All too often, even the greatest of bands fall by the wayside in a relatively short period of time; a couple of great albums then comes the creative differences, the in-fighting followed by the inevitable “line-up rotation”. Or worse yet are the groups that slip into mediocrity through a series of sub-par releases ultimately leading to total obscurity and eventually becoming forced to squeak by on past accolades. Few and far between are the bands that despite overwhelming odds remain unified and relevant as the years pass by, that goes double for the punk scene. Strung Out are one of the exceptions to the rule. Not only have they stood the test of time (a few early drummer substitutions aside), with each successive release they’ve managed to grow exponentially in technical proficiency and song writing ability, perpetually raising the bar by building upon the strong foundation of the previous albums.
Strung Out’s latest (and 7thalbum to date) Agents of the Underground picks up almost exactly where 2007’sBlackhawks Over Los Angeles left off. And it’s no surprise they haven’t strayed far from their signature sound. A style they’ve created and honed to a precision over the course of the last 15+ years; seamlessly blending aspects of melodic west coast punk with the more intricate elements of metal. Album opener Black Crosses exemplifies all of these things with its apocalyptic lyrics, frantic percussion and full out guitar assault. Carcrashradio although not a slow song by any means, provides the first of a few much needed breathers throughout the album, frequently finding frontman Jason Cruz taking the opportunity to stretch out his vocal chords. Heart Attack touches on the familiar lyrical territory of dysfunctional relationships and mental instability; it’s also one of a number of tracks that reveal the band’s propensity for metal, all with an ability to carry melodies & harmonies through the heaviest of instrumentation. An added bonus is Jordan Burns percussion blitz complete with perplexing tempo changes that would surely have “Drum Hero” (or whatever-in-the-fuck-it’s-called) proficianados flat-out stumped.5 tracks deep sits the gem Ghetto Heater, a fast and imaginative song that stretches the boundaries of punk both vocally and instrumentally. And although Kiley and Ramos are two of the best guitarists around today, surprisingly Agents is all but devoid of any sustained solos. Sure the album is chock full of aggressive finger-work and there are a few periods throughout the album where the six strings are unleashed, but fans may not be contented with their briefness (by my calculations there’s quite a bit of extra disc space, how about a secret track; like 20 minutes of just solo shredding?). The album puts the cherry on top with Andy Warhol. A track that (among other things) clearly shows Cruz’s superb ability to wrap his emotionally charged yet intellectually driven lyrics around vocal patterns precisely matched to the band’s wall of sound. In my humble opinion it’s the best song on the album and quite possibly of Strung Out’s career.
It’s hard to miss the album’s title as being a nod towards Strung Out’s obvious crossover appeal. And there’s something to be said about a band that over the years has foregone mainstream success (after all, the band broke Billboard’s Top 200 with 2002’s American Paradox) in favor of remaining on an indie label and playing smaller venues while touring. And who says it better than Cruz himself:”We say what we feel and do it all our own way, and we've done it all this time without radio, without TV, and without the help of a corporate record label. We are the essence of what the punk rock movement started out as and has strayed so far from. We are living proof that you can succeed by doing things your own way.” Amen.
All that said, Agents of the Underground has mighty big shoes to fill, and by and large it does just that. Is it Strung Out’s best yet? Without a doubt. Is Strung Out at the pinnacle of their career? I wouldn’t bet on it.....