Sunday, August 9, 2009

Agnostic Front - Victim in Pain

she says she likes the agnostic front/they've got crazy fast guitars

A definitive attribute of early hardcore was its ability to push boundaries, be they political or musical. Hardcore advocated a different message and a different style with which to promote it, eschewing the almost glam sensitivities of late 70's punk rock for a more stripped down, back-to-basics approach. Shaved heads eclipsed the mohawk, and the ideals of punk shifted from pseudo-counter-culturalism to the notion of a scene based on acceptance (even if it didn't always abide by those ideals).

But as the 80's progressed, it became clear that the new flag-bearers of the hardcore landscape would not be the ones who played it safe and stuck only to the formulas established by the early luminaries of the genre; you can only re-hash Minor Threat so many times before people stop listening. And so hardcore pushed out of its box. Some bands experimented, infusing shots of country and Americana into their approach, crossing boundaries and gaining the closest thing hardcore had had to a major audience yet. Others slowed down the tempo and became more introspective, focusing their songwriting abilities rather than submitting to the 'harder, faster louder' approach borne by earlier bands. And others still went in the exact opposite direction, pushing the envelope in the only way they could, by taking hardcore and making it heavier, faster, louder and more aggressive than ever before. Agnostic Front belonged to this last group.

Unsurprisingly given their playing style, Agnostic Front hailed from New York City, a place whose hardcore scene they eventually helped define (alongside many other local bands) with their blending of grimy, down-turned punk and fast-paced thrash metal heaviness. In 1984, the band broke out with their seminal hardcore album Victim in Pain, which, for better or for worse, was hugely influential in the NYHC scene. This lead to further crossovers between hardcore and thrash metal, not the least of which by Agnostic Front themselves, that, depending on your point of view, either showcase hardcore at its most aggressive and fully realized or at its most mindlessly macho and insular. None of which takes away the fact that, as Victim in Pain shows us, Agnostic Front were a force to be reckoned with.

Listening to the album, the guitars are no doubt the first thing to be noticed. They have a very dark quality to them that seems universal in 80's punk, be it American or British, and the rate at which they're played borders on suffocation. Combined with the forceful and often relentless drumming, the whole package blares about like a sonic buzzsaw. While the song structures are fairly typical for hardcore, there's still something notable in the ferocity with which they're played. And yet, in spite of this when the band relaxes and takes their fingers off the button just a little bit, this results in Agnostic Front's best material. The typical Agnostic Front song volleys back and forth between the aforementioned buzzsaw-style passages and a selection of more measured parts that help to reel in the aggression, and thereby put a manner of emphasis on it. This isn't to say that the occasional straight-up barn-burner isn't there, nor to say that it doesn't absolutely kill - "Hiding Inside" is as strong a song as you'll find from the Agnostic Front. Just to say that when it comes to tracks like "Blind Justice" and "Last Warning", it's the comparably slower sections that make these songs notable, while the blast beat-style drum sections work only to de-sensitize the listener to the song's better sections.

Blink and you'll miss it - eleven songs, fifteen minutes are all that comprise Victim in Pain, but that doesn't make it any less of a hardcore classic. While their songwriting often suffered from immaturity, and while they may not hold up as well to modern ears as some of their more experimental and more influential peers, Agnostic Front still feel like the masters of their own niche: heavier than hardcore, more down-to-earth than metal, and as driven as anyone or anything else out there.

victim in pain


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