As Alan Robert came around the bend of the snowy Oregon road that was leading him to producer Sylvia Massy’s recording studio, a strange feeling came over the Life of Agony bassist. A feeling that pulled on him with a driving curiosity.
“We flew into Portland,” Robert recollects in a recent chat with AQ, “and then we drove to Sylvia’s studio which is about four hours south, through these winding roads and giant mountains. And I’m like, ‘I feel like I’ve been here before… all these snowcapped mountains and really steep hills….’”
Then it came to him.
“It’s The Shining! This is where they filmed it!”
Indeed, the opening sequences of the Stanley Kubrick classic were filmed not far from Massy’s studio, and it’s appropriate that Robert—a horror aficionado—connected these instances of storytelling and serendipity.
Earlier this year, Life of Agony—its current line-up consisting of Robert, guitarist Joey Z. (Zampella), drummer Veronica Bellino, and vocalist Mina Caputo—announced they were following up their 2017 album, A Place Where There’s No More Pain, with a new LP entitled The Sound of Scars, which is to be released this fall via Napalm Records.
But that wasn’t the only major announcement. Later, it was revealed that The Sound of Scars is a concept album which continues the story first introduced on Life of Agony’s debut album, River Runs Red.
“Who’s really making a concept album in 2019?” Robert wonders aloud, as he reflects on his band’s forthcoming effort. “But, this is just something that we wanted to do, because at the end of the day, songs are stories. We’re storytellers, and when people can relate to the message, it’s powerful.”
When River Runs Red was released in 1993, it instantly became an underground smash. It was heavy and aggressive, a crossover classic that was rich with conceptual depth and raw emotion that resonated immediately with listeners. Like the great concept albums of our time—such as The Wall or Operation: Mindcrime—River Runs Red set tension, anxiety, and regret to music with master class form. Its story is a painful narrative of a troubled youth—socially disconnected, alienated from his friends and family—who ultimately takes his own life by the album’s conclusion.
Or, so we’ve assumed all these years. While much of the context within The Sound of Scars remains secret, Robert was able to share what he could about the album. “Without giving too much of it away, we stumbled across this thought: what would happen if the teenager from River Runs Red survived that suicide attempt?”
This is the orbit in which The Sound of Scars exists. A young teen awakens from a failed suicide attempt, yet there’s a chill in the back of his spine that still remains. The album’s concept couldn’t be any more current and critical; suicide is among the leading causes of death in America, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection report that “suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016.” And that’s just based on data collected over the last fifteen years. And so, with The Sound of Scars, Life of Agony have written an album reflective of what they see in the modern world. “We know, and we live with, these things from our past, and the demons that haunt all of us—including our listeners,” says Robert. “By us writing and playing this music, it provides a release for us, and in return, our fans can relate to those messages. And it provides a cathartic release for them, as well.”
For Caputo, the album is a strong and infectious work that digs in under the flesh. “It’s a bold and kindred leap to what we’ve chosen to deliver before,” she says. “Love, disillusionment, the collapse of family and friends, inner pains…. That’s what pervades the lives of these songs. Essentially, inexorable progress towards disaster in a satisfying, yet somehow life-affirming journey that climaxes to an elated ending.”
She notes that lyrically, The Sound of Scars is like a journey through an ancient future. “There’s devilish landscapes filled with visions and prophecies, almost like a bedtime story peopled with all kinds of ghosts.”
“We’re really coming full circle with this album,” says Robert. “Releasing it nearly 26 years apart from River Runs Red, it’s pretty monumental to be able to continue that narrative… the idea that we all live with the scars of our past, we’re all just trying to put one foot in front of the other to overcome those struggles. The idea of him surviving may seem like a happy ending to some people. But surviving it, and having to deal with that moving forward creates a whole different scenario, in the sense that, ‘What do you do now?’”
A Place Where There’s No More Pain was written while the band was scattered in different locations, oftentimes exchanging riffs and ideas over email. It created a feeling of isolation the group wanted to avoid on The Sound of Scars. “With this whole record, the feeling, the intention, the whole experience of writing together the way we used to do it back in the day was more of a bonding, passionate experience,” says Robert.
The notion may sound simple but having fun and making music together as people created a sense of unity among the group. As Zampella puts it, “Over the last year, we’ve been working on building a better, stronger, longer-lasting Life Of Agony. We took that thought process into the writing and recording for The Sound Of Scars. We went back to what worked for us in the very beginning of our career—and that was, getting in a room, being present, and working on ideas for songs together. It once again brought a fresh, young energy into the material…. It’s the complete opposite of the cold, sterile feeling of piecing a record together through emails as we did in the recent past.”
Zampella shared production duties with Massy on The Sound of Scars, a role the skilled axe man truly relished. “For me personally, wearing two hats on this one, being both a producer and performer, has been challenging, but so rewarding,” he says. “Through challenge comes knowledge, and I’ve already learned so much in the process…. In addition to everything, getting to work alongside Sylvia was just a dream come true.”
Known for her exceptional work with Tool and System of a Down, Sylvia Massy had been on Life of Agony’s radar for a while. “We’d been trying to hook up with Sylvia for a long, long time,” explains Robert. “In fact, she was at the top of the list when we were looking at producers to do Soul Searching Sun (1997), and the timing just didn’t work out. But she’s just someone we’ve always wanted to work with.” Following up on that, Zampella says, “Sylvia brings so much talent and vibe to the table and does it all in an organic, fun way. She’s the complete package and perfect fit for our band.”
Veronica Bellino—the newest member of Life of Agony, after assuming duties behind the drum kit in 2018—emphatically agrees with Zampella’s assessment. “The moment we walked in to Sylvia’s studio and met her and her staff, I immediately felt comfortable,” she says. “One of the key ingredients in cooking up the best performance possible, for me, is feeling comfortable in the environment and feeling like I can be my best self in the studio. I love how open Sylvia is and how she just let me do my thing.”
Prior to joining Life of Agony, the skilled drummer toured and recorded with Jeff Beck and Carmine Appice, among others, making her no stranger to the studio. “I love to experiment in the studio, and Sylvia was right on board with that. The very first day of tracking I described a sound I was shooting for on one particular section of a song. She said, ‘I have just the thing,’ and actually got in her car and drove to her house…. She came back with a big, heavy, metal gas tank. Right off the bat I was like, “Yeah, this is going to be a great fucking week!’”
The first taste of The Sound of Scars came earlier this month, when Life of Agony co-headlined a gig with Overkill at the PlayStation Theater in New York. During the set, the band performed “Empty Hole,” as Napalm Records streamed the song’s debut live on their YouTube channel. In almost every way, “Empty Hole” exemplifies that old school Brooklyn heavy metal sound: double-time intros, hard hooks, dynamic vocals, and moody subject matter. It has the same character and presence as the River Runs Red opener “This Time.” The song’s coda carries a heavy, groovy, Zeppelin-esque stomp, with Caputo’s echoing vocal and emphatic delivery leaving you suspended in air, her power astonishing to witness.
“This record humbly has the power, insight, and originality of the highest rank within the black little hearts of provocateur-hungry music listeners like myself,” she explains with confidence. “I exhort you to take the time to listen; close your eyes, allow the story to penetrate. Be uninhibited, dare to leap from your comfortable skin, and you’ll discover some of the most startling songs written over the last 25 years.”
Given what we now know, and given what awaits further, then The Sound of Scars is easily the most anticipated album of 2019.
For more information on The Sound of Scars, please visit www.lifeofagony.com, and to check out the debut of “Empty Hole,” live from the PlayStation Theater, please visit the Napalm Records YouTube channel.