The Agony Scene - The Darkest Red
Can you “sell out” and still make great music?
The Agony Scene make a strong case that it’s possible. Their self-titled album is steeped in European melodeath worship, from Mike Williams’ screech to its Slaughter of the Soul riffage, sprinkled with breakdowns to remind us that it’s a metalcore album, too. In fact, the band was first conceived as a spirit-filled hardcore band a la Strongarm, Overcome, and Zao, but in an ironic twist, lineup changes secularized their message just prior to noted Christian label Solid State Records getting their hands on The Agony Scene’s demo. Apart from heavy-handed melodeath influences, The Agony Scene’s novelty at the time was that it featured a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” This may not seem like a big deal in a post-Punk Goes world, but you can hear now the way that cover plays to the strengths The Agony Scene would more thoroughly mine on The Darkest Red, which drops most of the melodeath for the sounds of the so-called “New Wave of Heavy Metal.”
That term probably doesn’t hold a lot of meaning today, but it was a big deal through the early ’00s. Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Chimaira, and Unearth were generally regarded as the faces of this “wave,” although it could encompass bands like All That Remains, God Forbid, and Trivium. Further back than that, it also would have included Machine Head and Biohazard, since the term was originally meant to refer to what it seems to: a wave of American bands playing uniquely American metal. However, with metalcore’s rapid ascent in the states, the term became shorthand for the exploding New England scene, and took on a kind of stigma. Some bands considered part of the wave are groovier, some more melodic, and some more commercial, but really, a NWOAHM band tends to be a little of each, and to follow the hard verses/soft choruses format. Before entering the studio, The Agony Scene claimed they wouldn’t be stressing over genre or commercial viability. They would write what they wanted. They had also just jumped to Roadrunner Records, a prominent label for commercially-viable metalcore bands during the ’00s, but you can draw your own conclusions.
What matters is the quality of the music, and The Darkest Red is rock-solid metalcore and a better example than most of the NWOAHM. The Agony Scene’s melodeath influence is relegated to the backburner, but it comes through now and again. Some saw this change as a dumbing-down of The Agony Scene’s sound, but the album demonstrates an overall better feel for structure and progression than prior, even if some songs do adhere a little too slavishly to the verse-chorus-verse format (“Screams Turn To Silence,” “My Dark Desire”). The trade is that the band can work on the details without worrying too much about the big picture, and put vocalist Mike Williams right up front where he belongs. His screech was a distinctive piece of The Agony Scene, but like most other “AttheGatescore” vocalists, he was really just ripping on Tomas Lindberg. On The Darkest Red, however, his voice is grimy, insectile, and pretty damn unique, injecting even the album’s most generic passages with personality. The guitarwork goes straight for the throat. It’s all-American groove from the title track onward, whether the subtle bends in the chorus of “Scars of Your Disease” or the death metal inflections of “Suffer” and “Scapegoat,” the album’s most straightforwardly aggressive bangers, and an intriguing glimpse at a different Agony Scene. If one was to remove Williams’ warbly singing (serviceable, but a sore spot), The Darkest Red would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their last album in terms of sheer heaviness, although it may be of a different shade, and is certainly the most varied and experimental album in The Agony Scene’s brief discography.
Access to better production values and marketing means compromise, but what we forget is that there’s usually room for it. A little extra vocal range and sleeker guitarwork doesn’t take away from the energy of The Darkest Red’s ten tracks (well, nine and “Prelude,” a minute of noise), nor do these things obscure the fact that The Agony Scene are clearly proud of what they accomplished. Shortly after their follow-up album Get Damned, a superficially punk-influenced metalcore record, The Agony Scene called it quits. Then, around 2014, they began hinting at a new record and began playing shows again. Their setlists are culled mainly from The Darkest Red, songs over a decade old that they still enjoy playing, and fans still enjoy hearing. The Agony Scene never got as big as some of their NWOAHM peers despite doing all the same things a little better, but truly deserved more than they got. Time will tell if they still have the chops to produce another catchy, heavy slab of metalcore like this, but if they did it once, there’s a chance they can do it again, and claim their place at the forefront of the metalcore resurgence.
The Blinding Light - The Ascension Attempt (2004)
The Blinding Light are usually invoked with a very specific description: “Tom Araya fronting Converge.”
Simply mentioning Converge in the same sentence is shorthand for a particular sonic aesthetic, backed by the fact that The Blinding Light was signed to Jacob Bannon’s label Deathwish, Inc., perhaps the record label for hardcore and metalcore. The distinction of Tom Araya from Slayer means a couple of things, too: Slayer is arguably the premier thrash metal band, even more than the other Big Four under the right circumstances, because they’re the most single-mindedly destructive of their peers, favoring speed and aggression over finesse their entire career. We know what a Kerry King solo sounds like. We also know what Tom Araya sounds like, and that’s the piece that matters. His voice is as integral to Slayer as the solos, and any comparisons to his style is a polarizing matter. Does the thought of his shrill, militaristic bark over Ballou’s nimble riffing sound like the groundwork of a metalcore band worth the time?
The Tom Araya-ite in question is Brian Lovro, ex-frontman of Minnesota hardcore outfit Threadbare prior to The Blinding Light. His style was a more even mix of Drowningman-esque spoken word (Simon Brody cites Threadbare as one of his band’s key influences), aggressive shouts and screams, scarcely resembling the howl he utilizes here. From the first buzzing notes of “Wake Up/The Wind Up,” The Ascension Attempt sounds like it’s at war with itself. This intensity is its defining characteristic, and sometimes its only characteristic--from the granular guitar tone to the lack of any clean vocals or breathing room whatsoever, it’s an approach that might sink a less skilled metalcore band, but that becomes the basis for genre perfection in The Blinding Light’s grasp. Tim Munce and Chad Petit don’t fuck around: they churn out thunderous breakdown after sinuous riff after curb-stomping groove without reprieve, unless you count the off-kilter strumming on “The Wind Up,” “I Can’t Slow Down,” “Hydrant” and “Earth Razor,” moments that recall the most sinister moments of Unruh’s Setting Fire to Sinking Ships.
Out of the sulfurous firepit of The Ascension Attempt, “Routine Seizure” emerges as the clear highlight. While the thrash rings clear on “I Can’t Slow Down” and “Light,” and “Snake Killer” and “Earth Razor” touch on the band’s buried progressive streak, “Routine Seizure” is a splash of acid: over a base of harmonized panic chords, The Blinding Light pour crushing bottom-string chugs, At The Gates-styled riffing; elephantine breakdowns and bloodcurdling cries of “Down on your knees!”; death metal blasts, math grooves, and straight-up grind to cap one of the most breathlessly violent songs in metalcore. Lovro’s manic barks of “swing it to the left / swing it to the right” throughout sound less like dance instructions than death threats, and he might actually be spitting blood by the time the song finds him screaming “Twenty-four hours / three-six-five days / All rise / All right.” It’s a four-minute masterstroke with no equal on The Ascension Attempt. That “Routine Seizure” is positioned so close to the front of the album seems to indicate that The Blinding Light knew what they were doing; so rather than top it, they spend the rest of the album exploring other applications for their sound. “Hydrant” makes the most extensive use of those Converge/Unruh atmospherics, coming across like a mutant offshoot of “They Stretch for Miles” from The Poacher Diaries; a tribute to Threadbare; or even a distant ancestor to Cult Leader’s “A Good Life.”
The Ascension Attempt is profoundly negative music with no need to be more than that. It has no commercial ambition and doesn’t care whether you enjoy it. The Blinding Light’s attitude is more in line with the odium of grind than the rising metalcore scene amid which they formed, but their music champions the character of the scene they so clearly revere--or, as in the case of Lovro or ex-Nodes of Ranvier drummer Josh Ferrie, that they had a hand in establishing. The Blinding Light weren’t a groundbreaking act, but with a sound this fully-realized, there’s nothing left to innovate.
Into the Age of Quarrel: A Retrospective on the Genre's Roots in New York Hardcore
Photo from Groezrock
Up to this point in the American Metalcore Project, we’ve explored many of the forgotten and overlooked gems of the metalcore canon, largely consisting of bands with a hardcore ethos showing their appreciation of metal through their music. Wave two is a different beast. It’s in this wave that the genre becomes a household name, with bands such as Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God (yes, we consider those first three records metalcore), and Shadows Fall leading the charge of commercially-successful groups taking the genre nationwide through MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball, hosted by Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed. These bands are separate from the first wave in the sense that, rather than filtering their metallic influences through hardcore a la Overcast, Bloodlet, and Coalesce, these second wave bands flipped the equation: by and large, these are metal bands with breakdowns. It’s that distinction that often causes a rift between fans of modern metalcore and those familiar with the genre’s beginnings--it’s heavy, it’s got guitar solos, and they play Iron Maiden-style harmonies; it’s gotta be metal, right? While this view is on second-wave bands is, more often than not, correct, it’s also dismissive of the genre’s heritage, and we certainly wouldn’t be doing our jobs correctly if we didn’t make sure to remind you, the reader, of this before diving into second-wave metalcore. In this entry, we’ll take a look at a few key bands and records from hardcore’s most influential scene - New York - in order to analyze where some of metalcore’s key musical ideas originated.
(Disclaimer: while New York hardcore is extremely diverse and full of quality bands, there just isn’t enough time in the world to go over every record from every band from the era. Some honorable mentions are Sick of it All’s Just Look Around, Leeway’s Born to Expire, Judge’s There Will Be Quiet, Indecision’s Unorthodox, Warzone’s Don’t Forget the Struggle, Don’t Forget the Streets, Killing Time’s Brightside, and Merauder’s Master Killer, which you are free to check out for an even more comprehensive understanding of the heavy music of the era).
I know what you’re thinking: “But Cesar, that record already is metalcore!” I hear you. VOD’s acclaimed debut came out on Ray Cappo’s (more on him later) short-lived Roadrunner Records imprint Supersoul in the same year that Earth Crisis came out with Destroy the Machines and only a year after Overcast’s Expectational Dilution, two records that were arguably already more metallic than Vision of Disorder. The most important piece of information in that last sentence is that the record had the distribution power of Roadrunner Records behind it. While it wasn’t yet the juggernaut it would become in the 21st century, this gave the band the opportunity to get into the hands of more young, impressionable teenagers’ hands than it would otherwise.
With this in mind, it’s crucial to recognize the key factor that sets VOD apart from their contemporaries: Tim Williams’ Alice in Chains-influenced singing. Starkweather did it first, but VOD was the band that likely made the style viable in the mid-late 90s. While I can’t be certain if it went over well with the baggy-pants-and-basketball-jersey demographic of the time, it certainly left enough of an impression on bands like Poison the Well and Killswitch Engage, who later brought it to a wider audience; so much so that the trope of the screamed verse followed by a sung chorus remains a staple of the genre to this day. Oh, and the record is absolutely fantastic as well.
Just like VOD, Roadrunner labelmates Madball’s first record, Set it Off, arrived right in the thick of metallic hardcore’s emergence, although the band was in no sense “new”: vocalist Freddy “Madball” Cricien cut his teeth in the early days of his brother Roger’s band, Agnostic Front, when they would play Sunday matinees at CBGB’s, and hardcore icon Vinnie Stigma was a member for over a decade. The band formed in 1988, dropping their debut EP, Ball of Destruction, the following year, as well as their second EP, Droppin’ Many Suckers, in 1992. These two EPs showed flashes of what was to come, but were mostly confined to the classic hardcore vein of AF or Warzone. It wasn’t until their debut full-length that the band’s now easily-recognizable New York groove could be heard.
This is apparent right from the title track, with its hard riffs and thundering rhythm section painting a harsh picture of what life in New York’s once-cold lower East Side was like. While the band was obviously building on the foundation set by their hardcore forefathers, the influence of popular metal bands such as Sepultura, Helmet, and Pantera contributed to a punchier and more aggressive sound that unquestionably set a new template for hardcore kids seeking heavier modes of expression for the next decade. Bands like Hatebreed, Throwdown, and Bury Your Dead straight-up could not exist without Madball opening the door.
I’ll be perfectly blunt here: with a few exceptions (i.e. Slipknot, early Deftones, and early Korn), I think nu metal is absolute garbage. Downtuned-for-the-sake-of-it guitars, corny vocals, cornier lyrics, and an unnecessary hip-hop influence made hard music a laughingstock and sank the overall public opinion of metal. All of this makes me even more skeptical of its recent revival, which has seen a growing number of scenecore acts incorporating its tropes into their music. Some call this “nu-metalcore,” I call it basurington, mostly for all of the same reasons that I despise nu-metal in the first place, but also because Biohazard proved it could be done much, much better almost twenty years earlier.
Biohazard (oh look, another Roadrunner band! Might be good idea to keep an eye on that label) dropped Urban Discipline in the fall of 1992, a full two years before Korn released their game-changing debut. Biohazard blended elements of metal, hardcore, and hip-hop to produce a music unlike anything any band was doing at the time. They were essentially playing a form of nu-metalcore (ugh) a full twenty years before Suicide Silence and Of Mice & Men decided that they weren’t embarrassed of their Slipknot collection anymore. The difference between those two bands and Biohazard is that Biohazard’s music has considerably more street cred thanks to the band’s roots in pre-Giuliani New York, at the time a far cry from the tourist attraction it has become. Right from opening track “Chamber Spins Three,” vocalist Evan Seinfeld’s lyrics and vocal inflections parallel golden-age hip-hop: “It's a motherfuckin' homicide, just deserts / A shotgun painted right where it hurts / From the inside, the ones you can trust / You got connected to a serious bust.” This merger of metal aggression, hardcore grooves, hip-hop bars, and a dose of nu-metal’s one, lasting innovation on “Loss” and “Disease” - the introduction of vulnerability to tough-guy music - isn’t too dissimilar from the concept of nu-metal and its offspring. Biohazard just have the grit and authenticity to make it worthwhile.
Youth of Today are probably the most ideologically important hardcore band to come out of New York. Started by vocalist Ray Cappo and guitarist John Porcelly, two straight edge kids from suburban Connecticut (which technically makes them CTHC, but the brunt of their impact was felt in the New York scene) with the goal of starting a band that was distinctly and unapologetically straight edge at a time when it wasn’t in vogue, the band basically catalyzed the youth crew movement. This wave of bands was characterized by fast, melodic hardcore inspired musically by bands like 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, and SSD (Society System Decontrol), such as Gorilla Biscuits, Chain of Strength, BOLD, and Judge.
With the exception of Judge, none of these bands, including YOT, had any discernable metal influence; what Youth of Today controversially brought to hardcore was veganism, specifically with their music video for the song “No More” off their second LP, We’re Not In This Alone. The video, which is described by Scott Winegard of Texas is the Reason as having “basically sold everybody on vegetarianism,” was the chief factor in the popularization of veganism in the ’90s. Youth of Today are almost single-handedly the reason it continues to define a large piece of the hardcore lifestyle. Think about it: Earth Crisis, Racetraitor, Indecision, and other vegan metalcore bands, while active throughout the ’90s, did not adopt veganism as a core tenet of their ideology; the fact that Youth of Today did drastically changes the message, and perhaps even the sound, of their music.
Additionally, the rawer, more accessible lyrics and sonic aesthetic the band employed made the genre more digestible to those who didn’t live in a squat on the Lower East Side. Walter Schreifels, who played on this LP as well as in Gorilla Biscuits and post-hardcore pioneers Quicksand, testifies that even though “[he] wasn’t tough…[and] wasn’t gonna hang out on the Lower East Side taking drugs,” Youth of Today provided an avenue “to be about the music and about the message.” Furthermore, the band didn’t give off the hardened, rough-and-tumble impression of many of their predecessors. Instead of dressing in overalls and wifebeaters, Youth of Today’s youth crew dressed in varsity jackets, shorts, and basketball shoes, arguably softening the transition for those that didn’t relate to the tough look of Agnostic Front and Warzone. Youth of Today created a sound and message that was easier for suburban kids to digest, inspiring those that didn’t live on the harsh streets of New York to pick up instruments and start a band.
I’m not even gonna bullshit you with some high vocabulary blurb on this one: the Cro-Mags changed everything with this record. Before it, hardcore was just a faster, more aggressive version of typical punk rock: loud power chords played at manic speeds for songs usually lasting between ten seconds to maybe a minute and a half. Even Agnostic Front followed this template on their debut, Victim in Pain, compared to their second record Cause for Alarm. Then the Cro-Mags dropped The Age of Quarrel, altering the landscape of the genre forever. While they weren’t the first hardcore band to take advantage of their metal influences (Black Flag showed their appreciation for Black Sabbath on My War about two years earlier), Cro-Mags took influence from early thrash metal bands such as Metallica, as well as Black Sabbath, to draw a crunchier and more focused blueprint for the metallic hardcore movement of the following decade. Songs like “We Gotta Know” and “Malfunction” introduced slower and more methodical pacing to a genre that was known at the time for breakneck chords progressions. Additionally, the band took influence from DC’s Bad Brains, introducing reggae breaks that created the foundation for metalcore’s most maligned and recognizable trait: the breakdown.
As we move into a chapter of the genre that hews closer to metal than hardcore ever dared before, much emphasis is placed on the influence of European metal on the American metalcore scene; and while we do see an increasing number of bands mining the Swedish melodic death metal scene for inspiration both cited and uncited, we often lose sight of the innovations happening right at home. For that reason, it seemed important to take a moment to ground ourselves in the past and take inventory of those innovations--because, in wave two and beyond, the hell that Vision of Disorder, Madball, Biohazard, Youth of Today, and the Cro-Mags raised in New York will have just as important a role in the evolution of metalcore as At the Gates and In Flames across the pond. We’re only about a third of the way into this journey through the history of one of the most important genres in heavy music, so we hope that you’ll continue on with us. We have such sights to show you.
Racetraitor - Burn the Idol of the White Messiah (1998)
The moment a band releases a song or statement that might be perceived as “political,” I guarantee an influx of otherwise silent fans complaining, on whatever avenues available to them, that the band have somehow overstepped their boundaries as musicians. These kinds of complaints--“stick to what you know,” and all variations of--frequently and hilariously disregard the fact that the people in the band are people who, more often than not, are as affected by what goes on in the political sphere as their listeners. It also disregards the possibility that politics and government may, in fact, be what the band know--and to that end, has there ever been a band for whom this was truer than Racetraitor?
If their name and the title of their debut album, Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, didn’t state the point clearly enough, Racetraitor are a band for whom political statements are not confined to moments of reactionary activism, but an ethos by which they strictly abide. Their name, “a pejorative term...used by white American racists” to mock individuals who use the “social and economic privilege” granted them by their race “to create a more egalitarian world,” was claimed as way for the band to subvert the term and diminish its power, as they used it as a moniker under which to espouse their fiercely progressive, egalitarian worldview. In addition to issues of racial injustice, Racetraitor were also outspoken on matters of corporatism, sexuality, and colonialism, and were aligned with both straight-edge culture (the militant variety, of course) and taqwacore, a subdivision of hardcore music played by Muslims with the intent to interrogate the culture of Islam through the lens of punk music. Some of the album’s most electrifying musical moments occur on “Dar Al-Harb,” whose Arabic title is tricky to decipher, but illuminating: on one hand, its direct translation seems to be “house of war,” but the term can also connote a place where the rule of Islam goes unpracticed. This, in turn, connote a “place of heathens.” Most interestingly, some interpret the word as “house of the west,” whose meaning requires no explanation; and which, when conflated with these other definitions, paints quite a negative picture.
This is basis enough for a disputative following, but Racetraitor weren’t shy about meeting the controversy they courted head-on: live shows often turned to “heated arguments” between audience members or the band and audience members, and Racetraitor were known to encourage fans to write to and raise funds for controversial political activist, suspected New Black Liberation Militia member, and convicted arsonist Fred Hampton Jr. while serving prison time in the 90s. They were known to call audience attendees “crackers,” too, although the band clarified that this was in reference to “those who ‘crack the whip’...those who simply perpetuate racism and exploitation in their day-to-day lives” rather than an evocation of racial tension--although, one imagines that to be a very narrow line to walk in the emotionally-charged hardcore scene.
Although the band broke up after a brief, tumultuous career that saw only one EP following Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, they carried their ideologies into future projects, sometimes intact, as for frontman Mani Mostofi:
Mostofi briefly played in a Chicago band called the Enemy that recorded but never released a full length on Indecision Records. When members of the Enemy joined Rise Against and Shai Hulud, Mani formed the Kill Pill. After the Kill Pill, he went on to complete an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He continued his activism in the anti-war and Palestinian rights movements and traveled to the Middle East extensively. More recently, Mostofi earned a JD at Fordham Law School in New York with an emphasis in international law and works as a human rights researcher and advocate.
Sometimes, it went on in more sublimated fashion. While guitarist Karl Hlavinka went on to play with Killtheslavemaster and then Pittsburgh cyber-mathcore freaks Creation Is Crucifixion, Racetraitor’s drummer and fill-in bass player switched gears to found a successful pop-punk band. Their third record included a song based on the trial and conviction of Fred Hampton Jr., arranged so that the verdict appears wrongful. This is that song. Take a minute. Mm-hm. As difficult as it may be to wrap your head around it (it certainly came as a shock to me), Fall Out Boy are direct descendants of Racetraitor through Andy Hurley and Pete Wentz. The family tree extends even further than that, as Wentz also fronted metalcore band Arma Angelis, alongside some other notable names the American Metalcore Project will cover a little later. Hurley currently plays in Sect XVX with Chris Colohan of legendary Canadian sludge/crust outfit Cursed, proving that his stint at the top of the charts hasn’t diminished his passion for forward-thinking heavy music in the least.
And, for their time, Racetraitor were ahead of the game. I don't think there's much use in trying to differentiate these tracks sonically, as they're all of an arid, scorching piece with one another; but listening to them in the current metalcore climate, you’ll hear how Burn the Idol of the White Messiah precipitates many of the sludge-drenched hardcore bands currently making waves, such as Jesus Piece, Left Behind, Heavens Die, God’s Hate, and more. Even exceeding our reach a little to peek into Racetraitor’s demo, their early fusion of grind and powerviolence is remarkably similar to the trends of only a few years ago, when bands like Weekend Nachos and Full of Hell were setting fire to the scene. White Messiah plays like a demolition in seven parts, one crushing breakdown after the next, interspersed with the sort of hardcore riffing that is so fast and punishing that precision falls by the wayside. The lack of variation from track to track can be grating, but nothing about Racetraitor, from their ideology to the style of hardcore they play, should be anything less than difficult listening--even their production is lofi and raw, reducing Andy Hurley’s snare to a vicious popping, like distant gunfire, and their guitar tone to garrote-wire. Metalcore vocalists are rarely as frightening as Mostofi, whose venomous roar sounds as if it's bursting through an overdriven PA system. While the 2017 remix/remaster does a lot to clean up the overall sound of the record, the shell-shocked production of the original disc is too aesthetically appropriate not to experience.
Racetraitor were the political metalcore band, and remain one of the very best at aligning message and music into a cohesive, corrosive whole. I pay attention to artwork--especially for a band like Racetraitor, for whom the manner of conveyance is historically just as important as the message conveyed, the images they choose to represent them speak volumes as to their disposition. The cover of Burn the Idol of the White Messiah is a close-up of a bone joint and Arabic script over a red background, divided by the band’s name; fitting for an album of lurid contrasts and ugly exposure. At the time this entry of the American Metalcore Project was conceived, Racetraitor’s discography spanned only their demo, this full-length, and the Make Them Talk EP, but has since expanded to include the By the Time I Get to Pennsylvania flexi disc in September 2016, and the Invisible Battles Against Invisible Fortresses EP, which dropped in July. Pennsylvania’s cover depicts snake handling, and Invisible Battles, the Battersea Power Station. Religion and the ruin of capitalism are still in Racetraitor’s crosshairs, but there are many more insidious forces still to confront.
Undying - The Whispered Lies of Angels (2000)
Although it’s been some time since anyone has accused Between the Buried and Me of being a metalcore band, they certainly once were. You’d have to backtrack to The Silent Circus and their self-titled to really hear it, but even then, it’s disguised in so much prog and technical dazzle that it’s never more than a foundation laid and filled in on two previous projects: Prayer For Cleansing, and Undying. Dyed-in-the-wool metalcore bands, Prayer For Cleansing are an intriguing project in their own right, but both Tommy Rogers and Paul Waggoner, Between the Buried and Me’s longest-running and arguably best-known members, got their start in North Carolina’s Undying.
The band’s flagrant use of melody set them apart from the onset, but it’s got very little to do with the Gothenburgization of American metalcore Killswitch Engage ushered in. Although Killswitch were one of the first metalcore bands to openly embrace major chords and clean vocals in the context of vitriolic hardcore, Undying provide an alternative route that begins in the propulsive vein of Strongarm and strays close to Swedish guitar heroics without quite crossing the threshold into European worship. If there’s a Swedish band they do seem to reference, it’s more Dissection than At the Gates or In Flames. In fact, there’s a bit of a spiritual kinship between Undying and Dissection, as they’re both a little offbeat in relation to their respective music scenes--vocalist Timothy Roy’s frantic rasp sometimes even pushes Undying in the direction of the melodic black metal Dissection built their name on, although this seems more accidental than intended, evidence of a similar creative spark at work in a parallel medium.
Don’t expect the hyper-technical bombardments of Waggoner’s later project or to hear Rogers sing or play keyboard: Waggoner sticks to the metalcore framework of big leads, shred riffs, and breakdown (although there is a refreshing lack of guitar chugging), and utilizes major chord progressions very frequently. Rogers, on bass, is less audible--more a consequence of limited technology thanks to the album’s DIY recording, but also an early sign that the age of the inaudible bass guitar was dawning in 2000. Even more so than in Between the Buried and Me, then, Waggoner is the dominant force in Undying, establishing the tone of the record from “Echoes” onward and guiding the listener along the cutting edge of melodic metalcore in the early '00s.
Undying were both vegan and straight-edge, lifestyle choices that hardcore bands generally seem to have a hard time keeping to themselves. But you’d never know, as even a glance at the lyric sheet doesn’t give much away. Their worldview is cleverly submerged in the austere terminology of black metal and obscured by its sonic footprint, as in the following excerpt from “The Company of Storms”:
when nighttime stars flicker with grief and despair
and dusk threatens senses too dazed to stay clear
their heavens will beckon,
and angels will whisper my name
wings of scarlet hue, their truth soaked in blood
And what is that worldview? From the title of the album to a tracklist that includes such doomsaying as “Tears Seven Times Salt” and “The Coming Dark Age,” to their fusion of dramatic melodeath harmonies with brash hardcore sincerity, the band’s vegan/straight-edge beliefs form the basis for a very blunt artistic statement: through the poisoning of our bodies, our callous disregard for the natural world, and our insistence on using up rather than making do, we're destroying ourselves. The hidden track at the end of the album seems to reinforce the point: apart from being a great song in its own right, their cover of My Dying Bride’s “The Cry of Mankind” is a sort of philosophical exclamation point that's rather short on hope:
I will make them all lie down
Down where hope lies dying
With lust, you're kicking mankind to death
We live and die without hope
You tramp us down in a river of death
As I stand here now, my heart is black
I don't want to die a lonely man
It's performed in Undying's signature black-metal-meets-melodic-hardcore style, and excels: the original's lonesome keyboard is transmuted into a downright elegiac guitar melody, and the song's runtime is halved from twelve minutes to six, making it more digestible without sacrificing its eerie power. Although it lacks the fervor of earlier tracks, it's shocking how well the song's miserable tread fits the Undying sound (and vice versa). Through the prism of this song's epic condemnation, rather than the uplifting empowerment or anger of their contemporaries, the major chords and upbeat nature of The Whispered Lies of Angels take on fascinating new dimensions. Very few bands nailed this frills-and-all style of melodeath-inspired metalcore as well as Undying, and it's hard to say whether anyone ever quite managed to do it better.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!