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Grin and bear it: Life of Agony rocks Northern Lights. Photo by: Chris Shields

Murder by Numbers

Life of Agony, Flaw, Apartment 26
Northern Lights, Jan. 20

In the early 1990s, the New York City hardcore scene was literally bursting at the seams, and with the release of River Runs Red, Life of Agony went straight to the head of the class. Here was a band that combined the ugly brutality of Sick of it All, the pure metal crush of Master of Puppets-era Metallica, and—this is what set them apart from the pack—a tunefulness that aligned them more with the alternative rock set than any of their NYHC peers. On the strength of River, a genre-defining record if ever there was one, the band broke free of the club circuit and found themselves touring with some of the more prominent metal acts of the mid-’90s. They ultimately imploded after three studio albums, but their legacy left a deep imprint on all of the heavy music to come.

I recall seeing Life of Agony back in ’94 at the late, great QE2. They were just starting to blow up, and the energy in the room was infectious. This is what metal was all about: The crowd was there to blow off steam through dancing, and LOA’s enthusiasm was palpable as well. They were there for the same reason as the kids: to release aggression. Granted, bassist Alan Robert’s songs were chock full of dysfunctional families, failure and the contemplation of suicide, but the smiles on the faces of both the band members and concertgoers belied the gravity of the subject matter.

Fast-forward 10 years to Tuesday night. More than 700 advance tickets were sold for the first date of Life of Agony’s reunion tour and, by showtime, Northern Lights was packed wall-to-wall with a sea of black baseball hats, skullcaps and hooded sweatshirts. This show was a must-see for anyone who even remotely considers themselves a metal fan and, judging by the reaction of the crowd, not a soul left the building disappointed. Blasting off with the title track from their legendary debut, LOA delivered the goods for close to 90 minutes, covering most of River Runs Red, along with a smattering of tunes from their subsequent releases. The audience ate up every minute of it, the pit surging and seething and, at times, threatening to overtake the entire room. In turn, the band returned that energy twofold, picking up momentum as the evening wore on.

Stout, scruffy vocalist Keith Caputo oozed intensity, standing nearly still at center stage as the audience shouted his every last word back at him, while guitarist Joey Z spent most of the night on the lip of the stage, basking in the sweaty glow of the mosh pit. Drummer Sal Abruscato is one of the best the genre has ever produced, handling the frequent tempo and meter changes with finesse. The band even turned out a pair of new tunes that were more true to their old-school hardcore roots than the alt-rock-influenced material that bogged down their last album and alienated much of their early fanbase. By the time they wrapped up with the anthemic “Underground,” the air was thick with blood, sweat and tears. There was no encore, and why would there be? Life of Agony gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. This is what metal is all about.

The two opening bands presented a cross-section of exactly what is wrong with heavy music today. To my ears, Flaw could have been any one of about 40 different bands. Sure, they seemed to have a fairly large fan-contingent, but the nü-metal shit in which they trade is just too predictable, too easy to construct, and incredibly boring. It’s a simple formula: Put a giant banner onstage so people don’t forget your name the second you get offstage. Have the obligatory guy-with-dreads learn one powerchord on the guitar—tuned to drop-C, of course—then slide it up one half-step. You can do this anywhere on the neck and write a whole new song! Crank the drummer’s kick drum up so loud that it drowns out the rest of the band. Now, speak-sing some lyrics about how much life sucks—it’ll be OK, there’s a deli tray back on the bus—then SCREAM REALLY LOUD every once in a while so the kids know you really mean it. Don’t forget to “bring it down a little” after a few songs and periodically shout “what the fuck’s up, (insert town here)?!” Right. I’ll pass, thank you.

Apartment 26, a British band led by Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler’s son, Biff—that’s right, McFly—were dreadfully out of place on this bill. Actually, it’s hard to imagine a bill they would make sense on. Their songs were basically indistinguishable from one another, save for brief pauses in between and the occasional placement of pre-programmed beats and samples. Predictably, the audience was unimpressed, at times firing an arsenal of double deuces toward the stage.

—John Brodeur


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