Following last year's delayed release of their fourth album, 'Eye of Providence', The Agonist are already back, a year and a half on, with album number five, on new label home Napalm Records. Aptly titled 'Five', I gather its name holds a more covert meaning beyond mere enumeration, as it points towards profound speculations concerning the fifth element which, in ancient philosophy, dealt with theories on the ether/quintessence. A contemporary definition of "quintessence" is "the most perfect embodiment of something", and that's 'Five' epitomised right there, as The Agonist have struck perfection once again.
First off, I have to say that 'Five' very much feels like a natural progression from 'Eye of Providence'. After all, in essence, The Agonist are a genuinely progressive modern metal band and they've continued to progress their aesthetic on 'Five', into even more diversified territory. However, at the same time, we're not talking diversity in the vein of some of their more aurally challenging, dynamically invigorating previous work. This is lucidly executed diversity which, like 'Eye of Providence', is generally exercised between songs, rather than within songs... yet, the band have pushed their stylistic parameters that bit further, thus it feels like The Agonist's most diverse, yet also most cohesive, album to date.
Two albums back, 2012's 'Prisoners' was the all-out assault on your senses through its incessant bursts of controlled chaotic cacophony and sonic abyss of transcendent technicality and musical innovation. 'Eye of Providence' was the subsequent journey; an emotionally varied ride and exploration through a heterogeneity of diversified stylistic progressions. With 'Five', it feels like The Agonist have arrived at their destination, and the festivities have commenced good and proper. However, that's not to say their journey is over; rather, they've merely stopped for a while, to throw a party and indulge in some boundless musical revelry. And it's the most transcendent of parties, you understand, where they're evidently high on the music of their own parameter pushing proclivities.
I think it's worth mentioning that track ordering on albums should never be taken for granted, and the importance of such should never be underestimated. I'm sure that many bands/artists torture themselves over just what track belongs where, and what song sounds right following another and seguing into the next. For many, there's indubitably a lot of thought, care and attention behind an album's overall structure. It's a fundamental part of its constitution, and is particularly pivotal when listeners start forming opinions on the initial few listens. 'Five' is no exception. If you take the last three Agonist albums and consider the frantically heavy opening of each with 'The Tempest (The Siren's Song; The Banshee's Cry)' on 'Lullabies for the Dormant Mind', 'You're Coming with Me' on 'Prisoners' and 'Gates of Horn and Ivory' on 'Eye of Providence', it's something of an initially jarring experience when 'Five' commences in a more low-key manner with 'The Moment'. Yet, this can be read as a statement of intent for what follows; which is, primarily, expect the unexpected from The Agonist this time around. It also establishes another indication of what's to come - that is, making the simple sound massive. The opening track works off such a simple riff, but within the context of The Agonist's wholly consummate songcraft skills, flawless execution and emotional inherence that's discernible in the performance of each band member, it succeeds in sounding massive.
There's not a single dull moment on 'Five' which is due to, predominantly, its unpredictable variance. Bursts of frantic heaviness on tracks such as 'The Villain', 'The Game' and 'The Resurrection' (which never reach the heights of 'Lullabies...' or 'Prisoners' most frantic moments) are contraposed with far more euphonic, less frenzied heavy passages, and rockier/mellow, parts. Then there's the likes of 'The Wake', a beautifully composed, arranged and executed mid-album orchestral instrumentation, which refreshingly eschews the tiresome tradition where a plethora of metal bands still insist on opening their albums in such a manner. Remember what I said about expect the unexpected? And this piece subtly and cleverly weaves traces of melodies from elsewhere on the album - kind of like a more subtle version of an overture at the start of a musical. Then there's the kind of lounge music, jazzy sultriness of 'The Raven Eyes'; the theatrically-swayed melodrama of 'The Trial'; a magnificent take on Hozier's 'Take Me to Church'; and a melodically sublime David Bowie tribute in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' (which is a more profound tribute than it would first appear as, apparently, the lyrics were written by using Bowie's "découpé" technique).
It's fair to say that the band's songcraft is now firmly placed right at the core of their aesthetic. They're still, of course, a metal band at heart, but don't ever allow genre to dictate the execution of their compositions; rather, they've used different stylistic elements to paint their songs with varying colours and shades. And their sonic canvas, as a corollary, transcends any obvious categorisation. This is why you'll find journalists and other listeners, at least those who feel the need to try and pigeon-hole everything they encounter, struggling to apply any kind of appropriate labels to describe The Agonist's music. And, worse still, those who succumb to the band's inexplicable, erstwhile genre-affiliation with the ever-tainted metalcore affliction. Good luck to all those who attempt to categorise 'Five', and shame on anyone who does.
Performance-wise, all band members are on top form, once again. In particular, sticksman Simon McKay draws upon a more varied array of drumming patterns and techniques than ever before, across a pleasing variance of tempos and time signatures; and guitarists Danny Marino and Pascal "Paco" Jobin's playing is simply refreshing in how they've embellished each composition with a wide range of both techniques and sounds. Then there's Vicky Psarakis' rather awesome vocals - be it the tonality of her screams and growls; the full-on metal might of her powerful clean voice; an occasional venture into melodramatic territory; or her more laidback sultry tones. And everything's been captured wonderfully in a masterful production by Mike Plotnikoff ('Five' is the first album in The Agonist's history where they've not worked with Cryptopsy's Chris Donaldson as producer).
All in all, with 'Five', The Agonist have proven themselves, once more, to be one of the most exciting, refreshing and talented contemporary metal bands. And I'm sure their ever-exciting and ever-interesting creative journey will continue post-'Five', and their aesthetic will progress and expand into other, as yet, unexplored sonic ground. For now, though, let's all revel in the majesty of their latest masterpiece. Album of the year? It's a close call, thus far, between Wolverine, PAIN, Oceans of Slumber, Katatonia, and David Bowie's swan song, 'Blackstar'. But, just maybe...
Review by Mark Holmes
30th Sept 2016
1) The Moment; 2) The Chain
3) The Anchor and the Sail
4) The Game; 5) The Ocean
6) The Hunt
7) The Raven Eyes
8) The Wake; 9) The Resurrection
10) The Villain
11) The Pursuit of Emptiness
12) The Man Who Fell to Earth
13) The Trial
14) Take Me to Church
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"...it's the most transcendent of parties...where they're evidently high on the music of their own parameter pushing proclivities."