Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Agonist "Prisoners" Review

If you've previously read my blog, you probably know that I really enjoyed the recently released lyric video for The Agonist's song "Disconnect Me" (incidentally, if you have never visited my blog before now, hi! Nice to have a new face round here!). In that same article, I admitted never being a huge fan of the band, but being eager to see where they went for their fourth album.

Well, this...isn't their fourth album, as anyone who has more than a cursory knowledge of the band would have been able to tell you, but is their third (and last with vocalist Alissa White-Gluz). See, while I wait for the band to finish working on their fourth album and release it, I figured it would be interesting to look at their last album with Alissa and see what it is that they can afford to tighten up (...Those of you who started giggling at that, grow up!) for their next album and what Alissa herself can bring to Arch Enemy, if they let her be herself and don't force her to try to be like Angela. Which is probably what's going to happen, considering most Arch Enemy fans probably don't want to hear melodic vocals or song topics like those from The Agonist...still, I can hope that she'll have more creative input on her second album with the band and we'll get two amazing albums when both bands release their next album!

So, The Agonist originally formed under the name The Tempest (I have no idea whether that was deliberately intended as a reference to Shakespeare or not) in 2004. The founding members were guitarist Danny Marino, bassist Chris Kells and vocalist Alissa White-Gluz. They basically spent the next three years doing...erm, I actually have no idea. All I know is that they recorded their first album (which was actually intended as just a demo), Once Only Imagined, over the course of 2005 and 2006 with the aid of Derek Nadon (who apparently hasn't done anything else of note apart from this) on drums and it was produced by Mythosis and Cryptopsy guitarist Christian Donaldson (who also made a guest appearance on a track...in a vocal role, for some reason), who has produced all the band's albums thus far (and will be producing their fourth album). They sent it off to various labels and it ended up getting released in August 2007 by Century Media Records as their first album (which they released under their new name, The Agonist). So the band added Simon McKay to their line up (then only known for drumming for Endast...I don't know how long he was with them, but he did appear on their debut album, Odds Against Tomorrow) and went on tour. They opened for some fairly big bands in the metal scene while on tour, like Overkill, Epica and Sonata Arctica. Their next album, Lullabies For The Dormant Mind, was released in Europe in late February 2009 and featured a noticeably expanded sound from the band, along with a guest appearance from Youri Raymond (then of Porno Coma...I swear to god that I didn't make that name up!) and a few other people. It contained one of my favourite songs by the band, "Thank You, Pain" as well, as I just LOVE the contrast Alissa does between the accused and the judge in the song thanks to her use of growls...without context, that makes no sense, doesn't it? Well, to help clear it up, here's the video to the song!

Anyway, the band did some more touring (including a tour with Kamelot, Alestorm and Blackguard in late 2011) before they released their third album in June 2012. The rest of the band's history after this can be summed up as "Touring, touring, oh shit, we've lost Alissa, thank God, we've found Vicky, here's "Disconnect Me" for you guys to enjoy while we finish up the album". So, here we are, on the threshold of...excuse me for a second. OY, YOU! YEAH, YOU, THE GUY WHO'S WATCHING THE VIDEO ON REPEAT! PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I'M SAYING!


As I was saying, we stand on the threshold of a new era for the band. With Vicky in The Agonist and Alissa in Arch Enemy, the competition for both women to prove themselves to a new crowd is pretty high. Both are somewhat at the mercy of whatever material they have to sing for their first albums with their new bands and, as such, their first albums will be them having to prove they are up to the job of replacing the band's previous vocalists. But none of that matters at the minute. For now, we're winding back the clock to June 2012...dear god, I needed a haircut back then! And that has to be some of the worst fashion sense this side of the 80s! And I read too much! And what's with the terrible sense of humour, I should...actually, that one's not changed much, never mind! But good lord, I was a geek, that table had more 40k models than...wait, you didn't want me to literally do it? Fine...if I ever get like I was back then again, I'm kicking myself!

Anyway, here's the cover art for the album. I have to say, it's a rather striking cover, but the fact it's mostly restricted to one colour does have me kind of feeling like they could have done with more time to work on it. This appears to be an issue with all of the cover arts for their albums, as they mostly focus on one colour (a dark brown for Once Only Imagined and a purplish blue colour for Lullabies For The Dominant Mind), so I suspect it might be a deliberate style choice, but it just bugs me.

Anyway, The Agonist's third album is a more progressively influenced album than their second album was, while still building upon the band's sound from that album. A fairly reasonable analogy would be compare Metallica's first four albums: they started out with very little progressive metal influence and slowly dialled that influence up, arguably reaching their peak with And Justice For All (which I always found to be a highly overrated album, but that's another can of worms for another day). While I think saying this is the band's And Justice For All would be overselling the band's talents, the basic point still stands: on this album, the band really pushed themselves in terms of technical ability. This results in quite a few VERY impressive performances, but the one I'm going to have to highlight is Simon McKay's performance on the drums. He doesn't put out the best performance I've ever heard, but some of his drumming will have most people asking if the guy does all of his drumming while hyper on caffeine. Seriously, he  pulls off some very fast drumming on this album: "Panaphobia" has some really impressive drumming. Bassist Chris Kells is not especially noticeable in the mix, but this is nothing especially new in extreme metal: most extreme metal bassists tend to just follow the root note of the guitars, so you're not really missing anything. The guitars are just as much the main show of the album as Alissa's vocals are: they do some surprisingly interesting stuff that is a lot more unusual than the band get given credit for among metal purists. I think the best way to describe them is that, once they get past the more typical stereotypes of the metalcore genre (namely, the breakdowns that are part of the music), they pull off some stuff that helps to make the band more unique. Part of it is due to Danny Marino's more...unique way of coming up with guitar riffs (he air guitars them...yes, air guitar isn't just for people who can't play a real guitar!).

Alissa's vocals...well, she's now in Arch Enemy, so, if you've ever heard Angela Gossow's vocals before now, you have a good idea how her harsh vocals sound. I'd say Alissa isn't quite as good at doing the lowest guttural growls than Angela is, but she can do higher notes with her growls (one she sings in "You're Coming With Me" is rather impressive, to say the least!) and she also has a tone to them that indicates at least a bit of influence from black metal shrieks. I think a decent way to describe them, for the benefit of those without a frame of reference for what a female growler sounds like, would be to say that, if you thought of what the voice of a female demon would sound like, her harsh vocals probably wouldn't be too far away from what your mental image is: rather low, surprisingly powerful, rather unsettling to listen to and, basically, not the kind of voice you would want to have yelling at you in the face. Her clean vocals are a bit iffy, though: she's not an especially strong clean singer. Note that I say "not an especially strong clean singer" instead of "rather weak as a clean singer": she is still a good singer, it's just that her clean vocals are somewhat lacking power (although that might be the mix that's to blame: she tends to be fighting to be heard clearly over the rest of the band when she's doing clean singing) and the tone of her singing voice is arguably a bit too poppy to completely fit in with the band's sound (although it's not really a big issue, since she does make it work, so this is more of a nitpick than anything else).

So, now I've talked about everyone's performances on the record, what about the material itself? Well...it's a bit of a mixed bag. There's some brilliant stuff on the album, but there's some stuff that is overly ambitious and reaches further than the band were capable of pulling off and some stuff that just should have spent more time being worked upon. While the determination to do more complicated stuff is certainly commendable, I just don't think they have the technical chops to really pull it off. A good example of this in action is "Ideomotor". It is just over 8 minutes long and, for the life of me, I can't remember anything from the song, despite multiple listens. In fact, a true story: when I was listening through the album for the first time, I actually thought I'd heard at least two songs and was wondering how long the album had left to go before I checked my iPod and was shocked to discover I was still on the same track I was on earlier. So yeah, the band needs to work on making sure their long songs build up throughout the runtime and come to a satisfying climax. I'll give credit to them for trying, but I just think that, if you're going to do a long song, you either need to break the song down into sections (a la Machine Head's "I Am Hell") or throw enough twists and turns to keep the listener engaged for the whole runtime and doesn't give the song time to get boring (a la Masterplan's "Black In The Burn"). It's a shame, as that song is the point when the album takes a noticeable downturn in quality: the first three songs are pretty good and, while I think "Anxious Darwinians" could have done with a bit more work, it's made up for by "Panaphobia", which is flat out brilliant! If these five songs had been released as an EP, it'd have been a brilliant one, but, alas, that's not what happened.

It's after "Ideomotor" that things start to fall apart. "Lonely Solipsist" is fairly solid, if maybe lacking enough of a hook to make it particularly memorable and maybe could have done with being a bit longer than it was, and then the band go back to the more progressive stuff with "Dead Ocean". At nearly six minutes and a third, it doesn't really do anything to justify the runtime and leaves no real impression on you anyway. Again, credit for trying, but it feels like it was stretched a bit too far to really succeed at what the band were trying to do. "The Mass Of The Earth" is...I honestly don't know what to make of this song. The song doesn't get boring, as they throw a lot of ideas into it that are interesting, and it has a pretty cool intro which you'll not be forgetting (although it's a huge shame that they don't use it again in the song), but I still get a strong feeling of "meh" with this song. If it was a deliberate attempt to play around with the typical songwriting patterns, it just left me scratching my head. If this was the band's attempt to create an extreme metal version of "Bohemian Rhapsody", well...I GUESS they succeeded, as it doesn't really follow a traditional songwriting formula and doesn't really have a chorus to it per se, but I have to ask why they didn't make sure it was as epic as they could make it...or just ask them why they did it in the first place. I don't know with this one, go check it for yourself and let me know if I'm being dumb or hitting the nail on the head. "Everybody Wants You (Dead)" (The title of which reminds me of an All Time Low, for some bizarre reason...) is a very strong song...up until the weird screaming section starts around the three minute mark and carries on for about a minute and a half. I'll be honest, I don't get why they had that section in the song, as it just feels very unnecessary and doesn't add anything to the song. Closing the album is "Revenge Of The Dadaists". Now, anyone who is even vaguely familiar with what Dadaism is will be naturally expecting something..."weird as fuck" is probably not the term I'm looking for, but I'll stick with it. Well...it's certainly a very busy song, I'll give them that! It's not especially weird per se (you don't get anything on the levels of weirdness of, say, "Hageshisa to, Kono Mune no Naka de Karamitsuita Shakunetsu no Yami" (yes, I had to look up how to spell that: how the fuck are you supposed to remember that, even if you can speak Japanese?) by Dir En Grey), but you'll probably be rather surprised at how much variety is in this one song! It's worth giving this one a listen, at the very least!

The production is rather typical of extreme metal: fairly loudly produced and the bass is not especially noticeable a lot of the time. For a lot of extreme metal, this is probably a reasonable way to produce stuff (it's MEANT to be unpleasant to listen to if you're not a fan of extreme metal and most metal bassists just are playing the root note of the guitars), so I guess I can't really give my usual complaints about this one when you consider that it's a deliberate aesthetic choice. However, I think that the mixing could have been a bit better when it comes to Alissa's voice: she sounds too quiet when she's singing in her clean voice, making her rather hard to understand a lot of the time! Apart from that, I have to say that, considering the style of music the band play, I have no complaints. I would make my normal complaints if it weren't for the fact that it's probably an aesthetic choice that suits the genre and, well, making the bass louder would be kind of pointless.

So, how do I find this album overall? Well, the band try to stretch themselves on this album and, as a result, the material suffers from getting dull when the band overdoes it. However, it's well performed, there are still some highlights and the production suits the style of music nicely, despite containing my usual complaints regarding modern production. While I can see this album having more than a little appeal to extreme metal fans, I just don't think the band does a good enough job to have me really excited about them. There's enough good material on this to recommend checking it out if you are into more extreme styles of metal or want to get into that kind of metal, but everyone else might want to give this one a miss.

Final Rating: 6 Out Of 10

A slightly above record that is not likely to win over people who aren't interested in this style of music. Fans of the style will probably really enjoy this, but it's just not won me over. Sorry guys, but, at least for me, adding progressive elements didn't make your music better. Maybe next time, eh?

Personal Favourite Tracks: "You're Coming With Me" and "Panaphobia"

(As a note to the readers of my blog who haven't gotten the news from other sources: after my next review, I'll be taking a bit of time off from my blog to focus on doing a double review of Helloween's Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Gamma Ray's Heading For Tomorrow for youtube. This probably won't have a drastic effect on the blog, but it does mean you might not see a new article for a few weeks. I will definitely be back before June, though, even if it's just a little note confirming that I've not retired or something like that!)

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