Agents of the Underground
Fat Wreck Chords
Strung Out is probably my favourite band to get people into. They’re a hit practically every time, and I always get the same response: “who are these guys, and why haven’t I heard of them?” And thus is the story of Strung Out, a band existing on the “fringe of mainstream consciousness,” gaining fans and recognition through word of mouth alone for the entirety of their career. While other Fat Wreck Chords acts have exploded after moving on to the majors, Strung Out embraces its place under the radar, and nowhere do they celebrate that status more than in their latest release, Agents of the Underground.
The release marks Stung Out’s twentieth year as a unit, and its undeniable quality signifies the band’s dedication to sustained self-improvement and musical evolution. Twenty years of positive evolution is quite the feat, and a quick survey of their discography reveals a band that has never released the same record twice. They’ve come a long way from their early years as what might be classified as a skate punk act. They first struck gold when they enhanced their sound with hints of technical metal at the turn of the millennium. Any other band would have been content to milk their new formula before changing again. But not Strung Out. Every subsequent release sees them realigning their influences and honing their skills. I’ve always felt that each subsequent Strung Out album consistently outdoes the last, and somehow Agents of the Underground is no different.
Agents of the Underground finds the band maintaining their rock-solid core, but also upping the stakes, as they’ve never sounded this urgent and pressing before. Over the years Strung Out has become known for pushing their melodic skate-punk roots beyond recognition without ever disowning them. While 2007’s Blackhawks Over Los Angeles saw the band focusing on their rock personae more than usual, Agents signifies the band taking the speed that worked so well in 2003’s Exile in Oblivion and making an album that feels fast, hard, and aggressive. I’ve always thought of them as Leche Con Carneera No Use For A Name meets the technical ambition of modern power-metal acts (somewhere just shy of Dragonforce). While not a perfect description, it does capture how Jason Cruz’s coarse but melodic vocals fly high above what should be, but never is, an uncontrollable combination of Jordan Burns’ furious punk driven drumming, a recurrent salvo of increasingly complex metal solos, and a backdrop of ambitious, heavy riffs.
Boiling Agents of the Underground down to a couple standout tracks is a futile task – there are no throw always here – but some nicely exemplify what makes Agents of the Underground such landmark offering. Firstly, there are tracks like “Black Crosses,” the type that can boast being catchy, hard, and fast all at once. These are the adrenaline pumpers, and feel like pure, prolong acceleration – children under four feet tall and those with heart conditions best sit these ones out.
Then there are those like “Carcrashradio,” that while noticeably slower and placing an emphasis on sounding catchy, never compromise Strung Out’s intensity. And finally there are those like “Nation of Thieves,” featuring unmatched metal solos and chord progressions that would make most metal acts blush. All of the album’s tracks combine these elements in various ways, and the result is a fresh cut of songs that hold the listener’s attention from start to finish.
Although I won’t dwell on them too deeply, Cruz’s lyrics are also noteworthy. As always they maintain Strung Out’s tradition of articulate political commentary. For example, “Black Crosses” presumably refers to the ominous image of Blackhawk helicopters against a scorching desert backdrop, succinctly trying both religious and political agendas neatly together in imagery. But Strung Out also engages in some fairly introspective pieces as well, specifically “Andy Warhol,” which humbly situates the band’s legacy: “we all play a part in history then we all end up just a memory.” Agents of the Undergroundeasily holds some of Strung Out’s most insightful passages.
There isn’t much more to say. I guess if you haven’t been won over by Strung Out in the past then Agents of the Underground won’t feel like anything special. But for the rest of us, this is Strung Out’s definitive moment. And really, when a band remains underground and cumulatively sells over one million albums to date, they’re clearly connecting with the audience they want – and how many bands out there can say that?