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Friday, June 17, 2011

Agent Orange: Living In Darkness


1) Too Young To Die; 2) Everything Turns Grey; 3) Miserlou; 4) The Last Goodbye; 5) No Such Thing; 6) A Cry For Help In A World Gone Mad; 7) Bloodstains; 8) Living In Darkness; 9*) Pipeline; 10*) Breakdown; 11*) Mr. Moto.

Agent Orange's Living In Darkness might be the perfect place for the quintessential hardcore punk skepticist (or any punk skepticist, for the matter) to start shattering that skepticism. Like every respectable hardcore punk band, Agent Orange only released one perfect album, clocking in at about twenty minutes without the bonus tracks; unlike most of the standard hardcore punk perfect albums, though, Living In Darkness took just as much from surf-rock and power-pop as it did from the Clash, and the resulting album happened to be just as melodic as it was ripping — an awesome rarity from the white trash crowd of Orange County, CA.

The band's major driving force is Mike Palm. He writes all of the songs (except for the surf-rock covers, of course); sings most of the vocals — in a manner that is more reminiscent of rough, but note-respecting garage-rock vocalizing than the unmannered barking of the post-Sex Pistols era; and plays respectable guitar that places high emphasis on speed, volume, and crunch, but also on precision and melodic phrasing. In short, the guy is as punk as it gets, but always strives to tem­per the punkishness with a little finesse and a little nostalgia.

It goes without saying that, under such a strong leadership, the rest of the band has to conform, and the rhythm section of Scott Miller on drums and James Levesque on bass provides Palm's style with all the required tightness and ferociousness. Their collective performance on 'Miser­lou' is like a second mini-revolution: just as in the early Sixties this Middle Eastern/Greek ditty sud­denly started to sound like it was the embodiment of surf-rock itself, so do they effortlessly trans­form it here into a frickin' hardcore standard.

But, although the band's interest in merging surf with punk is well-pronounced (and 'Pipeline', appended here as a bonus track from a 1982 EP, is even more crunchy and brutal, with an almost proto-Metallica guitar tone), they are certainly not just a band of merry teenagers inspired by the same Californian vibes that gave us Brian Wilson twenty years earlier. Most of the songs are ty­pically early Eighties punk in spirit — mean, cynical, desperate anthems to how fuckin' bleak it all looks in the near perspective. Just look at the title tracks.

It is, however, the fact that this run-of-the-mill punk spirit is so neatly packaged in instrumental and vocal hooks that makes Agent Orange's debut so special. 'Everything Turns Grey' is simply one of the hardest rocking and simultaneously grandest and stateliest rock songs of the early 1980s, with its cascading, unescapable guitar machine-gunning, self-oblivious vocal runs that tumble over the edge with each refrain of "No matter what you think or do or say, everything turns gray", and the climax — a guitar solo crescendo that is so brilliantly executed, it's a wonder the local hardcore union did not sue the band for unprofessional behavior.

'Everything Turns Grey' is just one major standout — 'The Last Goodbye' is, in a way, even more apocalyptic; 'No Such Thing' denies the reality of love as decisively as the other songs deny the reality of social happiness; 'Bloodstains' is one of the sharpest-biting songs against the temptation of cheap thrills ever recorded (should be required listening for every aspiring rock star preparing to earn his first million); and the title track manages to convey an atmosphere of personal fear and sadness even through all the loudcracking.

In short, these twenty minutes are real killer stuff — the Adolescents and the Angry Samoans may have been more proverbially «hardcore», but I could not really claim that their classic debuts, free of Sixties' nostalgia and concentrating more on the feeling than on song quality, really reflect the tormented spirit of the times better than Living In Darkness. This here is just an attempt to tell the same story in a wee bit more traditionally-oriented way, while at the same time making ideal use of all the sonic achievements of the hardcore movement. By the rules in me little red book, that's cooler than cool, and almost automatically commands a thumbs up. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), nothing else in the band's catalog sounds quite like this masterpiece.

Check "Living In Darkness" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Living In Darkness" (MP3) on Amazon

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