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This year’s album from old-timers Agent Steel sees the L.A. band finally shake off its archaic thrash and speed metal origins and get with it, granddad; ‘it’ being the generic, monotonous style of down-tuned post-thrash that all American bands have been getting away with since Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax decided to slow down at the start of the Nineties. This is a particularly disappointing move for Agent Steel in light of the two previous albums released sporadically since their reform, which brilliantly re-captured and even improved upon the classic speed metal sound they helped pioneer in the mid-Eighties, and despite a large audience still existing for classic metal, admittedly far away in Europe, the band obviously decided it would be a good idea to try to keep up with current trends. Thus, they set about recording what is essentially a tribute album of Nevermore songs circa 1997.
‘Alienigma’ isn’t a bad album, in fact it’s quite competent as a modern-sounding release, but it’s left many fans feeling disappointed that the classic style has been replaced by one equally as clichéd and repetitive as the one they obviously wished to leave behind, despite having more of a knack for it. The style never moves beyond sounding like a Nevermore clone, with liberal borrowings from this decade’s most prominent metal acts popular with macho morons, namely Machine Head and melodic death metal bands teetering dangerously on the edge of metalcore, specifically Arch Enemy. The sound is grounded in down-tuned riffs that lack much in the way of creativity or originality, while Bruce Hall’s vocals are almost entirely restricted to a half-hearted shout reminiscent of Machine Head’s Robb Flynn that occasionally reaches an octave or so higher to sound like a dead ringer for Nevermore’s Warrel Dane, clearly revealing the albums he’s been listening to since ‘Order of the Illuminati.’ Long-time guitarists Juan Garcia and Bernie Versailles are at their most disappointing and disillusioned in the riffs, all of which chug along entirely unremarkably, but fortunately their fantastic solos manage to make most songs worth listening to, always sounding fresh and original in a manner that’s both enjoyable and frustrating, as it rubs in just how much better this album could have been if the foundation was as good as the polish.
I have to credit the band for pulling off this uncharacteristically brutal and aggressive sound very well and completely convincingly, and any newcomers would most certainly be surprised to learn that these guys were around back when their dads were into metal, but it doesn’t make this any more impressive as just another entry in a dull genre that by all rights should have expired at the end of the last decade, but bizarrely continues to find favour with American metalheads. You might think I’m something of a hypocrite and madman for preferring that the band instead follow and even older and more outdated style in its place, and you’re probably right, but that would be to celebrate and continue expanding on a sound that still packs as much of a punch as it did back when most people weren’t ready for it. Continuing to abandon their roots, there’s also a minimal focus on the band’s old gimmick of alien abduction themes in the lyrics, being largely replaced with tirades against religion and the government that only cement the Nevermore comparison ever further.
1. Fashioned from Dust
2. Wash the Planet Clean
3. Hail to the Chief
5. Liberty Lies Bleeding
7. Tiamat’s Fall
8. WPD (World Pandemic Destruction)
9. Lamb to the Slaughter
To cut to the chase, pretty much all of these songs sound exactly the same, and it’s only through a more focused and dedicated listen that certain favourites and rare moments of creativity shine through the mid-tempo ‘heaviness’; heaviness obviously being characterised by the extent to which you down-tune your guitar rather than the needlessly time-consuming task of having to come up with technically powerful riffs. Some songs are a little faster (‘Extinct’), some a little more traditional (‘Wormwood’), and some nothing more than an uninspired meeting of Machine Head aggro and Arch Enemy riffs (‘Wash the Planet Clean,’ ‘Liberty Lies Bleeding’), or at worst, Pantera with Pantera (‘Lamb to the Slaughter’). Opening track ‘Fashioned from Dust’ sets up the general sound acceptably without going overboard in offering anything special outside of the first of many great solos, maintaining a slow, hammering alliance of guitar and clicking bass drums that will continue without much interruption for the next fifty-three minutes.
The longer songs tend to be the ones that most noticeably outstay their welcome, with the six-minute ‘Hail to the Chief’ and ‘Hybridized’ not maintaining enough interest to justify their length despite an excess of breakdowns in the former and some ineffective spoken word in the latter that struggles to bring back the sci-fi theme, but fortunately the similarly lengthy ‘Wormwood’ burrows its way through these stale corpses and succeeds in being the stand-out track of the album, at least for fans who prefer the band’s older style as I do. The main riffs are still pieced together from Arch Enemy’s studio floor, but there’s a return for that old favourite the neoclassical solo, succeeding even the excellent virtuoso spots of tracks two and three, and Bruce Hall puts in his best effort to emulate the operatic singing of Eighties metal, though he’s still evidently restricted to the middle range, either by preference or vocal limitations; either way, it’s a refreshing break to hear him sound like Bruce Dickinson rather than Warrel Dane. It’s not a patch on the band’s better work, but at least proves that there’s still hope for future releases.
The harder songs that will appeal most to Machine Head / groove metal fans tend to come in the second half of the album, with most running out of steam and ideas long before they’re due to fade out. The finale ‘Extinct’ is the main exception, mostly due simply to its more appropriate length of under four minutes, but there’s also a greater amount of energy in this final performance from all the musicians, and the eager, early solo sounds properly integrated rather than hastily slapped on top of the repeating riffs as the song draws to a close. ‘Tiamat’s Fall,’ ‘WPD’ and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ form the weakest section of the album, the first two for sounding pointlessly like Nevermore B-sides and the last just being a really unnecessary bit of Pantera worship, while ‘Wash the Planet Clean’ and ‘Liberty Lies Bleeding’ at least try to incorporate melodic death metal elements into the band’s sound so that anyone listening to this in a couple of centuries’ time will be able to place it in its correct decade, but it’s a real shame the band hadn’t exposed themselves to the more authentic and exciting bands playing this style in Scandinavia rather than the home-grown knock-offs that this ultimately resembles more.
‘Alienigma’ is, on the whole, an entirely pointless album, the only purpose of which could be to satisfy die-hard Nevermore fans with a sound-alike of that band’s better period prior to ‘Enemies of Reality.’ The substitution of Machine Head growls and Arch Enemy riffs for the band’s traditional speed metal sound was an unwise decision that was clearly going to alienate fans, and it’s a real shame that they didn’t choose a more worthwhile direction than generic post-thrash, or whatever you want to call it. I wouldn’t be so critical if their previous two albums hadn’t been of such high quality – get those instead.