By the time LIFE OF AGONY broke up in 1998, the band was a shadow of
its former self. Singer Keith Caputo and drummer Sal
Abruscato were both gone, the former replaced — to the horror of many — by ex-UGLY KID JOE frontman Whitfield Crane. But even LOA's third album, "Soul Searching Sun", had bitterly divided fans who felt the New York band was straying away from its heavier hardcore roots and into commercial alternative rock territory.
Flash forward seven years and LOA's original lineup - Caputo, Abruscato, bassist Alan Robert and guitarist Joey Z. -
has resurfaced with its fourth album, "Broken Valley", the culmination of a two-year process that began with two surprisingly successful hometown reunion shows in January of 2003. Yet while some fans may expect a return to all-out hardcore on this record, that's not the case. Instead, "Broken Valley" more or less celebrates the diversity of the group's previous three efforts — and is much stronger for it overall.
The early roar of classic tracks like "This Time" and "Underground" (from the band's debut, "River Runs Red") is represented here with songs like "Junk Sick" and "The Day He Died", which benefit from Z.'s muscular guitar and heavy pounding
from the welcome Abruscato. The group remains adept at arranging punishing riffs into seemingly intricate yet economical structures. But LOA always had an undeniably melodic side as well, even on their heavier material, and the band's latter forays into pop-tinged alternative hard rock — reminiscent of STONE TEMPLE PILOTS — are not ignored. "Last Cigarette" and "Don't Bother" both fall into this category, and both are infectious slices of catchy heavy rock that instantly stand out on first listen. For a real curveball, check out the short "No One Survives", a hauntingly sorrowful lament featuring only piano and vocals.
LOA has always been known for its emotional side as well, and looking back, they seem to be a natural influence on the many emo bands profilerating on the scene in recent years. But while Keith Caputo has always worn his heart on his sleeve, he's never been as whiny as his recent counterparts. The lyrics on "Broken Valley" are tough, unflinching, but also unsparingly painful. Many of them deal explicitly with the death of Caputo's father from a drug overdose, and the sadness and regret apparent in the vocalist's performance here — although tinged with the hope of redemption — cut deeper and ring more true than the pretentious crying of too many emo singers over their high school girlfriends. Nowhere is this more apparent than the dread-filled title track, in which the vocalist pleads with his subject to save himself because "you're not in this alone."
It's difficult, if not impossible, for any band to come back from a prolonged absence and still be able to generate good music together, but LIFE OF AGONY has not only made a solid return with "Broken Valley", they've continued their musical progression as if the past seven years never happened.