The Lowdown: The Sound of Scars serves as a sequel to Life of Agony’s classic 1993 debut, River Runs Red — an alt-metal concept album about a troubled Brooklyn teenager who attempts suicide to escape the pain of his existence. River Runs Red ends with the sound of blood drops hitting the water of a bathtub, ostensibly symbolizing a tragic end for the protagonist. Turns out, it was actually a cliffhanger. Twenty-six years later, Life of Agony’s sixth album, The Sounds of Scars, picks up where River Runs Red left off, returning to the scene of the apparent suicide. The voice of an emergency dispatcher and distant ambulant siren reveals that the protagonist hasn’t perished.
The Good: Like River Runs Red, the use of storytelling devices creates a compelling sense of forward motion across The Sound of Scars. Life of Agony string their riffs together to fit the plot arc of their story, dabbling equally in elements of grunge, groove metal, and the hardcore punk of their native New York. After the intro, the melodic “Scars” and “Black Heart” see the protagonist reflecting and coming to terms with near-death. Mina Caputo sings the story in poetry and dialogue, keeping the plot ambiguous enough for the songs to stand on their own while offering sufficient narrative detail to connect the tracks when listening to the album as a thematic whole.
The subtlety of the storytelling also allows the band complete freedom musically, as they hold fast to their catchy amalgamation of punk and metal. Guitarist Joey Z lays down some of his best riffs in years (“Scars”, “Weight of the World”), and Caputo’s vocals performances soar. From the melodically demanding “Lay Down” to the freewheeling rocker “Once Below”, Caputo steals the show, showcasing her knack for deceptive hooks that lodge themselves in your head for days. Meanwhile, drummer Veronica Bellino and bassist Alan Robert provide an unwavering rhythm section, pocketed to perfection for duration of the album.
The Bad: Life of Agony showcase a vast competence of various styles of heavy music, but their dips into straight-ahead hardcore are the weakest part of The Sound of Scars. For as strong as the band sounds on the dynamic and hooky material here, the flat-out speed of “Eliminate” and gang-vocal hardcore chorus in “Once Below” feel slight by comparison. Life of Agony excel when Caputo weaves her melodious drawl over one of Joey Z’s grooves. By nature, the hardcore moments eschew that for faster tempos and harsher passages (perhaps necessary to the album’s concept).
The Verdict: The Sound of Scars is the best Life of Agony album since River Runs Red and a worthy sequel. It’s combination of subtle storytelling, via Caputo’s impeccable vocal performances, and riff-hitting grooves make it rewarding for both the passing headbanger and astute album listener. As for the end of the story, Life of Agony again leave it uncertain. As the theatric final track “I Surrender” seems to rise toward a happy ending in a major key, the music suddenly turns cloudy and grey, Caputo repeating the refrain, “There’s no faith and there’s no truth.” The song fades out, leaving the protagonist’s fate up for interpretation.
Essential Tracks: “Scars”, “Stone”, “Weight of the World”