Right, this is a big review for me. For too long, this has been easy - ripping new arseholes in bands that desparately need one to get rid of all the shit piling up in their albums or showering with praise anything which can make me call them "the Opeth of - ". Which is why this review is where everything before has been heading and everything after will come from. I'd call it my Crisis On Infinite Earths if I thought you were geeky enough to understand what they hell I was talking about. The question is simple: What happens when I WANT to like a crappy album?
First off, let me explain this dilema by saying some things about myself. I'm Alex. I live in Eastbourne, a town in the south of England. I'm seventeen. And I LOVE alt girls. Essentially I go for the "pretty" aesthetic in girls, but a sexy rock chick would make me trample cute geek girls by the dozen if they got in the way. You know, the type with dyed black hair and snakebite piercings and tattoo sleeves that finish on the chest. The kind of girl that Suicide Girls and Burning Angel practically subsidise the production of. And it's not like in metal we're left wanting for these lovely ladies - between Maria Brink and Marta Pedersen we're pretty much covered. However, a bunch of my friends and I were round my friend Sam's house flicking between all of the two rock tv stations the UK has to offer when we saw a music video featuring a distictly female singer. Having missed the first few seconds of the video, we didn't know who it was, and it was fairly badly lit, so we couldn't really see her, but fellow sad teen Joey and I fucking insisted on watching it through to the end because five words were going through our heads: "Google Image, safe search off". What followed was five or so minutes of distinctly average metalcore, at the end of which we found that the band was called The Agonist, though admittedly, the whining of everyone in the room who wasn't a straight male was compensated for by the fact that it just so happens that the singer of the band was literally my perfect woman. Her name is Alissa White-Gluz. LOOK AT HER.
Jesus fucking Christ, it doesn't even matter of you're a woman or a gay guy, there must be SOMETHING there that you can at least appreciate. I mean, seriously, I don't know any graceful or poetic way to put what I feel here, so I'm just going to tell you that the things I would do to this woman would get us both hanged in Idaho. And she's a pretty good vocalist too! Her growls are kind of a halfway point between Angela Gossow and the guy from Heaven Shall Burn and she has a genuinely good singing voice! She seems pretty smart too - her lyrics are socio-political stuff advocating animal rights and criticising the right wingers! And look at the back of her hand in the first picture! That's an X! She's straight-edge! So am I! Most of you will never have any idea how fucking sexy that makes her to the rest of us! It's a good thing I'm so fucking horrible with women, because I'm not sure that a real human could match this.
And yet the album, Once Only Imagined, is kind of lame.
I'll start at the beginning. There's an intro which I suspect they were cheap enough to just distort one of the pre-existing songs to make, before it goes into the first song, titled "Rise and Fall". Yes, this is metalcore so generic you've even heard the song titles before. The metalcore type of choice is American melodeath-inspired first-wave, and you can practically hear the disk straining to turn into an All That Remains album. They do some interesting things with time signatures, and then it goes into the most standard, drop-D verse-clean chorus-breakdown combo I've ever heard. You've heard this all before, people. It's less safe and overcommercialised than, say, The Devil Wears Prada or August Burns Red, and not as breakdown orientated as metalcore has become ever since the melodeath influence was scrapped in favour of chugging, but it's all stuff I've heard done as well before. Have you ever listened to As I Lay Dying or All That Remains? Well, add a heaping helping of Heaven Shall Burn and insert singing sections that, again, are actually pretty good, and you have this. Everything is ticked on the checklist, and in its correct place, with not an interesting new element added. But, hey, evolution is as good as revolution, so let's adjust our expectations and move on.
The vocals themselves are fairly standard. There's no doubt that Alissa can growl, but The Agonist is a real band and they do have a record contract, and she's their vocalist, so if that's a fucking achievement then the bar's dropped lower than I'd realised. Her singing itself is tuneful and quite nice, but it's very nasal and just a tad overused, so it isn't as much of a pleasant change when it is present. It seems to me to be more of an issue of songwriting than of the performance itself, but I'm not sure whether that's the case or that I'm just worried that actual criticism will destroy whatever chance I had of being invited to her birthday party.
The guitars display some good riffs and occasionally a trill or little flourish that promises a surprising degree of technical ability, but overall they're too content to languish in mediocrity, chugging away in palm-muted open chords or strumming powerchords to back Alissa's clean vocals. The drums are so mind-bogglingly perfuctory it's untrue. Seriously, well-done drums are something I really enjoy, and there was no moment on this album where they attracted my attention. It's just so frustrating to hear a band unable to take the songwriting risks they can obviously pull off for the sake of fear or laziness.
All that said, it's still well done. The whole package comes together as something hampered by inexperienced, unambitious and unimpressive songwriting, but the actual performances have value in and of themselves in that they actually have promise. As it is, this CD being their debut, it's still a worthy pick-up for metalcore fans.
Wait. Stop. No. It's happened. It's fucking happened. I actually described the premise for this review to a friend by asking "What's the one thing that can convice a teenage boy to abandon professionalism, journalistic integrity, personal safety...?" and he instantly replied "Boobs". That's what happened. Well I'm no longer going to pretend that this is functional as an album. Every fucking metalcore album released from Massachausets from 2000 to 2006 does this better. The harmonised leads, the breakdowns, the harsh-vocal-verse, clean-vocal-chorus structure, it's the same shit you've heard a thousand times unless you've been living under a rock or just have the attention span of a retarded goldfish. Listen to Shadows Fall while watching a Burning Angel porno and you've got everything this album could possibly offer you done pretty much as well.
p.s. It makes me laugh that this band is signed to Century Media who, judging from their signing of In This Moment, Iwresteledabearonce, Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy and Winds of Plague, are trying to get as many female-containing metal bands as possible, probably so they can throw a party just so the members of Turisas can lose their virginities.
p.p.s Holy shit, The Agonist's follow up, Lullabies of a Dormant Mind is actually really good. It's experimental, adventurous and dramatic, and every performance has improved. It does new things with metalcore, combining it with jazz, classical, and symphonic metal, adding progressive elements and occasionally breaking out into wonderfully technical riffage. It's better written, it's better done, it's pretty much everything I hoped this album would be, though Alissa's warbling still needs to be reined in more. Nonetheless, it's high-quality enough that I have an excuse to watch their music videos over and over again in slow motion.