Review Summary: A forgotten album. Wasn't this supposed to be an EP?...
... a demo CD would be much more fitting than a full length debut studio record. But alas, everyone must start somewhere, and at some time. 2007 was a pretty damn good year for music, metal and rock wise. What's another metalcore album tossed in, back when the genre was arguably much more creative? Oh, and this band has a female vocalist, an attractive one at that. Is she gonna be a Lacey Sturm or an Angela Gossow? Will it take its ranks amongst metalcore classics like Killswitch Engage or As I Lay Dying? Can it compare to the then-fresh deathcore faces like Whitechapel or Suicide Silence?
I had already listened to a handful of newer singles, "Panaphobia", "...Eulogies", "Thank You, Pain" and the sort (keep in mind this was 2014 for me). Eventually I figured since I liked what I heard, I should properly start at the beginning. The first few attempts, I couldn't make it past track 3. It was only after I'd been well versed in albums 2 & 3 that I truly gave #1 a spin.
So, kicking off the discography of The Agonist, formerly known as The Tempest, is the mixed bag that is Once Only Imagined. It's 11 tracks long, not counting the bonus track included in the Japanese edition. On vocals is Alissa White-Gluz, on both lead and rhythm guitars is Danny Marino, and on bass is Chris Kells, who also provides backing vocals. A studio drummer, Derek Nadon, is only present on this record before being replaced by Simon McKay.
First off, I will say this. I like The Agonist, I do, albums 1-4 that is. I think they evolved to be a respectable band of the genre, with strengths and downfalls. But I will admit that I tend to be pretty harsh on Once Only Imagined. The reason is because I find it to be painfully average. There is nothing special. There are some cool moments that would make for a fun romp in the pit live, or a few instances where there's a surprising amount of melancholy. But there's aspects prevalent in every song that just drag OOI down into mediocrity.
I'll start with the positives. Alissa is a fairly impressive unclean vocalist. While her technique has evolved greatly since OOI's release, there's nothing awfully commendable about her performance here. She's made no effort to hide the fact that she's a huge Arch Enemy fan, and even if she did, her raspy growls and screams are reminiscent of Arch Enemy's former frontwoman's. This distinction vanished on forthcoming records, but still worth a mention. She's got the black metal-eqsue shrieks popping up noticeably in songs like "Take a Bow", "Trophy Kill", and "Forget Tomorrow" and deeper near gutturals appearing at the end of "Business Suits and Combat Boots" and in the breakdown/outro of "Memento Mori". The lyrics are decent, sometimes generic, but not mindless. There's some neat riffing and breakdowns aplenty, though perhaps the solo at the end of Rise and Fall takes the cake for me. The bass is audible and crisp, something The Agonist's sophomore release actually lacks and their debut did better at.
Alissa's clean singing and the drums that are the worst components by far. The two combined take away from the intensity that was being driven by the uncleans and the guitars. I understand that this is, on a broad scale, a metalcore record. Metalcore almost always has singing. That is not the problem. Clean singing can bring tremendous power. I honestly just can't stand Alissa's cleans, and probably never will. Yes, plenty of people love her voice and think she sounds like an angel, whatever. I don't. To me, she always sounds whiny, off key, and lacking in genuine emotion, and it truly shows in Only Once Imagined. It seems she is always sharp when she tries to belt and always flat when she's not. I guess that's why I find her more bearable in "Serendipity", because she's relatively softer. The chorus to "Take a Bow" is incredibly underwhelming, and "Business Suits" at 4:02 where she belts out an amazingly flat "the boh oh oh oh owwr uhh uhhh ohh oh ohhh" is insufferable. The drums are simply not fit for a metal band. The members themselves said how Derek Nadon was not a metal drummer, and claimed he even held them back. The drums have no punch to them. They sound very light and for lack of a better term, ***ty. It sounds like a few toms are getting hit while the snare was not tuned properly. I'm not saying there needs to be blast beats galore, but some double kicks, a stronger sounding snare, and more variety could spice up a dull, lacking performance. The production even sounds unremarkable. There's no volume to the songs. Every bit seems to be the same. “Born Dead, Buried Alive” had this brought to my attention when the opening guitar riffs seemed strangely quiet.
With a better clean vocalist and Simon McKay stopping by early, this record could have made more of an impact. But it would not have stood out anymore. Honestly Alissa is the best part of the album singing aside. She's the most versatile of the group by far. The singing and drums were all that had me cringing, but that doesn't mean that other times I didn't shake my head. The instrumental bit after the first chorus in "Rise and Fall" had me waiting, bored, but was thankfully saved by the final minute of the song. The lyrics "*** you, ***ing hypoctite" in "Trophy Kill" marked the first time I'd ever call lyrics from The Agonist immature. Speaking of the lyrics, the themes are worth a nod of approval, critisizing humanities tendency to be inheritly selfish, killing one another, and nature, and animals. Oh, and hating God, or rather hating preachers of God. It's a theme that is universal, unless you are religious, but has been done before, and is the theme to every ***ing song on OOI, minus maybe “Serendipity”, which strikes me as a song about abortion. It's only after the debut that Alissa stepped up her lyric game, delivering lines that brought about vivid imagery and wide vocabulary. Basically OOI is The Agonist in high school while “Lullabies for the Dormant Mind” is the Agonist at a univeristy majoring in English and “Prisioners” is The Agonist as a distinguished professor teaching at an Ivy League school.
So no, Once Only Imagined did not join the ranks of Killswitch's “As DayLight Dies” or Whitechapel's “The Somatic Defilement”. But it's not god awful. A dedicated fan would probably like it, and the average metalhead Joe could pick apart a few things he enjoyed. If anything, it's the forgotten record of The Agonist because it seems so seperate from what we now know as The Agonist. Had it not been for “Business Suits and Combat Boots” (an extremely overrated song, IMO) still being added to live setlists today, many would have forgotten about it. It truly should have been a demo. I could have chalked the quality up to college kids trying to make a metal record. Without a permanent drummer though, it seems that they were still finding their feet.
Thankfully after touring for two years with bands like God Forbid, Enslaved, The Facless, and Arsis, The Agonist learned a lot before heading back into the studio.
-Synopsis/Rise and Fall