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Second best thrash album after “Persecution Mania” - 99%

Hellish_Torture, April 13th, 2015

Seriously... if this isn’t the greatest thrash metal album ever made, it’s just because “Persecution Mania” actually exists. Pretty much like the diatribe about Dissection’s “The Somberlain” and “Storm of the Light’s Bane”, I never understood why this album gets all this huge amount of praise in comparison to its predecessor, while they would both deserve the same level of recognition. It could be due to the slightly catchier nature of this album, I don’t know.

However, what I could say with certainty is that Sodom did it again: after the promotional tour for “Persecution Mania”, during which was recorded the “Mortal Way of Live” album, the band went back to West-Berlin in 1989 in order to create another masterful opus, “Agent Orange”. As the “Lords of Depravity” documentary tells, there was some tension among the band members during that precise period, and it was clear that Frank Blackfire was going to leave the band in short time: yet, “Agent Orange” turned out to be the most important album in Sodom’s career, and wholly brought them to international recognition like never before. It was the album that allowed Tom to stop working in coal mines and to finally live up on the band’s fame, which was his main dream since the times when he started to play bass.

1989 was the same year of thrash classics such as the masterpiece “Beneath the Remains”, and well... actually, that album could easily be compared to “Agent Orange”, though the latter is even heavier, faster and more furious. This record does nothing but continue Sodom’s natural evolution toward a less raw and more refined sound: the main roots draw from “Persecution Mania”, and most of the peculiarities of that album are luckily maintained, but there is also a slightly major focus on catchy mid-paced sections and a slightly major “open-mindedness” towards melody. However, don’t think that this album is less intense or less developed in comparison to its predecessor, because you couldn’t be more wrong: the Teutonic trio is still at its highest peak in terms of inspiration and songwriting ability, and they demonstrate it both in the “already explored” territories and in the relatively “new” ones. Plus, Harris Johns’ production is maybe even more potent and punishing than before, thanks to a better engineering work and a slightly major focus on the “Scott Burns-like” side of things (it’s ironical to think that, right in that period, “Beneath the Remains” was being produced!), but still maintaining a unique and identifiable sound that, in the most intense moments, manages to evoke that same warlike feeling.

This is especially audible in the title-track, which is probably the closest song to “Persecution Mania”, though putting a bit more emphasis on thrashy mid-tempos: the opening mid-paced riff, in fact, is probably the catchiest thing you could ever had heard in a Sodom song until that time, yet it still manages to sound like a fucking rain of bombs that falls upon your head (bombenhagel? Uh uh...), exactly like on the previous album, if not even more; this feeling, of course, is further increased to paroxysmal levels by the iconic, insanely aggressive and unbelievably violent fast riffage that makes of this track a classic (some paragons have been made with Sacred Reich’s “Death Squad”, but that riff isn’t nearly as direct and deflagrating as Sodom’s one). “Agent orange... a fire that doesn’t burn!” repeats Tom with the same rough vocals of the previous album, and the slowest section of the song even reminds you a bit to “Nuclear Winter”, due to the same emphasis on “desolated atmospheres of war”, this time even empowered by the inclusion of a sample. This song is a timeless hymn for every respectable thrasher, and it’s also one of the first songs that ever caught my attention when I began listening to Sodom.

However, the album is just at the beginning. Right from the second track you notice that something has changed; even a bestial, furious assault like “Tired and Red” (driven by a very minimal, yet genial and brutal riff) already shows that the band is experimenting different paths: without warning, the assault suddenly interrupts, replaced by a melancholic acoustic interlude that sounds almost like a “requiem for the fallen soldiers”. In addition, Tom’s vocals, though still being harsh and violent, are slightly less “demonic” and hateful than on the previous album. We could say that, while “Persecution Mania” was more “compact” even in its richness of ideas, “Agent Orange” is more explicitly “polyhedral” in its formula: as a result, even though maintaining an “extreme/Teutonic thrash” perspective, this album embodies every facet of thrash metal (not casually, I just happened to make a paragon with a U.S. band like Sacred Reich!), all adapted and perfectly integrated in the band’s sound, with a very fresh and varied result.

And so, even hyper-fast songs like “Incest”, “Exhibition Bout” and the aforementioned “Tired and Red” are filled with mid-paced interludes that, instead of focusing on dark and gloomy atmospheres, emphasize way more on groove (truth be told, some excellent signs of this component were already findable on the slow section of “Enchanted Land”) and draw a lot from classic U.S. thrash metal (from which comes the increase of catchiness), but at the same time, the band adapts flawlessly that well-known formula to their already established trademark sound. All of this, united with a standout level of inspiration, what does obtain? Well... these are probably the most remarkable and memorable, yet most violent mid-tempos you’ll ever find on a thrash metal album: they pound upon your head like a fucking bulldozer and, at the same time, show the band’s distinct taste in terms of thrashy grooves (just listen to the massive groove of “Incest” from 2:18!), keeping away from the latent genericness of most late-80’s U.S. thrash (Blackfire’s enrichments with Maiden-esque harmonizations on “Incest” and “Exhibition Bout” contribute to improve the result). Though in their simplicity, these mid-tempos overcome even those of Sepultura’s “Beneath the Remains” and “Arise” (which are already some of the best ones you can ever find in thrash metal), as another demonstration of Sodom’s competence at molding every form of 80’s extreme metal at their own convenience.

However, in terms of mid-tempos, the most iconic episode of “Agent Orange” is undoubtedly the well-known “Remember the Fallen”, which is also the most melodic song ever written by Sodom until then: those cadenced palm-muted riffs, enriched by some occasional guitar phrasings and beautiful solos, build up a very consistent, tasty, catchy and threatening melodic construction which goes in a crescendo throughout each verse, showing the band in a totally comfortable state with slow/mid-paced structures. And on this song, for the first time, Tom manages to properly sing some melodic vocal lines:

”Honour the fallen heroes,
see their last resting place...
perished in the battle of nations,
where they found eternal peace.
Do you know the use of their decorations?
Awarded for patriotism!
They left their life in fire,
but don’t know even why!”

Sodom had already written a lot of shocking and apocalyptic lyrics about war (the first of all being “Burst Command Til War”, from “In the Sign of Evil”), but on this song they take a very different approach to this topic, showing and denouncing from an external point of view the slaughter of countless innocent, unaware soldiers (while songs like “Persecution Mania”, “Nuclear Winter” or “Bombenhagel” were narrated in first person). After all, this is pretty much the whole concept of “Agent Orange”: ”this album is dedicated to all people - soldiers and civilians - who died by senseless aggressions of wars all over the world.”

However, the most exciting moments of an inspired thrash metal album are usually the faster ones, and Sodom still shines in that department: their up-tempos are still insanely fast and pissed off, and the faster riffs are still as hateful as those of “Persecution Mania”, even if the formula has slightly changed: most of the tremolo picking is gone, leaving more space to muted strings in a typical thrash vein, and the abstention from “open melodies” has been broken; now, instead of a completely “black-as-pitch” formula, the band prefers opting for more “audacious” melodic progressions. This choice isn’t made in order to betray the brutal spirit of “Persecution Mania”, but, on the contrary, in order to keep it alive in the freshest way possible, even on a relatively “softer” album like this.

Stylistically speaking, some paragons could be made with other thrash bands of the same current, such as early Necrodeath, late-80’s Kreator or early Assorted Heap (all of them known for their taste about twisted, hateful riffage): yet, none of these bands managed to craft out something as intense and memorable as the main riff of “Baptism of Fire”, which is one of the greatest and most twisted thrash riffs I’ve ever heard, with a complex melodic progression that sounds almost akin to death metal and expresses flawlessly the drama and the tension of the described scenery. The band’s creativity in terms of fast and highly expressive riff-sequences is fully displayed also on “Incest”, which offers some of the most genial riffs ever written by Sodom, able to evoke a masterfully breath-taking, relentless and anxious atmosphere that really knows no paragons in the whole thrash metal genre. Also the very underrated “Exhibition Bout” contains some monstrously tense, gloomy and hateful riffs in that same way, but this time, the real highlight is constituted by the awesome slow/mid-paced section, where Tom displays some other creepy, deep vocals in his older style, and Frank Blackfire crafts out another one of his long, epic, melodic solos which manage to enforce the absurd sense of drama.

But, in this regard, the definitive demonstration that Sodom didn’t lose their incredible taste for genial song-constructions full of pathos comes in the form of “Magic Dragon”, whose lyrics this time are told from the point of view of the “aggressors”. The song begins with some sneaky, evil, spine-chilling razor-sharp mid-paced riffs whose level of tension goes increasing more and more as time passes, while Tom tells the planning of a new attack with absolute cynicism and perfidy (in definite contrast with the heartfelt denounces of “Remember the Fallen”); then, suddenly, the song speeds up with another breath-taking riff-sequence that evokes a feeling of urgency, tension and wickedness, which culminates in the absurd break upon which Tom yells the memorable verses:

”Orders are clear:
CRUSH ‘EM... to win the war!”

The riff-accompaniment in that sequence is just godlike. The whole thing is nothing less than spectacular, period. The track then evolves in another successfully catchy galloping mid-tempo in the typical vein of this album, and closes with a slow riff which evokes again the disasters that had been left after the attack, in the typical “interactive” approach at scenarios of war that Sodom used to offer in several songs at that time: this is another masterpiece of emotionally-driven musical composition, as well as the definitive demonstration that these guys really knew what they were doing while composing their songs, crafting them minutely in every detail in order to obtain a precise kind of atmosphere.

In addition to the aforementioned elements, on this album the “atypical” tracks are even more standout than on “Persecution Mania”: there is a full incursion into punk territory (probably the first of Sodom’s career), under the name of “Ausgebombt”, which features a vigorous, aggressive and catchy hardcorish riff that you’re instantly gonna love, with the further addition of an awesome, addictive chorus and another epic, over-the-top guitar solo. However, if you possess this album in CD or cassette, you’re even gonna hear a very weird ending: the final track is nothing but a cover song of one of Tom’s favourite bands, the almighty Tank. The song in question, “Don’t Walk Away”, differently from the “Iron Fist” cover of the previous album, is played very similarly to the original version and sets itself definitely apart from the band’s usual style. Even the production sounds different from the other songs: the guitars possess a definitely softer distortion, way more in line with early-80’s classic heavy metal, and the feeling of those times is perfectly captured. When I fell in love with this album, I also noticed and appreciated this cover, and this allowed me to discover Tank (which would instantly become my second favourite NWOBHM band right after Iron Maiden), along with many other hidden gems of traditional heavy metal. This, just as another demonstration of Sodom’s importance upon my musical development.

My final conclusion about the “Persecution Mania / Agent Orange” duo is that, if the former could easily be considered as the absolute epitome of extreme metal (thrash, death and black altogether), the latter seems to epitomize thrash metal in a more “specific” way. “Agent Orange” contains everything a thrash album would require, all brought to absolute excellence: despite having been released quite late in comparison to most other thrash classics, the songwriting of this opus speaks for itself and compensates its lateness at the party and its lack of “innovation”; what matters is that these songs are still as fresh and inspired as they could ever be in this genre. It’s ironic to think that, in terms of heaviness and brutality, Sodom with these two albums humiliated even bands of theoretically more “extreme” subgenres, from classic death metal (which was a new thing in 1989) to hyper-fast, slammy/gory stuff of nowadays: if I wanna listen to something really “extreme”, which manages to freak me out beyond control and pump me up at the same time, “Persecution Mania” and “Agent Orange” are usually my direct first choices. No other “extreme” band, regardless of how “fast” and “brutal” it can be, will ever overcome these two masterpieces.