Artist: Zero Hour
Album Title: Agenda 21
Label: Frontiers Music
Date of Release: 13 May 2022
Today is a special day, as it is the day that I am finally able to review a new Zero Hour album. No less than six albums were released by the band over a decade, between 1998 and 2008, with the likes of ‘The Towers Of Avarice’ (2001) and ‘Metamorphosis’ (2003) hailed by fans and critics alike as superb slabs of technical yet melodic progressive metal. However, since the release of ‘Dark Deceiver’ in 2008, we’ve had nothing whatsoever from the US band.
If you’re a fan of Zero Hour, you’ll probably be well versed in the trials and tribulations that have led to this extended hiatus. Formed by the Tipton brothers, guitarist Jasun and bassist Troy, and with Erik Rosvold on vocals, Zero Hour was initially put on hold due to an injury to Troy that meant he had to stop playing the bass for a time. The intervening period allowed Jasun, with the help of his twin, to explore other avenues through Cynthesis and Abnormal Thought Patterns. And then disaster befell Troy as the medical condition with which he was diagnosed (ulnar nerve entrapment) meant he had to hang up his bass, almost certainly forever. This then led to the creation of A Dying Planet, the debut for which featured Troy as a vocalist and songwriter, and was used as a vehicle to explore this devastating news in some cathartic detail.
Despite all this, a new Zero Hour record was never fully off the table, and in recent years, we’ve had tantalising occasional updates from Jasun through the normal social media channels. However, as time went on, I can’t have been the only one to wonder whether their seventh release would ever materialise. But finally, it has arrived in the form of ‘Agenda 21’, with a line-up comprised of Jasun and Erik, accompanied by drummer Roel van Helden (Sun Caged, Powerwolf) and bassist Andreas Blomqvist (Seventh Wonder). A mouth-watering line-up, I couldn’t wait to dive in to hear what the quartet had come up with after their 14-year absence.
And I can report that what they’ve come up with, is a superb album of progressive metal that’s admittedly a little different from previous Zero Hour records, whilst retaining the core elements that fans will love to hear. As always, the music is wonderfully technical, with gymnastics performed all over the place. However, the album is still chock full of memorable songwriting, atmosphere, and plenty of melody too.
What you won’t hear, inevitably, are the sections where traditionally, the Tipton brothers would almost telepathically duel with guitar and bass at lightning pace and with stunning technicality. Often these moments would be used as openings for songs, but these naturally don’t occur here, or at least not to the same level as before. Nevertheless, those familiar with Seventh Wonder will know that Andreas Blomqvist is a talented bassist, so we’re in the safest of hands possible, as he’s able to inject the kind of technique with which Zero Hour fans have become accustomed. In fact, on this evidence, I can think of no-one better to take the place of Troy Tipton.
I don’t care who you are – starting an album with a 14-minute composition is ballsy, but that’s exactly what Zero Hour have done here. And it’s probably my favourite of all of the six songs on ‘Agenda 21’ as it happens. It is an absolutely perfect blend of technicality, atmosphere, melody, and metal aggression, full of twists and turns across its hefty run-time. The great thing about this song is the way that I can listen to it over and over again without ever getting bored; the melodies are really strong and compelling, the atmosphere is bittersweet, sounding warm and welcoming one minute, but slightly sorrowful the next. If I wished for something, it would be one or two of Jasun Tipton’s soaring, melodic lead guitar solos, but then Zero Hour has never been about that and there are other outlets for this, such as A Dying Planet, or Abnomal Thought Patterns. It’s just that, as I’ve said many times before, Jasun makes the guitar sing so beautifully and so to not hear this aspect of his playing is always a bit of a shame. Nevertheless, this opening track makes up for it by providing plenty of different aspects of his playing, from tight, technical riffing, to gentle, clean picking, to soft, melodic embellishments, to chunky no-nonsense chugging.
Continuing with this gargantuan opener, Erik Rosvold puts in a killer performance behind the microphone, lacing the song with all kinds of different emotions, from all-out spite and aggression as he spits out the words ‘damn you’ repeatedly, to more emotional, subtle deliveries that accompany the delicate instrumentation behind him. He’s lost none of his power or ability over the intervening years either, which is great to report. Andreas Blomqvist immediately proves that he is the right choice with some brilliantly creative playing that’s blessed by a wonderful sound within the production. And Roel van Helden absolutely nails his performance, bringing thunderous beats to the table, as well as equally monstrous fills, deftness, and jaw-dropping complexity. My favourite part has to be the quiet, bass-driven section that begins at around the six-minute mark. It is stunning, and beautifully melodic, in stark contrast to the frustration and angst that surrounded the preceding sequence. With gentle, accompanying synths to add texture and atmosphere, it is genuinely wonderful.
Enough of the opening song, I need to explore the remaining five tracks too. And it will come as no surprise to learn that they are of an equally high standard, providing bucketloads of entertainment in the process. After a quiet, irresistibly melodic opening where once again the bass of Andreas Blomqvist catches the ear, the shorter composition quickly takes a more frantic turn, with guitars, bass, and drums combining well to up the ante both in terms of pace, but also in technicality, as the rhythmic nature of the song swirls and eddies nicely. It’s certainly a more aggressive track, which is also backed up by some harsher, more angst-ridden vocals from Rosvold.
The electronic sounds are more pronounced within ‘Stigmata’, particularly in the opening stages. Again, the rhythms are nicely challenging and deftly executed by all concerned, but I love the piano and vocal section at the heart of the track. It would be beautiful regardless but being sandwiched by some of the more complex and dextrous arrangements on the album mean that its impact is that much greater as a result. I also enjoy the unashamed chugging guitar section that pairs the muscular guitar sound with some smooth, atmospheric synths, whilst the closing moments delve into minimalist, almost ambient territory to nice effect.
There is no doubt that these guys have an ear for a melody, and this is once again brought to the fore by ‘Memento Mori’, a quieter, more relaxed track overall that beguiles me with the simple, but wonderfully gorgeous melodies throughout. Ironically though, until the final couple of minutes hits with muscular riffing and a solid dose of melody, the title track is perhaps my least favourite song on ‘Agenda 21’. It’s not a bad track by any stretch of the imagination, but it just lacks the ‘wow’ factor for me that other compositions deliver more readily.
However, the album ends on a real high with the ten-minute ‘Patient Zero’. The start of the track is complimented by great vocals from Rosvold, delicate instrumentalism from all corners of the band, and really engaging melodies that get stronger with each and every listen. The shift into technical prog climes is quite pronounced but works well as it is delivered with precision and commitment from all concerned. As the song develops, there is definitely a focus on the vocals and bold atmospheres which I really enjoy, as the album reaches its satisfying conclusion.
I guess the question on everyone’s lips is, ‘is ‘Agenda 21’ worth the wait?’ In response, I’d have to say ‘yes’, because there is so much great music to be heard on this record. My gut feeling is that it’s a little more melodic and a little less explosive than previous efforts, but it is in no way any less complex or technical. And the six songs are chock full of exemplary musicianship from guitar, bass, drums, and vocals alike, just as we would all hope and expect from a band with the reputation that they historically have. To be honest, I’m just delighted that Zero Hour are back. The fact that they bring with them such an enjoyable feast for the ears is just the icing on the cake. Welcome back gents, I hope you stick around to bring us more music in the years to come.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
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