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20th March 2015
The Agonist's fourth album, 'Eye of Providence', finally saw the light of day in February this year, following a frustrating three month delay to its originally announced release date. Unlike preceding full-length 'Prisoners', it's a record that's characterised by a greater diversity between songs rather than within songs, and a mood-driven, emotional tour de force that sees the innovatory Canadian metallers diverge into all kinds of sonically heterogeneous modes of expression, while adhering to a more natural and accessible progression within their established aesthetic. And aided by the stylistically and tonally wide range of new vocalist Vicky Psarakis, it's their most affectively expansive effort to date. Booked as main support on Otep's European tour in March, the timing would be perfect for The Agonist to expose their new music, in a live context, to both existing fans and fresh ears, although, without explanation, the American headliners removed themselves from the entire tour at the eleventh hour. Surely the tour was doomed? Not so. In a remarkably quick turnaround time, the majority of shows were salvaged with The Agonist promoted as headline act. And it's when the tour rolled into Manchester that Metal Discovery met up with guitarist Danny Marino to quiz him about what is, indubitably, one of the finest metal records of the twenty first century...
METAL DISCOVERY: So, the tour was nearly cancelled when Otep pulled out but it got salvaged at the last minute…
DANNY: Yeah, well, for us, we’d just put out an album, so to cancel your opening tour right after the album release is suicide… [Laughs] On top of that, we’d already spent so much money in preparation costs for the tour; it was just, like, we’d lose less by doing the tour and we were all excited to do it. There are way more pros than cons to do it than cancel it, so that’s why we did it and I’m pretty happy that we did.
(Danny Marino on new album, 'Eye of Providence')
"...this is the most truthful album we’ve ever done... Sometimes, people presume: “Oh, they’re trying to please more people.” It’s like, no; the truth is, we’re trying to please ourselves."
The Agonist - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2014 Jeroen Aarts Photography - www.jeroenaartsphoto.com
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: You must have a really good booking agent to salvage so many of the dates at short notice.
DANNY: He scrambled as much as he could and he’s taking a hit on this… we all are, in a way, but it’s not all about money, obviously.
MD: Did you have a headline set already rehearsed or did you have to quickly get up to scratch on a few more songs?
DANNY: Luckily, we already did because, right before leaving, we did four shows in Canada which we were headlining. So, luckily, we did have a decent amount of songs ready, so it worked out in that way.
MD: I read that Vicky got ill early on and you had to perform an instrumental show in Budapest. How was that experience?
DANNY: An extremely nerve-wracking experience!
DANNY: She had a cold/flu/general thing for a couple of days and then it seemed really worse in Austria. And we did the show, and it was clear she was struggling on stage. Then, right after that show, it was like, she was really bad. She woke up in her bunk the next morning in a pile of sweat, with a fever. So then we go to the venue and it’s getting really bad and thought, that’s it, we need to get to hospital to see a doctor. They checked her out and... “Your throat and lungs and sinuses are all infected, and you have a forty degree fever.” They told her: “You should just go home.” She said: “Well, we can’t really do that.” They were like: “Well, you have to not sing for a week.” So we had to miss three shows… well, we didn’t miss three shows; she missed three shows and we played instrumental shows. So, basically, three shows in four days, so she didn’t quite sit for a week; she sat for four days.
MD: Did the crowds sing along to the songs?
DANNY: Yeah, it was fun. The very first one, I was totally nervous; I’m like: “What’s gonna happen?” And we just went out there with the best plan we could make, which was to pick different songs that had more going on instrumentally, as well as some instrumental pieces that we had. And we did a lot of crowd interaction during the songs, so as much as we could with the microphones. And we also got Tiran, who’s the singer of Ferium, who’s a fantastic, brutal vocalist, to come and do two songs with us. I mean, he knew the songs because he’d listened to them a lot, but he’d never tried to sing them before. So he did them but, for the singing parts, he would scream them but, also, myself and Paco would backup with melodically singing with it. That’s kind of how we got through.
MD: I guess that’s quite a unique experience for people to see The Agonist in that context.
DANNY: Yeah, some fans came up to us after all of the shows and said the same thing… “It was cool because I felt like I was seeing something that no one else gets to see. And I listened closer to the guitars and stuff, and I could hear things that I didn’t notice were there before.”
MD: The release of ‘Eye of Providence’ obviously got delayed by three months, so I presume that was as frustrating for you guys as it was your fans?
DANNY: Yeah, definitely. Basically, the music was ready, the album was done, but there’s all kinds of other red tape with distribution and printing and marketing and Christmas time – all this stuff that hindered it…
MD: And, I guess, to coincide with doing a tour to support the release.
DANNY: Yeah, that as well.
MD: It was more than worth the wait as I’d say it’s one of the best metal records, thus far, of the twenty first century. So have you been pleased with reactions from both fans and critics?
DANNY: I have. I think, overall, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. From the critics, we’re getting higher reviews than we did on the last album. And the fans seem to be embracing it, from what I can see, at least on social media. You know, things like that to gauge it, and YouTube, and seeing positive versus negative, and it’s definitely highly positive compared to negative.
MD: It’s a lot more immediately accessible than ‘Prisoners’, through both lyrics and music, although the songs are still as innovative…kind of like accessible innovation. So did you compose music, this time, more from the heart than the mind?
DANNY: Definitely. That was pretty much… this is the most truthful album we’ve ever done, I think. And it’s funny because people have used words like that, like: “Oh, it’s more accessible and easier to listen to.” Sometimes, people presume: “Oh, they’re trying to please more people.” It’s like, no; the truth is, we’re trying to please ourselves. On the last albums, there were times when I stopped myself from writing things because I felt that it wasn’t metal enough or it was too much in one direction than another. And, this time, I was just like: “What do you wanna do? The kind of music that really makes you feel something that you listen to and really get off on? You should do that.” So we did that and that’s what the album is.
MD: I think, like I said, the innovation’s still there, it’s just presented in a more accessible way so I don’t think it’s watering down what you’ve done before. I guess that must be hard to do – balancing out accessibility with innovation…
DANNY: Yeah, because sometimes, what you’re doing when you’re writing things and trying to be progressive, it’s like, that’s bad when you’re trying to be progressive.
MD: Then it sounds forced rather than natural.
DANNY: Exactly. It’s like: “Oh, this change from one part to another is so smooth and better to the ear. It’s like: “Well, we can’t do that; we have to make it so that it’s like a harsh change that’s really jarring.” But then you’re just trying… you’re not really creating something unique; you’re trying to be something that you’re not, maybe.
MD: Despite the increased accessibility of the music, I’d say you’re at your most expansive, mood-wise, on the album. So was it important for you to work at conveying a wider range of different moods between each of the songs, and did you feel like you had to really up your game to achieve that?
DANNY: I felt like we did have something to prove on this album and, so, maybe that’s one of the reasons to take some leaps in directions we hadn’t before. But, also, I knew that talent was there; that ability was there and we were hiding it for a long time, because of those reasons I said, that it’s afraid to show that side, maybe, because we might get judged for it. But, now, we also had a singer that is really, really adept in these areas as well, so why not utilise that. On the last track, ‘As Above, So Below’, that’s something that I’ve had for years – those parts, those riffs and things like that. I just finally said: “You know what? Why don’t we just use it for The Agonist?” Simon was like: “Yeah, why not.”
MD: So some passages of music on the album have been hanging around for quite a while?
DANNY: Yeah.
MD: I think the overriding feeling is that the new album takes you on this big emotional journey, as it has so much depth. Would you say that reflects the emotional journey of making the album?
DANNY: Yeah, I think so. Some of the songs are about that, as well. And, so, lyrically and musically, that is expressed in some of the songs. Also, Vicky was put through an extremely stressful scenario of like: “Jump in, here we go.” It’s like: “These are all the songs, let’s write all the vocals now for all of this.... there are deadlines, Century Media Records, international distribution…” You know, all this stuff and, for her, it was like: “Oh my god, the pressure.” But that ended up, I think, it was good. The pressure brought out an urgency and, so, we got a good result from that.
MD: Out of interest, because you’re obviously so close to the music yourselves, do you become detached from your own music after hearing it so many times, or does it still hold an emotional power for you too?
DANNY: I think it does. I end up listening to our albums quite a bit. I’m like that and I know Simon’s like that too. Once we got the final mix and all that, I had it on my phone, in my ears, every day. Part of it was about analysis, but part of it was just I felt good about this; it made me feel good to hear it.
MD: And I guess, by transference, when you play the songs live, you get a different emotional kick out of the music?
DANNY: Yeah, well, especially when I see other people getting an emotional response to it, and that feeds mine.
MD: There’s kind of a refined diversity on the record, this time, rather than some of the wild diversity on ‘Prisoners’, so key motifs in songs have been given a lot more breathing space. Was that, ultimately, a more emotionally satisfying experience to work on these songs than those on your previous three albums?
DANNY: Yeah, I think so, because, on the previous albums, it was a lot more cerebral and it was a lot more: “Oh, that part’s really cool because of this arpeggiated passage of notes… oh, and then it goes to chromatic…” You know, things that are technical, so you’re getting off on that, as opposed to just: “Oh, that make me feel a feeling of fear or anxiety or longing.” You know, something you would get from the music without using your brain. So that was purposeful because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because I have a lot more respect for artists that are able to produce seemingly simpler music but with a very large impact, artistically. It’s still not simple. If I was to name some artists today that I think are like that – Muse or Foo Fighters or something like this. They’re definitely simpler, musically, than we are but it was just getting a bit of that energy into the music.
MD: Interestingly, talking about Muse, they are, in essence, a progressive band but they’ll never get labelled as such because they’ve got such a big fanbase and prog is still not associated with the mainstream.
DANNY: Especially as of late. They definitely did, on the last two albums, simplify the music but they somehow kept the energy and emotion that is what they are; what they’ve created. And that’s what I’m saying – I have most respect for those artists. It’s really not easy.
MD: Have you heard Muse’s new single?
DANNY: Yeah.
MD: What do you think of it?
DANNY: I think it’s pretty cool. I think that I have a feeling that it’s totally not representative of the whole album. I think it’s a very safe song. It has Muse-isms to it.
MD: Bizarrely, a tiny bit like Marilyn Manson in places, too.
DANNY: Yeah. Also, I’m an audiophile and the production is just unbelievable. The sound of the guitars and drums and everything is definitely the best production they’ve ever had. I immediately sent it to Chris Donaldson and was like: “Listen to these drums, dude!”
MD: Can you ever see yourselves going back to the controlled, crazy cacophony of ‘Prisoners’ on future music? Or is it too early to say?
DANNY: I think it is too early. I think it is very possible because I do still like that we did that, and I like elements of that, and I think it is still part of who we are. And so, yeah, maybe on the next album there’ll be a couple of songs that are really, really like that. We have the freedom to do it because we’ve set up a foundation, as a band, that doesn’t have too many barriers.
MD: Exactly. I mean, there are kind of glimpses of that on ‘Eye of Providence’ anyway, just not in abundance like it was on ‘Prisoners’.
DANNY: Yeah. Everything was in abundance on ‘Prisoners’!
MD: In a very good way! It’s an amazing album.