For the first decade of its existence, hardcore was little more than one prolonged crotch-grab set to wax. Bands like Slapshot, Gorilla Biscuits, and Youth of Today brought all the machismo of Charlton Heston in combat boots, while their shows were more like rugby scrums than rock concerts. If chest hair could sing, it would probably sound a lot like Harley Flanagan of the Cro-Mags.
But hardcore's Muscle and Fitness posturing was humanized in the early '90s by the bipolar New York band Life of Agony. While its peers protested social ills with fists in the air, Life of Agony penned affecting, personal songs about suicide, depression, and estranged parents. The music's emotional resonance was brought to life by frontman Keith Caputo, a singer more than a shouter, whose deep, distinctive yowl often made him sound on the verge of tears. His haunting harmonies better resembled Alice in Chains than Agnostic Front. Backed by woofer-rattling breakdowns and a rhythm section that could be Charles Bronson's stunt double, the band struck a balance between sentiment and severity that brought a welcome candor to the scene.
"In '93, the hardcore scene was very different, very straight up," Life of Agony drummer Sal Abruscato says from a tour stop in Worcester, Massachusetts. "Agnostic Front and all those other bands were very testosterone-heavy, violent, with a get-into-the-pit-and-get-killed kind of attitude. And then, here we come, where we were actually touching people's hearts with issues that are very, very common amongst a lot of young people and older people."
The band's debut, River Runs Red, struck a chord among skins and longhairs alike, selling several hundred thousand copies worldwide. Just as Life of Agony wasn't timid about wearing its heart on its sleeve, it wasn't afraid to tinker with its approach. On the band's second album, 1995's Ugly, the sound of Seattle began to creep into the music, lending a grunge-core feel. The album failed to match the success of its predecessor, and internal tensions began to mount.
"It's tough being young and thrown into this situation, because it's very easy to get caught up in the whole shtick of partying and drugs and egos and girls," Abruscato says. "That shit really tears bands apart."
Life of Agony was no exception. Abruscato split in 1996, and Caputo followed, after 1998's poorly received Soul Searching Sun, an album that abandoned much of the band's aggressiveness in favor of a heavy alternative sound. Caputo was replaced by former Ugly Kid Joe frontman Whitfield Crane, and the band played on Ozzfest in '98. But when it came time to record with Crane, the sessions were fruitless, and Life of Agony collapsed the next year.
Ironically, just after the band splintered apart, the sound it had helped foster lived on and began to prosper. These days, emotional hardcore has supplanted all the chest-pounding of punk's past, with stirring acts like Thrice, Poison the Well, and Eighteen Visions taking the scene to new levels of success.
"We didn't realize at the time how pioneering what we were doing was," Abruscato says. "I hear our influence in a lot of the new bands of today. I think we helped kick open a door a little bit, made it easier for the bands that came after us to achieve more success than what we did with this style of heavy music. Now there's this new thing, what is it called, emo? Emo-core? I heard that expression, and I'm like, what is that?"
It's the sound of hardcore's third wave, and it's never been bigger. With the band's heirs faring so well, Life of Agony announced in September 2002 that it was getting back together for a one-off gig at New York City's Irving Plaza on January 3, 2003. It was hardly prepared for the initial response to the show.
"For that first show, I think tickets went on sale at 12, 12:15, and by the time it was one o'clock, I got a phone call saying the show had sold out in 15 minutes or something," Abruscato recalls. "I was like, 'No way!' Then they put a second show on sale a week later, and the same thing happens all over again. After those shows, we were already thinking we should really try and get this going again.
"I did not expect that Life of Agony would do a reunion of the original lineup. It just came out of nowhere. We're all older, and the guys have gotten married in the band. I'm getting married in nine months now. I think we all as individuals had to learn something about ourselves, about life, about the music business, to realize that we really need each other to make it work. It's nice, because we're kind of getting the payback that we never got back then. We were younger then, and people took advantage of us. We never got the money we deserved. Everyone took a piece but us, so it's good to get a little bit of recognition."
They're getting a career's worth of attention these days. After a sold-out European tour last summer, the band returned to the States for another round of capacity dates. A live album called River Runs Red Again: Live 2003, which documented the N.Y.C. reunion shows, was released last fall. A comeback LP is also in the planning stages, and new music will be debuted at the band's Peabody's show. So far, the gigs have attracted a mix of sweaty diehards and fresh young faces.
"We've noticed it since Europe, and in the United States whenever we do in-stores, there's a lot of little kids that seem to be into us," Abruscato says. "I don't know if it's because their parents play us. In Albany, we had a father who's a huge fan of the band, and he had his 11-year-old son with him. He was wearing a Life of Agony shirt that looked like pajamas on him, it was so big. We've met a lot of young kids between the ages of 11 and 15 that are so into us. That's the next generation that's going to help carry us. It's a good sign. It means that we're going to be around a little while. Or a long while."
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