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Two albums too late... but who cares! - 90%

Napero, November 26th, 2008

Earth Under Lucifer is a logical release for a band that used to have a vocalist with an outstanding voice. Sometimes it's necessary for a band to prove that the new guy is up to the level of the previous one, and considering that such a band as Anthrax saw it fit to release The Greater of Two Evils, it would not be fair to blame Agent Steel for this little EP. Here, Agent Steel is not quite able to outmaneuver Anthrax: while The Greater of Two Evils has enough material to seem like a full-length album, Earth Under Lucifer is just an EP, or possibly a single, depending on the listener's definition. What's more, Earth Under Lucifer was released a puny two full-lengths after the departure of the previous vocalist, while The Greater of Two Evils spanned a chasm of four full-lengths and two live albums after Belladonna left Anthrax. Yup, in this highly questionable contest Anthrax has the advantage in numerical terms. However, it's like comparing the number of succesive colostomies in an old folk's home: the winner is the loser.

Sometimes, you see, a band has a special guy in its ranks. Quite often the special guy is the singer, since a dude has the voice he was born with, nothing more; you can't become the next Antti Boman or John Cyriis just by wishing you did and practicing the vocal delivery very, very hard. You can't buy the amplifier and the pedals to have the same vocal style as the very special fellow, nor can you tune your vocal chords to match the left-handed genius, you must be born with a specific configuration in your larynx, throat and mouth to have even a chance of learning the basics of such a style. Joey Belladonna and John Cyriis were both guys with voices that were easy to tell apart from the rest of the crowd: powerful, capable of reaching rather high frequencies, extremely suitable for making an impression on the audience, and with a character of their own.

The problem the bands with such special ex-vocalists face is a strange one: no matter how long the band keeps pumping out albums of various quality, everybody keeps comparing the "new guy" with the old one, the one who originally made the band what it is today. Sixteen years, as in the case of Agent Steel, is not any closer to release from the comparison syndrome than Anthrax's fourteen. The only option the band has is to show that the new guy can, in fact, perform the original vocalist's songs at least as well as the old dude did.

So, they release such things as The Greater of Two Evils and Earth Under Lucifer. There's nothing wrong with that, really. What's wrong with releasing EPs or full-lengths with old songs on them? That's a kind of compilation, isn't it? Well, you can smell the scent of trying too hard sometimes.

While Anthrax went out of their way to the studio, and recorded fourteen (!) old tracks "live", Agent Steel simply fortified a single from their latest album with three actual live tracks from the albums of the original singer's era. The difference is striking.

Going into the studio and making an effort to sound as close to the original vocalist as possible is not the way a band with honour is supposed to go. That's a reaction, an answer to the demand by the audience, and essentially amounts to yielding to the unending questioning by those who are supposed to be buying the band's records, no matter what. Such an album is an action by a fire brigade, not by the expected old-school metal militia. And whatever the motivation, John Bush has been the voice of Anthrax's downfall, the vocalist on the most embarrassing albums ever released by a genuine Bay Area thrash band. He's the frontman of the ultimate commercial giving in, the sell-out of all sell-outs, and The Greater of Two Evils is a pitiful apology to the world of metal.

On the other hand, adding a few live tracks of the old stuff to the end of an innocent single is the kind of reassurance a trusty audience really needs. Agent Steel's Skeptic's Apocalypse and Unstoppable Force were displays of pure, original speed metal with a vocalist of a specific special kind, Bruce Hall is capable of losing just a fraction of the pure falsetto howl of the indomitable John Cyriis, and adding a full order of magnitude of strength to the songs. The fact that the excellent full-lengths Omega Conspiracy and Order of the Illuminati were released between Hall's joining of the band and the release of this single is the only piece of evidence pointing towards an intention of pleasing the crowd. What's more, Omega Conspiracy is probably the greatest piece of work the band has ever recorded, and even if John Cyriis set the bar very high with his two studio albums, Bruce Hall is not simply a replacement, but a vocalist with a style of his own and power beyond a supposed replacement guy.

The live tracks on Earth Under Lucifer are very nice displays of metalness, and worthy of a band with the stature and history of Agent Steel. Sure, the unusually prominent bass has a clunky sound, and the band has some of the usual minor problems of a good speed metal band playing live, but the overall quality is very high. The performances are loyal to the original album versions, but there is no sign of actual Cyriis emulation by Hall, and he adds power to Cyriis' ultra-wailing style. The live tracks are definitely worth of releasing, not just filler.

Yes, this little single may be a nod to the loyal audience, but not a case of negotiating with the doubting terrorists of the Agent Steel fandom. While adding three live tracks on a single with a single track from the previous album seems like overkill, the message has been delivered: Agent Steel still had what it took to master the earlier material, Cyriis or no Cyriis. Unfortunately, it took them just four years to release the completely lackluster Alienigma, and lose some of the respect they used to enjoy. Because that's when the old Agent Steel was pronounced dead, not when Cyriis left the band. The world turned into a poorer place four years after this single, but not before. This is not an essential single to own, but a proof of a concept, just two albums too late.