Album Review: The Agonist – “Prisoners”

By Matt Albers

            Female-fronted metal acts have become somewhat of a novelty, stemming back to the days of Lita Ford, Doro Pesch, and Holy Moses. Metal has always been primarily a boys’ club and, to some extent, still is and may always be. While there will always be naysayers who, for whatever reason, simply don’t see any appeal to women in metal bands, while fans of the idea tend to eat up whatever act may fit that mold. Whether it’s the feminine vocal style mixed with the aggressive nature of the music, the idea of a woman defying stereotypes through this particular expression, or simply enjoying the sight of a woman on stage as part of a metal band, having a woman fronting a metal band will always get some level of attention or recognition. With all the positives however, metal bands with women members also tend to have their own unique set of challenges. The woman or women either have to fit into a specific sound, present themselves certain way (especially physically; a sexy appearance in any context still always sells), keep up with or out-perform their male counterparts, or even just prove that they have more to offer as a group than other bands with the same or similar formats, especially as the idea of female-fronted metal bands become increasingly familiar.

Montreal, Quebec’s The Agonist is a prime example of a female-fronted metal band that has had its own share of challenges to face and overcome in order to achieve a strong level of respect and admiration among metal fans. Vocalist Alissa White-Gluz has always showcased her extensive musical background, with influences beyond metal or hardcore including jazz, classical, and musical theater. After forming The Agonist in 2004, White-Gluz auditioned for Canadian Idol with a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” earning her advancement into the first round. Her combination of strong, fluid clean vocals and harsh screaming and guttural growling is surprisingly unique compared even to other bands that showcase similar lead vocal styles, regardless of the sex of the vocalist. With the additional talents of guitarist Danny Marino, bassist and backing vocalist Chris Kells, and percussionist Simon McKay, it was not surprising that The Agonist attracted the attention of Century Media, which released their debut album Once Only Imagined in August 2007.

Once Only Imagined showcased The Agonist’s songwriting and musicianship strengths in an overall melodic death metal/metalcore sound right at the time that the huge wave of the metalcore-led New Wave Of American Metal was beginning to transpose into popular movements deathcore and modern, technical combinations of metal and hardcore. After the release of Once Only Imagined, The Agonist began an impressive, extensive touring streak, sharing the stage with bands initially including Overkill, Sonata Arctica, Enslaved, God Forbid, The Faceless, Epica, Arsis and many more. Their 2009 sophomore album, Lullabies For The Dormant Mind, saw the band progress and experiment more with various elements and styles including influences ranging from black metal and grindcore to symphonic and even opera.

While musically The Agonist has seemed solid throughout their career, the stereotypical road bumps that often plague female-fronted metal bands also affected them as well, sometimes even disguised more as gifts than curses. In the July 2007 issue of Revolver magazine, Alissa White-Gluz was named one of their “hottest chicks in metal,” no doubt stemming from her obvious natural beauty, accented with familiar metal and counterculture accessories including dyed hair, piercings, and either somewhat revealing or form-fitting goth-themed outfits or costumes complete with fishnets, corsets, vinyl or boots. While flattering and maybe an effective way to gain some PR, the nod from Revolver didn’t seem to help The Agonist to gain more than marginal recognition, leaving them to support themselves and create a fan base through good old fashioned songwriting and touring. This strong creativity and work ethic takes us to their latest release, Prisoners.

Prisoners is The Agonist’s third full-length release, still through their original label, Century Media. After listening to their first two albums, it is obvious right from the powerful opening track “You’re Coming With Me” that Prisoners is their strongest album to date. Not only are all the eclectic musical elements there that fans are already familiar with, but the overall structure of each song is superbly crafted and thorough. With their past two albums, often times The Agonist would sound a bit jumbled together, as if they were trying to do too much into one song without any clear sense of direction as to how everything would work together. Their technical time signature changes, for example, didn’t always sound organic. With Prisoners however, all of the elements in each song are not overplayed or overused, and the songs’ riffs, groove and melody make them easy to follow and remember.

It sounds like every element of The Agonist has been crafted to further perfection on Prisoners. The addition of second writing guitarist Pascal Jobin for this album certainly seems to indicate a more solid writing dynamic, as well as guitar solos and fills that are more melodic and give more of a thrash vibe. The best example of the Prisoners’ musical dynamic is the hidden instrumental track between the songs “Ideometer” and “Lonely Solopist.”Danny Marino had occasionally utilized acoustic guitars on the past two albums, but they still sound much more natural where their used in each song than compared to their earlier works. The last few tracks on Prisoners also showcase a clear experimentation with jazz structure and elements, particularly toward the end of each song; “Everybody Wants You (Dead)” even includes a haunting, ominous WHISTLE solo. Saving the jazz sounds for the songs on the end of the album amplifies the experience and ends the album on a positive note.

Even Allisa White-Gluz’s vocals appear more solid; while there used to be a clear distinction between her clean and harsh vocals, Prisoners displays a relatively new buffer of rougher, still well-toned clean singing, and a perfected ability to scream on pitch. Her extensive range and talent, particularly with her clean vocals, is shown off in the mood of the jazz elements toward the end of the final songs of the album, where her voice deepens into a somewhat lower range presented in a smooth tone. Her lyrics appear to have stayed the same course, which may be an element that could turn some people away. As a straightedge vegan, White Gluz’s lyrical themes often portray influences of environmentalism, animal rights, and societal issues. Fortunately, the themes are really only clear when they are read rather than listened to, and the aforementioned topics are not the limits in which White-Gluz writes all of her lyrics. Also, she presents her lyrics very stylized and poetic; arguably similar to Otep, but noticeably at least a little less pretentious.

There is little else to say about Prisoners other than it is both an overall fantastic, modern, eclectic metal album and The Agonist’s best album so far. Nearly perfect, every song on Prisoners stands out and barely run together. Not only is it sure to please fans, but the excellence of Prisoners could easily gain The Agonist more fans across the metal board, especially melodic death metal, whether or not they’re fans of female-fronted metal bands or dual vocals abilities, simply because everything is worked on thoughtfully and thoroughly. If there was ever an album by The Agonist that all metalheads should include in their library, it’s this one. The talent and strength behind Prisoners could easily qualify it as a contender for metal album of the year on many, if not all, year-end lists for 2012. So you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, and help The Agonist to reach a higher level of popularity and appreciation that they by now have proven they deserve.

Final Score: 4.25 out of 5 (A-/A)

Recommended If You Like: Arch Enemy, System Divide, Eths, Deadlock, Light This City

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