genre of metal, and while this makes it tough to get a handle on, it also imbues the music with an impermeable layer of mystery and intrigue that gives the album the kind of longevity that Haughm may not have envisaged.

The album is absolutely not a doom album, although at times it strays into the kind of despairing territory of the more overtly emotional end of the doom spectrum, but the kind of mental adjustment required to appreciate compositions that unfold almost in slow motion is similar to the mindset that one needs to adopt to really appreciate the likes of Thergothon or Evoken, where satisfaction is derived from allowing oneself to drift into the meditative space of repetition, savouring the gradual progression of small rhythmic changes, or additional layers of sound slowly building as a sun rises tentatively above a misty horizon on a winter morning. Agalloch’s music is considerably more accessible than the extremity of funeral doom, however, and the comparison that most frequently springs to mind is mid-period Katatonia. Like the downbeat Swedes, Agalloch’s brand of metal relies not on the thrill and excitement of the riff, but on the power of the fluid and insistent lead guitar melodies that sit atop surging, minor key chord progressions. Generally speaking, the most successful tracks are those in which these melodies are especially memorable, as the scarcity of the vocals provide little else for the listener to focus their attention on.

The opening track, ‘Limbs’ is not the best track on the album, nor the bearer of the most memorable melodies, but as it uncoils itself, piece by piece, it does become increasingly compelling, and works well as the entry point for the album, setting a clear template for the Agalloch sound. ‘Limbs’ emerges from the ambient static that returns as a continuous thread throughout Ashes Against The Grain, suggesting that it is permanently there, the sound of the ether, only momentarily interrupted by the intrusion of the songs themselves. ‘Limbs’ gradually builds itself from the outside in, a delicate spider’s web woven from the spectral silk of long sustained lead guitar notes, the extremely prolonged nature of which suggests the use of the e-bow listed in the liner notes. When the long-anticipated serrated guitar finally breaks the spell, the feel is unexpectedly grungy, both harmonically and sonically reminiscent of the kind of dense fuzz typified by Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Once the song transitions into more gloomy territory, however, a desolate, minor key piano line leads into the second section, which again adds layer upon layer of instrumentation, acoustic guitars and drums generating the sort of tension that one expects to be resolved by all-savagery. But, as on the rest of the album, the typical tremolo riffs and blastbeats of black metal never arrive. The harsh vocals do, but they are used as primarily as another texture to flesh out the stately onward trudge of the guitars, calling to mind Draconian Times-era Paradise Lost, stretched to breaking point, particularly when Agalloch punctuate the never-ending walls of churning chords with more staccato stabs of melody, introducing some much-needed rhythmic variety that just about prevents the nearly 10 minute opener from outstaying its bleak welcome.

Interludes, ambient or not, are a difficult thing to get right on a metal album, as the ongoing criticism of Pestilence’s landmark Testimony Of The Ancients album 30 years after its release shows. If the tone is marginally wrong, they can easily destroy the flow of an otherwise excellent album, taking the listener out of the immersive listening experience and deconstructing the suspension of disbelief that can be required to truly lose oneself in extreme sounds. Alternatively, they can feel too slight or incomplete, half-formed and poorly executed ideas used to pad out a record, or contribute the often superfluous impression of a concept or theme designed to give the album the illusion of intellectualism. It is to Agalloch’s credit that such interludes are perfectly judged here, never detracting from the atmosphere that they so assiduously construct, but acting as a pause for reflection and breath between the lengthier tracks that surround them, almost all of which run to virtually 10 minutes. ‘The White Mountain On Which You Will Die’ is one such example – a mostly ambient track incorporating the noise of a distant klaxon, which effectively evokes an image of searching aimlessly in the wilderness, an image which recurs repeatedly as we continue our journey through Ashes Against The Grain. This forms the perfect introduction to ‘Fire Above, Ice Below’, one of the twin highlights of the album, the other being the track that immediately follows it, ‘Not Unlike The Waves’. Lush, clean guitars are accompanied by a martial-sounding snare, with timpanies and chiming bells combining to briefly intimate a Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack, until the serenity is disturbed by the more conventional roiling chords, and crystalline lead guitar figures, again recalling Katatonia above anyone else. Even better are the mournful guitars of the mid-section of the track, which work wonderfully with the kind of neo-classical acoustic melodies lines that Metallica once deployed to open their classic thrash albums, and which are probably underused in modern metal, which frequently eschews the kind of light and shade that this sort of change of timbre can bring.

The aforementioned ‘Not Unlike The Waves’ is the undoubted highlight of the album though, a single track which seamlessly unites all of the disparate elements of Agalloch’s sound in a way that flows perfectly, and combines the result with superior songwriting to ensure that the result is by some distance the most memorable song on the record. A brilliantly addictive lead guitar figure is gently introduced via an lengthy introduction, as if a flurry of snow were steadily depositing layer upon layer of sound, until finally, the firmament clears, and the completed melody is now apparent, dovetailing superbly with the chugging rhythm guitars in an elite demonstration of utter metal majesty. The track moves effortlessly through a number of sections that all serve to enhance the song, fragile Opethian acoustic guitars initially picking up the thread, before the strongest clean vocals to be found on the album repurpose the kind of folk-metal harmonies that one might find on a Moonsorrow record for something approaching black metal, before concluding in a blaze of metal classicism, as a short burst of shredding lead work directly connects Agalloch to a lineage of more traditional heavy metal sounds for probably the only time on the album. As if emboldened by the sense of musical adventure on a wide-ranging composition, Haughm even lets rip with a wounded black metal scream that wouldn’t be out of place on Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, and this accentuates the extremity of a track that traverses peaks and troughs in a way that the rest of the album cannot match.

One senses that closing the album with a trilogy (‘Our Fortress Is Burning I, II and III’) was intended to be a bold and climactic statement, but as competent as this concluding trio of songs is, they cannot help but be overshadowed by the magnitude of what precedes them. In fact, strictly speaking, ‘Our Fortress Is Burning’ is really one truly substantial track, bookended at the start by a sparse guitar and piano soundscape, and at the end by an entirely ambient screed of static. In between, part two is an adequate return to the formula of ‘Limbs’ and ‘Falling Snow’, a particularly disconsolate lead guitar line lodging itself in the listener’s memory long after the conclusion of the album, but not matched for quality by the rest of the track, which at times suggests that we are going to ascend to some kind of summit, only to discover that the summit is but a plateau, a staging point on a never-ending journey.

Perhaps this is an appropriate emotional endpoint for a fundamentally despondent album though. More than anything, Ashes Against The Grain feels like a search for something that remains forever out of reach. The glacial lead guitar lines that do most of the heavy-lifting for the band, not unlike Alcest, for example, continually elicit images of searchlights, pointing uncertainly through the cold and unfathomable murk, the lack of anything solid to alight on forcing band and listener to plough on in the absence of any sanctuary to return to. Although Agalloch are successful in terms of the imagery that they are able to construct, the album is not without its flaws. The vocals, particularly the clean-singing, is diffident, and it appears that Haughm lacks belief in his own ability as a singer. Consequently, the vocals are frequently buried in the mix, and while the output is more than listenable, it means that Agalloch do not have a full palette to paint from, even if one suspects that they are perfectly happy with black and white alone. Additionally, the lengthy run time of the majority of the tracks, combined (‘Not Unlike The Waves’ apart) with fairly minimal harmonic variety and melodic development, means that there are periods during which the attention unavoidably wanders, even if unconsciously, the listener is in some ways still tuned into the meditative quality of the sometimes mesmeric guitar lines. Ashes Against The Grain is the result of a band with a grand vision aiming high and falling a little way short, but one can still discern and admire the vision, and appreciate the journey taken, even if the destination is not quite the idyll that it occasionally threatens to be.

Score: 75%

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%

Aerosmith – Rock In A Hard Place

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Rock In A Hard Place
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Rock In A Hard Place
  • Year of Release: 1982
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 474970 2

1982 saw Aerosmith in not just a hard place, but a difficult place, and probably at the lowest ebb in their career. The Toxic Twins were estranged, Joe Perry having left part way through the recording of Night In The Ruts three years earlier, and the runaway commercial and critical success of Rocks had been tempered in the intervening years by a series of missteps and ill-judged decisions. Each successive album contained music of merit, some intriguing experiments, and even the occasional blockbuster song, but the overall trajectory of the band’s career was undoubtedly downwards, hastened by the interpersonal issues and chemical dependencies that so often afflict bands that rise to such lofty heights so quickly.

Despite being the only Aerosmith album not to feature Joe Perry, Rock In A Hard Place (yet another transparent title) is actually reasonably good, and far better than the disaster that it could so easily have been. The main issue with the album though, is the palpable effort that it took to complete what is ultimately not much more or less than a moderately good rock album. An issue because the best rock ‘n’ roll should sound like it’s been channelled from the ether with insouciant ease. The best rock ‘n’ roll should be spontaneous and immediate, even a little ramshackle, regardless of the fact that if one were to lift the veil, one might discover that it has taken significant toil to produce this impression. The auditory version, if you will, of Dolly Parton’s oft-quoted line that it costs a lot of money to look so cheap. Think of the Rolling Stones circa Exile On Main Street, AC/DC’s Back In Black, or Motorhead’s Bomber, and the thread that joins them all together is the uncomplicated clarity of a recorded output that comes from following intuition wherever it leads, and trusting in the outcome. It’s not uncommon for successful bands, perhaps because the wellspring of inspiration has run dry, perhaps because other pursuits have become a distraction, to start second-guessing their own music, moving between expanding their sound before retrenching to a self-conscious facsimile of what made them successful in the first place, and this undoubtedly afflicts Aerosmith at this point in their career. As good as parts of this album are, the band’s instinct for what makes great rock ‘n’ roll has been lost at this point, and the listener can hear how desperately the band are searching for their muse throughout, which cloaks the majority of the record with a vaguely dispiriting air, which only occasionally disperses.

One thing that Aerosmith haven’t forgotten though, is their formula of commencing the album with an up-tempo riff-rocker, and, of course, concluding things with a largely unnecessary ballad that attempts to replicate ‘Dream On’ for the umpteenth time. ‘Jailbait’ is the rocker in this pairing, ‘ Push Comes To Shove’ is the ballad, and both are underwhelming, the latter in the extreme. When evaluating ‘Jailbait’, it’s impossible not to address the extremely distasteful subject matter. What may have seemed risqué in the early 1980s, is now a depressing tale of the kind of abusive power imbalances that many bands even in the post-#MeToo era still take advantage of. And this is no fictional fantasy – Tyler’s 3 year relationship with Julia Holcomb during the 1970s began when Holcomb was 16, and it’s difficult to imagine that there were not other similar dalliances, especially given the more permissive (at least with respect to this kind of behaviour) social climate of the time. All of which paints Tyler’s lyrics in a more sinister light – “Girl’s a lover, never knew she’s jailbait” – and repeated references to ‘Daddy’, a recurring feature in lyrical depictions of the kind of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ subject matter that litters the hard rock of the time. Musically, ‘Jailbait’ is reasonably good; although the rest of the song fails to fulfil the promise of a brilliant pounding, bass-led intro, the barrelling riff and punchy guitars of the chorus wrest momentum back from an awkward verse in which thin-sounding guitars follow an unsatisfying vocal melody, but the song as a whole never quite coalesces into the kind of masterful magnificence that marked their earlier, more impressive work. Still, there’s enough of interest here to suggest that the album as a whole may be salvageable from the wreckage of a band on the brink.

Although the confused, keyboard-driven scuzz of ‘Lightning Strikes’ immediately suggests that these hopes will be dashed, to the band’s credit, things do get much better quickly. Jimmy Crespo, for all of the success he has had in carving out a career as a solid session live and session player with other artists, will never have much more than cameo walk-on role in the Aerosmith story, but in the absence of Joe Perry, he takes up the slack, delivering a strong contribution that deserves more recognition than he has (understandably) received. The first true sign of life is the excellent ‘Bitch’s Brew’. For perhaps the first time since Rocks, some real musical development is apparent, the band channelling the darkness and existential dread stalking their lives outside the studio into a harder-edged and more gritty sound. In fact, not just on this track, but also on ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ which immediately follows, the heavy, rolling grooves are reminiscent of the kind of metallic melodicism that Soundgarden would make a core part of their sound over a decade later. Another reminder that the grunge explosion of the 1990s, often positioned as some kind of rebellion against, and reaction to, mainstream hard rock, was actually in many ways a continuation and development of the sound of the bands that had inspired them to pick up guitars in the first place, albeit combined with inspirations from punk and hardcore, and a more introverted and at times socially conscious lyrical bent.

Even better, following the inconsequential atmospheric spoken word interlude ‘Prelude To Joanie’, is ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the single best song of this part of the band’s career, that being the run of albums between Draw The Line and Permanent Vacation. Too often across these records, a single acceptable riff or melody is stretched to breaking point, carrying the song in the absence of any compelling vocal line, the band presumably hoping that the listener’s memory of what Aerosmith once were generates enough sentimental attachment to ensure that the band is forgiven for what is realistically rather lazy songwriting. On this track though, everything comes together so magically that it triggers something more than a false memory; an authentic experience in fact, the band genuinely recapturing something that it seemed had been lost forever. What really stands out here is the lightness of touch that allows the folky acoustics and jazzy chords of the intro to transform with a flourish into a theatrical mid-tempo rocker. Tyler’s vocal is, for once, majestic, the catchy descending vocal melody of the chorus integrating perfectly with stabbing guitar chords in a way which feels supremely natural, with Jack Douglas’s organic production allowing plenty of space for the rhythm section to fill the space left by the economic guitars. A baroque string line is integrated seamlessly into the mix, subtle enough to avoid drowning the band in syrupy schmaltz, but prominent enough to provide another layer of composition that, unusually for Aerosmith, culminates in a deceptively complex, but euphoric anthem that exudes pure joy. That it happens to be included on one of the band’s less heralded releases means that it is not more widely known, a shame for such a life-affirming and life-enhancing track.

As good as ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’ is though, it stands out in part, because it is nearly drowned in the sea of mediocrity that surrounds it. Both the title track and ‘Jig Is Up’ are practically the definition of filler. The former, leaving aside a self-plagiarising riff that harkens back to ‘Uncle Salty’ from Toys In The Attic, appears to be an attempt to develop their sound into the kind of brass-augmented glossy pop-rock that would prove so successful for the reunited band later in the decade. It is possible that although they were unable to fully realise their ambitions here, the band registered the potential buried somewhere within the track, and that this contributed in part to their eventual commercial renaissance. If these tracks are average, both the cover of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’, and the closing track ‘Push Comes To Shove’ that round out the album are a hideous affront to music and should never have found their way on to the album. One can only assume that at this point, such was the paucity of available material, and so low was the interest in the band from their label, that no one had the courage to tell truth to waning power. On the former, it is possible to divine what Tyler was aiming for, even if the target is missed by a wide margin. One imagines that he envisaged himself on stage in a smoky basement bar, a lone stagehand sweeping the broken glass and spent cigarettes from the floor, as a tearful crooner pours his heart out to the tiny audience that can’t quite tear themselves away. The latter is simply bizarre, a strange showtune pastiche from which no one emerges with any credit, and which is best forgotten.

In some respects, Rock In A Hard Place is an improvement on it predecessor, which is absolutely the sound of a band falling apart committed to tape. At its worst, it is grimly fascinating, and at it’s best it is superb. However, much of the album is the sound of a band knocking on the door of excellence, but fumbling for the keys, when they should quite simply blow the door off its hinges. Also missing from large stretches of the album is any real feeling of joy and excitement. This would be less of a problem were Aerosmith playing funeral doom, or blackened death metal, but for a band that should be the life of the party, this is more of a problem. This means that Rock In A Hard Place is best viewed as a document of a difficult period of the band’s career, and a small and essential step in the right direction, when it could so easily have been a step into permanent obscurity.

Score: 64%