FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 56: Life Of Agony – River Runs Red

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 56: Life Of Agony - River Runs Red

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 56: Life Of Agony – River Runs Red

This is the fifty-sixth entry of my blog series ‘First Impressions.’ In each entry of the series I write about discovering an influential or genre-classic album for the first time and then write about that experience in a semi-planned, semi-stream of consciousness manner that is less helpful than a traditional album-review, but which does contain more personal flavour.

I prefer my reviews to be serious and informative. ‘First Impressions’ allow for a more director’s commentary approach. I can be silly and talk bollox, or make points that only a handful of people will understand. Usually I will deliver insights into my history with similar music as well as into how my mind works and how both of these things change over time.

You will have to either possess a fairly detailed understanding of Rock and Metal history and Subgenre conventions or have a second tab open at Wikipedia to fully follow every single point that I make, but don’t let that put you off…I’m not honestly expecting you to know every single riff or tone I’ll point out off by heart.

If you want your own First Impressions article done, just suggest it in the comments. I’ll give anything a shot.

This time I’ll be listening to Brooklyn based Metallic Hardcore band Life Of Agony’s 1993 debut album River Runs Red.

Hey, I did one NWOBHM album and that started a little trend, same goes with Prog Metal, and Hair Metal. I almost started a proto-punk thing with the Stooges and MC5 but both were so unappealing to my sensibilities that it put me off exploring any further. (…And I could almost add Power Metal to that list if I ever get around to publishing my half-written Stratovarius: Visions First Impressions article to match the Gamma Ray and Helloween articles …and the almost definitely incoming Dragonforce and Angra albums). It now looks like adding to the Downset and Madball FIs is another 90s Hardcore-meets-Metal album. Maybe I’ll do more. Maybe I’ll finally get around to Scratch The Surface, who knows?

I am one for starting subgenre-based trends of album listening after all. Regular readers will know already, but for those newer readers who maybe haven’t consumed ever article and early post on the whole blog, I’ll let you into my process with new music. Usually, I get a notion in my head. Something like “I want more band documentaries” or “I want more live DVDs” and I get the ones I want, then I try some highly recommended ones I don’t want. I’m a sucker for the economics of the long tail. “If you liked Rishloo, then check out Fair To Midland” “OK. I think I will!” …Anyway. That usually sparks off a subgenre obsession. I then listen to all of the biggest and most important bands in that subgenre, and then a few of the forgettable ones too until I’ve had my fill and the itch has been scratched.

So for example; I wanted to see more documentaries back in about 2009 because I enjoy Chimaira’s documentary so much, so I ended up trying out Killswitch Engage’s documentary even though at the time I actually disliked the band, the documentary made me like the band. I get into them. I get into Metalcore. I then go and pick up all the Killswitch and Hatebreed and get into new bands off the back of it like Shadows Fall and Lamb Of God and Trivium and then that filters down to Rise To Remain and Parkway Drive and Five Finger Death Punch and re-exploring Devildriver (I got their debut when it was new but didn’t listen to anything else until Pray For Villains reminded me of how good they could be). So I get all the way through that (and Bring Me The Horizon and Architects) until the point where when I try any other Metalcore (like God Forbid, or All That Remains, or Sylosis, or Bleed From Within, or Bullet For My Valentine, or Avenged Sevenfold) it stops even going in, because my brain is so utterly choked up with bands from that subgenre that it can’t create any more space, and then I can stop.

That’s one part. Another thing that happens is that I like to organize albums, even in my own mind, chronologically, and never, ever alphabetically. It was easy enough to make that happen back when I was just placing my CDs on my shelf, but when I finally moved with the times and started listening to music on the computer and Mp3 players, they tended to get automatically organized alphabetically and I didn’t enjoy that much. So. Back in about 2007 I came up with the idea of renaming every album with a number in front so that the alphabetic and chronological would be the same. Eg “01 Black Sabbath, 02 Paranoid, 03 Master Of Reality, 04 Vol. 4” etc.

So generally, I get a new album, one in a long line of subgenre exploration, and rip it (usually on a semi-broken PS3; up until Amazon’s excellent new Autorip service started, that is), then go edit all the info, rename it, make sure it always has artwork, change the genre to the format I like, which is now GENRE (APPROVED SUBGENRE) so for example “Metal (Metalcore)” or “Punk (Pop-Punk)” or “Rock (Classic Rock)” …which I did because I was sick of all the different types of metal not being beside eachother… y’know, cuz like, Thrash Metal and Death Metal are not close on the alphabet and get interrupted by things like Grunge and that feels like bad filing to me, get me bruv?

After all that palava has happened, I usually add comments, so that I can quickly make excellent iTunes smart-playlists. This will usually be something like “Ballad” “Black Sabbath Cover” “Ross Robinson” or whatever else kind of way that you could choose to stick things together with in playlist form. You add that comment and then you start a smart-playlist based around “comments contains” and hey presto, all the ballads in one setlist, all the covers in one playlist. Then when you get new music, you just add the comments and the playlist is automatically updated.

So, if a track has a guest star, I’ll make a comment like “Featuring ARTIST of BAND,” eg. “Featuring Phil Anselmo of Pantera.” It was when doing this sort of thing that I noticed I’d made a mix-up regarding this album…

I don’t know that much about Life Of Agony. Before today, my mental flashcard for Life Of Agony only had the following info on it: “90s. Hardcore or related. Roadrunner Best Of album designed like Deicide and Madball. Classic album: red circle in blue square. Keith Caputo/Mina Caputo. ….Whitfield Crane?”

To tell you the truth I know so little about them that I half bought this album by mistake, or at least, I was confused. I thought that it had a collaboration with Phil Anselmo on it. River Runs Red. It turns out that that collaboration was not on ‘River Runs Red,’ but rather on ‘By The River.’ …by Vision Of Disorder. It’s a double fuck up, because I meant to try out V.O.D and L.O.A’s classic albums River Runs Red and Vision Of Disorder (Purple Background, Green droplet artwork) but I’ve confused them into one album, that’s not even that album, because ‘By The River’ isn’t on Vision Of Disorder’s self-titled debut, its on Imprint, their second album, not the one in all those greatest albums lists that caught my attention. Woops.

…and to be honest I think I’ve mixed the Whitfield Crane thing up with Will Haven on the album where Grady didn’t sing.

I only even noticed the error when I tried to edit the comments section in my iTunes to say “Featuring Phil Anselmo of Pantera” and going on Wikipedia to see which track it was on, and found myself realizing my mistake. Woops. I guess I’m just such a fan of boxsets, like the one this came in (all their 90s albums, and a live album) and of Amazon’s autorip service that allowed me to download the mp3 versions instantly but still have the CDs posted instead of having to choose (Amazon’s “have your cake and eat it service) that I was too blinded by desire for musical aquisistion. Something most other people won’t find a problem seeing as normal people don’t even buy music anymore anyway. Whatever. I just spent about £20 on a Rishloo vinyl. But then I don’t drink or smoke, or drive anymore, or go to restaurants, or pay for a gym membership, or in general enjoy going most places that cost money, so its not like I’m throwing my last few pennies away on something I should have the discipline to do without. Most of my friends earn or get given much more money than me and complain about always being skint, but that’s mostly because of the combined cost of car insurance and smoking so much weed. That’s when you go to spotify. I think everyone spends about the same percentage of their money on their hobby, its just that some people’s hobby is getting wasted. But we’re getting off the point here, the point is I confused LOA with VOD (which I in turn mixed up two albums by), but its ok, becuase I was planning on checking out LOA anyway.

I guess the two are easy to confuse though, maybe not interchangeable, but with enough similarities that its not totally embarrassing to mix them up. Its not like I mixed up Deicide with Blink 182. Or Brittany Spheres with a cook book. Or burping with the laws of thermodynamics. There’s at least similarity here; in as much as they are both 90s albums, both classic albums, both metallic hardcore, both on Roadrunner, both are mentioned by Steve Hill on podcasts I listen to. Its probably like mixing up The Legacy with Bonded By Blood. I mean, Baloff sounds nothing like Chuck Billy, but its both classic 80s Bay Area Thrash at least.

The album is apparently a dark, despair-soaked concept album about hopelessness and suicide. I guess that’s a little like The Downward Spiral. Heck, even Holywood ends that way (count to six and shoot yourself in the head). I don’t know why, but I usually quite enjoy songs about suicide. Chimaira’s ‘Lazarus’ and Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Suicide Season’ are two utterly wonderful tracks for example.

Keith Caputo also apparently has been very influenced by Pete Steele, and the songs are meant to be like a mixture of that whole Madball, Biohazard, Downset kind of sound, with a Type O Negative sort of vibe to it, only without the silliness.

I’ve also heard something along the lines of “like Sick Of It All but for Doom Metal fans.” That sounds interesting. Doom is close to Stoner. If somebody said “Biohazard for Kyuss fans” I’d certainly be intrigued. Although I am pretty intrigueable…If they said “Gamma Ray for Pantera fans” I’d be intrigued. If they said “W.A.S.P for Powerman 5000 fans” I’d be intrigued. If they said “The Libertines for Rishloo fans” well, I’d be confused as hell, but I’d be intrigued.

After a week of listening to tons and tons of Children Of Bodom, working more hours than usual, sleeping less hours than usual, and still managing to watch two entire seasons of Friday Night Lights in between, I’m ready for some Doomy Hardcore. Lets do this, go Panthers!


The album opens up a track called ‘This Time,’ with a squeak crunch that reminds me of Sepultura and Pantera, I think its probably the sound of a Solid State amplifier though, since Dime said that was responsible for his tone. It then bounces into a punky hardcore section that reminds me of Hatebreed’s punky ‘The Language’ off of their new album, then it morphs into a slow, sludgey, Doom riff but with that 90s sort of Machine Head/Fear Factory hanging thing going on. Think of the very slowest parts of ’13 Steps To Nowhere,’ where it sounds like the song is about to throw up due to sea sickness.

The drums cut out to just hi-hat and the life cuts from chords to single notes, all bendy, full of a bluesy-doomy Sabbath style, where you can see the movement of the guitarist’s fingers clearly in your mind’s eye. Its very reminiscent of Down.

The vocals come in. Its interesting, they’re interesting. It’s a weird mix, Layne Stayley influences are clear, the same way they are clear on Zack Wylde’s and Ryan McCombs’ voices. There is also a distinctly Pete Steele flavour to them. Undeniable. It feels odd listening to something that sounds like a mixture of Urban Discipline, NOLA, and Burn My Eyes being sang over by this hurt, soulful, deep voice.

The drums double back on themselves in tom-based beats like Biohazard’s ‘Switchback’ and then all of a sudden the song speeds up from its doomy pace into a chorus. It’s a very fun chorus, its got shades of RATM and Clutch to it, but it also reminds me a little bit of ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend’ a little bit.

After the chorus, there is a long ring out, and some swinging solo-hi-hats, while Keith sings out. It really reminds me of a bit on Biohazrd’s ‘Disease’ just before a slidey bass part, and also of Mudvayne’s ‘Severed’ where Kud sings woundedly after a heavy part.

It then builds up with another solid state scratching, then drops in a guitar solo over the doom riff. This song is very enjoyable. It could’ve maybe done doing the solo over an extended reprise that punk bit from the start of the song, but an extra long version of the chorus after the solo balances out the slow/fast ratio nicely, and then the mid-paced double-kicks come in and Keith starts getting a bit Burton C. Bell in the cleans, bringing about a really satisfying end.

‘Underground’ follows, opening up with a vocal only intro that reminds me of Undertow era Maynard James Keenan (and actually, a little bit like ‘Lost Keys’ too, its got a sort of religious ceremony vibe to it), then a really dense, punishing sort of jagged, staccato riff (that may not be in 4/4, it sounds a little different). That’s followed by a vey BLS sounding straight forward version of that riff. It speeds up into a damn catchy part with ‘When will it end?’ repeated, and then drops to a crawl into a part that sounds a little reminiscent of the bass and drums parts of hardcore that influenced the parts of albums like The Impossibility Of Reason and Alive Or Just Breathing. Y’know what I mean? It kind of sounds like an engine. The chorus comes in, its very catchy, the vocals totally make it. There’s a double-kick part and then a long voice only sustained note over musical silence (like I always love). Y’know what, I’m actually detecting a slightly Slipknot-debut thing going on in this song, it sounds like they might’ve been fans. After that long hang, they crash back into a funereally paced, jagged ‘duhn dun, duhn dun, duhn dun’ that reminds me of Pantera a hell of a lot. Think of the slower Pantera parts, like ‘Hard Lins, Sunken Cheeks’ or those bits in ’25 Years’ that just go ‘Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun.’ Y’know…. Distorted stab. Silence. Distorted stab. Silence. Distorted stab. Silence. Maybe even Sepultura’s ‘Propaganda’ too. They then start rumbling up, teasing the chorus and then yay, there it comes. This is the sound I wanted when I bought Prong. Oooh. Then a big breakdown, with a nice leady tail, then just a full on solo, starting on the breakdown, but then repeating the vocal pattern of the chorus. It then ends sort of abruptly, as the track ‘Monday’ interrupts.

Its got that concept album interlude thing. Sound effects, dialougue. Answer phone messages. I mean these appear as intros to normal songs all the time too. Megadeth’s ‘1,000 Times Goodbye’ does it and Stone Sour did it on their debut. But yeah, it is kind of associated with concept albums.

The title-track ‘River Runs Red’ burst out, all catchy vocals and speed, then it sort of falls over after a Machine Head sounding bit, and starts to find its feet again. Its either very proggy and complex or it’s a bit of a mess, but either way, I really didn’t get it properly or even truly hear it all correctly on this first pass. Maybe repeat listens will demystify it. Well, it was less that two minutes long anyway.

‘Through And Through’ follows that up. It again starts off with a bit of an Undertow vibe again, then this big dirty Chords buzzes out that is very reminiscent of ‘The Underground In America’ by Pantera and with that, the song changes its direction entirely, into this bouncy catchy thing, with a sort of John Otto groove you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I mean I guess Downset did do a few too and Biohazard were always good for some, but its still a bit of a surprise here in context. Then it keeps jumping part by part between Doom parts, bouncy parts and interrupting Maynard hauntings. After about one mintute ten it goes into this uplifting sort of build up that is really driving but then that soon keeps stopping and starting. Its kind of confusing on the ears. They’re a bit Protest The Hero on it, chopping and changing and having loads of cool little bits that don’t last very longs. There’s a really cool flappy thing around the end.

‘Words And Music’ starts vocal only and goes into more of that Biohazard’s slow intro/Machine Head’s slow outro thing. Then it does more of that constantly switching between a mid-paced or slightly fast bit but dropping to a crawl. There’s quite a few Madball/Biohazard style gang vocal chants. A solo comes in in a slightly unexpected place. It drops to absolute slowness and misery with the ‘at the funeral’ part o the story, then continues in the dark version of Madball vein before ‘Thursaday,’ which is another dialogue and sound effects story interlude, comes on. Its about twice as long as the first one. Ok. First the main character’s girlfriend dumps him, then here he’s just got fired. Fired for missing work to go to his friend’s funeral. The whole time his stepmother, the wife of his absentee father, is screaming abuse at him. I can see where this is headed. Especially since I already read the ending. Its all a bit American Idiot and Saint Jimmy seems to be headed up towards the bay, if you follow me. Oh. Listen to that voicemail. You aren’t graduating high school this year. …yup. Cheerful stuff. All in all, its just another brick etc.

‘Bad Seed’ starts in with some creepy wind and keyboards, it feels like it could head in a Marilyn Manson direction or a Cradle Of Filth direction. It actually heads in a Down direction though. I could reasonably imagine Phil Anselmo singing over this. Then a weird thing happens, they start playing the riff from ‘Vicarious’ by Tool, only with a sort of Dimebag production and finger-flavour to it. Ok. Its not that similar really, but it reminds me of it. Oh. The riff that follows up is cool though. It sounds fun as hell to play. Then another change. A bit more Chaos AD. Swapping between a Kyussy stoner riff and some aggressive tom-based Post-Thrash. Then a Madball part. Then a key-backed super slow part that reminds me of Type O Negative a little. The guitar solo sounds very hurt, it sounds like parts in movies when a kid dies. I guess that reflects that reflects the subject matter, if I’m not mistaken the story is that the character is just found out he is a child of a rapist. Then that Sepultura-esque bit back for like ten seconds, before the Kyuss thing. Well, Kyuss via Blind era C.O.C. …Yup. This album is definitely in that 90s Metal braket I was lusting after when I bought Prong. Definitely.

‘My Eyes’ starts next with a sort of out of place Nirvana B-side sound. Its got a bit of an Incestacide sort of a sound initially. Then it transitions into a cool Faith No More holding pattern until these double kick parts that remind me of Five Finger Death Punch’s faster songs on the debut (like ‘Meet The Monster’) and a chanty, thing with this clippy sort of disco beat. This is the most unique thing on the album so far. The vocals are great.

‘Respect’ is a weird mix of the darkest Madball/Biohazard/Downset moments, with more of that Undertow stuff, and a big heap of Type O. Then a pounding thrash bit out of nowhere on for a second and then straight off. Then there’s a fun fast bit, a few repetitions of that Thrash Bit. These are all sounds I’ve heard before, but not always together and never, ever, ever sequenced anything like this. The band’s approach to song structuring is not designed for comfort. We aren’t talking Countdown To Extinction/Black Album style perfect songcraft. Its Jagged, it all about big changes, uneasy bedfellows and drastic juxtaposition.

Side note: Oooh. I just got an email. Won a tenner on the lottery. Pleasant surprise.

‘Method Of Groove’ opens with a sound that really reminds me of modern Kreator (think intro to ‘To The Afterborn’) and modern Slayer (think ‘God Send Death’). The actual riff, is more of that very finger-imagey stuff I was talking about. it’s a bit doomy with the main drum beat, but then they switch it to a tom beat and the mood changes to more of that Killswitch influencing stuff I mentioned. It then comes in with vocals like Downset and Biohazrd, actual rap and NYHC screams. Only they balance it out with gospel keys underneath and then another soulful and catchy chorus in Keith’s usual style. The next time it comes in its followed by this really fun part I can’t even describe, then that gets a solo over the top. I’m all about this song. Its ending is very 90s. Reverby drums carrying on after the music with squealing high feedback.

The last proper song, ‘The Stain Remains’ comes on. It opens like a ballad. It actually reminds me a bit of Limp Bizkit ballads. Turns out its not a ballad. A lot of Gang Chants. Some more of that ‘Switchback Stuff’ then a pounding d-beat 80s hardcore part, then some very churchy sounding stuff. It reminds me of Alice In Chains after that just before the solo comes in, which goes through a few different moods. Then a great mid-paced Thrash part comes in, gets bored and wonders off so a Biohazard part has to come in and clean up after it. It ends and ‘Friday’ begins. He starts smashing up his stepmother’s kitchen. Then he goes, runs a bath and either slits his wrists or his femoral artery (either way there’s a knick, a sharp inhalation and the river runs red (which is playing quietly in the background to remind you)). His stepmother starts screaming as she discovers what’s happened and drops from the tap get louder and louder until it ends.

And that’s the album. It ends not with a bang (nor a whimper as the saying would suggest that I write) but with a slice. I don’t know why I expected a gun-based suicide. Probably just Green Day’s fault. Or Queensryche’s. Yup. Concept album suicides are generally gun based, I guess.

So. That album, how did I feel about it? Hmm. Positively. It had a lot of cool parts, a good production and a singer I really enjoyed. One listen isn’t really enough to pick up on the whole concept side of it though, and to be honest, it did have a few flaws that stopped me being all over it; the two main flaws I found with it were the song structures being a bit unfriendly to the ear and the ratio of more slow parts than fast. That being said however, I liked it a lot, and I’m sure repeat listens will make me like it even more.

I liked the 90sness of it. Its an interesting one. Its still very in the NY-Hardcore zone, but its also very far outside of it on some levels. Just on a personal level I probably would’ve liked it a bit more if it had a bit more of a Clutch or Pepper-C.O.C thing in there too along with the whole “Chaos AD, Far Beyond Driven, Burn My Eyes mash up” aspects, or the baseline of the “Madball/Biohazard but darker” sound. But then again I mean, they already have enough of an edge doing that dark NYHC with the atypical singer, so on the one level I’m satisfied with the Metallic Hardcore with Soulful singing, but the other side is that I’m just searching for something and this wasn’t it exactly. At least it didn’t have any of the parts of Hardcore I don’t like though, the stuff that spoiled the end of the Prong album and much 90s music for me. That’s a bonus. Plenty I like, little I dislike.

Good album. I wonder if I would have enjoyed Vision Of Disorder more or less?

1 Comment

  1. My two favorite NYHC albums of all time… River Runs Red and VOD The Green Album. They couldn’t possible be more different. Both great … I’ll give the nod to VOD…

    Funny thing every album both bands made after those two are ATROCIOUS!


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