On its release in 1993 Life of Agony’s debut album River Runs Red was quickly hailed a masterpiece of alternative rock.
A concept album, it told the story of an unnamed protagonist, ending in his apparent suicide. It was listed at number 58 in Rolling Stone’s 100 best ever metal albums.
Since then, the New York quartet has experienced highs and lows, with splits, line-up changes and reformations.
In 2017 they released A Place Where There is No More Pain, their first album in 12 years. With it putting the band firmly back on the map they decided to strike while the iron was hot and earlier this month released The Sound of Scars. Another concept album it is a somewhat belated sequel to their debut.
Guitarist Joey Z also co-produced, with Sylvia Massy, for the first time. Working with Sylvia in Oregon, they then returned home to complete it at Joey’s home studio.
‘I had to really lose myself in the performance and engineering at the same time. It was challenging wearing both hats, but I feel like I was able to create an environment that was comfortable and I was able to capture some great tracks.
‘What was so special was that the band had so much trust in me. My cousin [frontwoman Mina Caputo] told me to go ahead and pick all the takes. I’d spend hours going through all the takes and picking my favourites.’
He also created all of the between-song interludes at his house.
‘It was such a tall order, but I’m so happy I took it all on and I can sit back now and listen to the work and l’m very proud of it.’
It’s also their first album with drummer Veronica Bellino, who joined in 2018, and as Joey explains, she’s the catalyst for their swift return.
‘When Veronica joined the band the energy just shot through the roof. We’re having so much fun with her and she brings so much talent. She’s raised the bar for everyone in the band – we felt like we were firing on all cylinders, so it was like, let’s start writing with Veronica and see what happens.
‘We’d just come off doing some magical touring with her, we were having so much fun on and off stage, and that kind of snowballed into the writing.’
‘We had a conversation about what made things so special back in the day, when we did River Runs Red, and what it was, was Alan (Robert, bassist) and I used to just cut out of school, sit on the floor and trade guitar riffs.
‘Over the years, we got further and further away from what made Life of Agony, Life of Agony. With Veronica we wanted to make some changes to bring that back.
‘We went back to those roots and sat on the floor in my studio and traded riffs.
‘And then once we had a song structure going, we would bring in Veronica and Mina, and jam it live – it wasn’t done over email or anything like that, we went back to the old school way of making records, and it worked.
‘By the end of the day it would feel like a complete song.
‘Everyone got their hands on each song and it was a great way of working.’
It was Alan who first made the suggestion to continue the story of River Runs Red, as if the boy didn’t die.
‘We all looked at each other and went: “Woah! That’s interesting…”’ says Joey. ‘Everyone had to digest the idea for a second and then we started talking about how we would approach it – what would happen to this person, we did a lot of back and forth on it.’
And the story is ultimately one that is more positive than its conceptual predecessor, which ended with the protagonist’s suicide attempt.
‘Someone like this person, who tried to do this to themselves at a young age, carries this scar forever.
‘What we tried to do was get inside this person’s head, being this age now, being an adult with children and a family – you imagine how it would be to carry that scar and that memory and how it would affect you.
‘I feel like we’ve accomplished that, and I feel like the story is complete within the record – and it leaves you feeling that they could possibly do it, he’s trying his best, he’s showing up, and yeah, maybe he’s having his bad days but he’s surviving.’
Given their own real-life experiences, you could forgive the band for having a bleak outlook on the world.
‘My mum and Mina’s father were brother and sister. My uncle died of a heroin overdose and so did my aunt when I was three years old and Mina was only one – I remember her well, even though I was only three when she passed.
‘We grew up in the same house. My mother and my grandmother raised me and Mina, or Keith at the time. We were like brothers, now my sister. It’s a special relationship. It’s a very special and trustful relationship.’
Mina came out as transgender in 2011, probably the most prominent figure in the metal world to do so, at that time.
But when she did come out, it wasn’t a surprise to Joey.
‘I obviously knew more than the rest of the world being this close to her, so it wasn’t any kind of shock to me. I knew things before anyone else, being this close gave me access to the inner workings of Mina. I knew one day she would need to do this to feel whole, and I was 150 per cent supportive of her doing that.’
Thankfully most of their fanbase have accepted Mina as she is, but there have been those who have spewed their hate at her online.
‘You get a few fans who are not down with it, and you can’t ask everybody to be okay with it, you can ask politely: “Hey, check this out”, and if you dig it, come along with us for this great ride.
‘But some people are cruel. If you’re not down with it, just walk away, and see you later. The ones who have to go ahead and sit behind a computer screen and write stuff and try to bring her down, it’s not fair to her as a person, never mind as an artist.
‘She expresses herself so transparently and wears her heart on her sleeve. If everyone who wrote those horrible things knew her as a person, I’m sure they wouldn’t write it.
‘It’s a very small percentage, and we really don’t pay attention to it much. It just gets erased and we move on.
‘We choose to look at the positive side and the people who do support her and us. We focus on that.’
LIFE OF AGONY
Engine Rooms, Southampton
Wednesday, October 23