Artist: Agent Fresco
Album Title: Destrier
Label: Long Branch Records / SPV
Year Of Release: 2015
My thoughts and feelings towards the musical talent emanating from Iceland are well documented on the Blog Of Much Metal. Indeed, I even wrote an entire commentary on the music from one of my most favourite places on Earth. In that post, which you can access here, I didn’t mention Agent Fresco but that was purely because I was unaware of them at the time. When I wrote the article, Agent Fresco had only released the one album and, despite being very well received, had not registered on my personal radar. However, if I were to re-write the post now, Agent Fresco would feature heavily.
Formed in Reykjavik in 2008, Agent Fresco are a quartet that is comprised of vocalist and composer Arnór Dan Arnarson, drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson, bassist Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson and guitarist/pianist Þórarinn Guðnason. Their debut album, ‘A Long Time Listening’ was released in 2010 to much critical acclaim but it has taken the better part of five years for their sophomore effort to see the light of day. In the intervening period, live shows and festivals have played an important part for the talented quartet but the long wait for new material continued.
Reading the extensive and intriguing biography that accompanied this release, it appears that the inspiration and driving force behind the debut was the rather tragic passing of Arnarson’s father. And, with inspiration for the follow-up hard to come by, it took another significantly negative event to act as the necessary catalyst, namely a brutal attack late at night that saw Arnarson suffer a broken eye socket, cuts and concussion, as well as mental scars that, for some time, ran far deeper than the physical injuries. As you might imagine therefore, the tone and subject matters explored on ‘Destrier’ are not always warm and fuzzy. Indeed, the title of the album, ‘Destrier’ is the name given to a medieval warhorse and serves as the focal point of sorts for the album’s concept, a concept that explores mainly dark themes but in a positive and constructive way if that makes sense.
Onto the music itself and, as engaging as the lyrical content is, it is with the music that Agent Fresco play their trump card; for a reviewer, the content is the stuff of nightmares because it is such a varied affair with seemingly a thousand things going on all at once, including but not limited to math rock, prog, alternative rock, ambient, post-rock, pop and electronica.
For the listener however, the experience is simply wondrous.
I will allow myself to delve into some of the songs in more detail in a moment but suffice to say that the biggest thing that strikes me with Agent Fresco and ‘Destrier’ is the way that the album flows from start to finish really beautifully, taking the listener on a journey throughout. That journey is comforting, scary, beautiful, sad, thought-provoking and often quite sombre. However, it is a journey that is never dull, always captivating and calls you inexorably back for more. Every time I listen, I hear something new and despite its overt technicality in terms of the beats, rhythms and song structures, I can see this album being loved by both the underground and the mainstream alike. It’s an impressive feat, but Agent Fresco might just have pulled it off and pulled it off with consummate professionalism.
This sophomore release kicks off with ‘Let Them See Us’ which begins in strange fashion thanks to an increasing monotone noise that gives way just as it begins to become uncomfortable. In its place is a deeply atmospheric, almost cinematic composition dominated by a rich, moody simplicity that immediately showcases Agent Fresco’s melodic sensibilities and Arnarson’s sensitive vocal ability which manages to sound delicate and fragile whilst frequently displaying a raw, untamed and wild edge. As such and coupled with the expansive nature of the musical backdrop, the wild, rugged nature of the band’s homeland comes unbidden into my mind. I feel like I’m being transported to a cold, desolate environment which is as beautiful and welcoming as it is bleak and dangerous.
The impressive start is then built upon by ‘Dark Water’, an equally powerful track but in an entirely different manner. Heavier yet more upbeat in tone, ‘Dark Water’ is more of a straight-up alternative rock/metal track that delights thanks to an addictive central melody enhanced by a tinkling piano and a rousing, spiky guitar riff, but all the while allowing plenty of room for experimentation with off-kilter beats, incongruous sounds and lashings of atmosphere.
Elsewhere, the title track seems to be able to blend a mind-boggling but understated technicality with more sublime almost pop-like melodies and even manages to inject a dose of the unexpected in the form of highly sampled guitars, bass and drums that borders on syncopated rhythmic noise. And yet it works, seamlessly.
‘Howls’ is another of those big, hook-laden alternative art rock tracks that is bordering on genius. The feeling of euphoria that courses through my veins as the track develops is the kind of unquantifiable tonic that only great music can provide. The initial simplicity of the track is also an illusion as the composition deploys enough subtle technicalities that to study it closer will addle the mind, at least for a failed musician like me.
‘Pyre’ experiments with syncopated rhythms and a touch of electronica whereas ‘Wait For Me’ offers an industrial feel before opening into a delicate piano-led piece with another huge chorus melody with pop sympathies. ‘Citadel’ has a jangly, almost indie-rock vibe to it and ‘Bemoan’ is sensitive, emotional and absolutely stunning thanks to the layers of synths that sparingly enter the fray and build with spine-tingling majesty. By now, it almost goes without saying that Arnarson’s vocals are also, once again, another masterclass of emotional authenticity. ‘Angst’, by stark contrast, is a short, intense and furious blast of Meshuggah-like djent aggression that descends into a wall of noise as it concludes.
‘Destrier’ then concludes with ‘Death Rattle’ and ‘Mono No Aware’. The former is an ambient, post-rock masterpiece that acts with minimalist precision to devastating effect and once again evokes images in the mind of Agent Fresco’s stunning homeland. To a certain extent, the latter is cut from a similar cloth. Swathes of synths are then accented by a wonderful drum beat and the track builds into the kind of euphoric crescendo that seeks to cast aside the darkness, bitterness and raw fragility of the preceding thirteen tracks in order to leave the listener with a feeling of hope and the sense that there is an end to the apparent darkness and despondency.
I’m not sure that even this lengthy review has done the material on ‘Destrier’ full justice. However, if it has convinced you to give the Agent Fresco a try, then it will have done its job. Be warned though; if you don’t allow ‘Destrier’ into your life, you will miss out on a very special and magical aural experience that gloriously defies simple genre classification. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld