Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Album Review: Life of Agony - "A Place Where There's No More Pain

To say it’s been a long journey to get here by New York natives Life of Agony is a gross, negligent understatement.  We don’t have the time or inclination to review the whole saga here, but the information is readily available for those who seek it, and it can all succinctly summed up by saying that an awful lot happened.  Yet, for all the hiatuses and tours and albums and rumors, we stand here today in 2017 faced with largely the same band we were introduced to in 1993.

More to the point, as the band embarks upon the long awaited journey that will see the release of their new studio album “A Place Where There’s No More Pain,” the message remains the same as it was almost a quarter century ago.  Life is hard, it can be unfair, mistakes are made, and somewhere, buried down at the bottom, the knowledge that you’re not alone.  It’s a message that has become Life of Agony’s stock in trade (and how could it not, just look at the band’s name,) and it is where their music is the most comfortable.

This new record, perhaps predictably given the band’s membership and their combined experience, doesn’t subscribe unilaterally to the signature sound of Life of Agony, but instead lives at the comfortable intersection of Life of Agony and A Pale Horse Named Death.  If the last time you paid serious attention to LoA was all the way back at their debut, you’ll find this album to be just as dire, but musically mellower, content to roll the riffs at you rather than batter you with them.

That doesn’t mean that the element of menace inherent to this band or style of music is absent, just altered ever so slightly.  The opening up-and-down thump of “Meet My Maker” breathes life into the album from the start, in that delightfully dirty way that only sludgy bands from the Northeast ever seemed to really master (with all respect to grunge, this movement is similar but not the same.)  There’s a certain sense of ‘old home week’ in hearing this sound again, a coming back to form that fans of the band have been awaiting for so long.

The vocals of Mina Caputo remain as melodically anguished as ever, coupled as a near perfect vehicle for the simple but affecting lyrics containing a lifetime of personal struggle and perseverance.  The shadow of suicide, for so long an integral part of Life of Agony’s lyrical metaphor, remains lurking in the background, coloring even the otherwise comparatively bright title track.  Much as with all of their records, “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” is not the kind of record one chooses to rock while driving to the grocery store on a bright, sunny afternoon.

As much as we parenthetically dismissed grunge earlier, the fans of that once paramount genre will find a lot of comfortable listening here.  It’s not such a stretch to suggest that “Dead Speak Kindly” would have been right at home in the post-“Dirt” world of Alice in Chains – that may sound too easy a parallel given the usual subject matter of that band and of LoA as we previously discussed, but that doesn’t make the comparison less valid.  Fans of AiC (myself included,) may wonder wistfully if that band could have turned out like this if only Layne had survived.

That said, there is also some room here for the punk roots that set the stage for all the NYHC scene to thrive.  While the verses of “A New Low” sludge along with the dark drudgery of Type O Negative, it’s in the choruses that the fist-in-the-face of punk shows a winking hint of fiery life.  This continues as the band rolls into “World Gone Mad,” perhaps the only other similar cut on the duration of the album.

Which may, in turn, be perhaps the only failing of this effort.  For all that “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” rumbles and shambles through an introspective and eminently listenable forty or so minutes, many of the songs strike much the same notes over and over again.  There is just the barest but noticeable hint throughout the course of the proceedings that some of the selections are indistinct from one another, which also heightens the sense that this record lacks a taste of the je ne sais quoi of “River Runs Red.”

But tread carefully before rendering judgement – to compare those musicians from more than two decades ago to these musicians is perhaps borderline unfair, even if it is the same group of people.  This album does not lack for quality, it’s merely a different experience than “River Runs Red,” which remains so vital because recording technology allows it to sound as it did back then.  Where that album is ragged and vitriolic, this one is mature and measured.

So, when it’s all over, “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” may not be quite the same achievement as “River Runs Red,” but it doesn’t necessarily need to be, either.  Times and themes are allowed to shift over the course of nearly twenty-five years, and so this album serves as a reminder that Life of Agony both is and isn’t the same band that we once knew.  After a long break and an incredible, documentary-worthy road to get here, the band has served us fans with a quality album that’s a credit to the legacy of the artists that produced it.

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