Saturday, June 16, 2012

June 16: Agent Orange, "Living In Darkness"

Artist: Agent Orange
Album: Living In Darkness
Year: 1981
Label: Posh Boy

Though many may try to deny the connection, it is impossible to ignore the strong bond between the styles of surf rock and punk rock.  From the carefree feeling to the actual musical constructs of both genres, there are countless examples of how similar the two sounds are at their core.  Though clearly, the punk sound borrowed from the surf sound, when the two styles collide, it can yield some of the most exciting and original music ever recorded and few bands capture this idea as perfectly as one finds in the music of punk legends, Agent Orange.  Pulling heavily from the surf sound, as well as unquestionably incorporating a strong foundation in heavy metal, the group's music remains some of the most fierce and original ever recorded, and this core sound can be heard in the later projects of the band members.  This unique sound set them far apart from their peers, and few bands since have so brilliantly fused together these seemingly distant sounds.  Furthermore, though the band has gone through a handful of lineup changes, Agent Orange remains one of the few of the "early" punk bands that still performs and records to this day.  Though they are often overlooked, one cannot deny the fact that Agent Orange was leaps and bounds ahead of their peers, and the amount of influence that the band has had on later groups is similarly undeniable.  As is the case with many bands, it is Agent Orange's first full length recording, 1981's Living In Darkness, that stands as their best, and the album remains just as stunning today is it was more than three decades ago.

Though many are unaware, the truth of the matter is that the lineup found throughout Living In Darkness is not that found on their original EP, as bassist Steve Soto left the band, and would later form The Adolescents.  Yet the reality remains that new bass player James Levesque is just as adept, and the bands' sound is just as pummeling and exciting as it was on their earlier release.  Often bringing speedy, almost crunching riffs, it is his pace that gives the songs an energetic, yet often looming feel, making the bands' sound instantly recognizable.  It is the way his sound perfectly compliments that of guitarist Mike Palm, as his sound is where the balance between punk and surf rock is most apparent.  Whether it is a high-octane riff or he is going off in a different direction, one can cite the work of Palm as some of the most vital in terms of pushing the boundaries on "what" was acceptable within the punk genre.  Rounding out the sound is drummer Scott Miller, and it is his attack which helps to turn many of the tracks into outright anthemic classics.  Whether it is the unforgettable "Bloodstains" or their brilliant take on the classic track, "Miserlou," there is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the album, and it is Living In Darkness that would set the high-water mark for countless bands that followed.

Along with writing and playing guitar, Mike Palm also handled vocal duties throughout Living In Darkness, and he proves to have one of the most ideal punk voices, and the sound of his singing is instantly recognizable.  Sounding most akin to Jello Biafra, Palm's voice has all the grit one could want in a punk singer, and the spirit he brings to the vocals pushes him into the most elite of all singers of his style.  When the rest of the band joins in for the chorus on "Bloodstains," it becomes clear that at its core, the band can pen as good a punk anthem as anyone, and one can easily imagine the song being shouted at Agent Orange's live performances.  It is this group spirit that not only embodies the ethos of the punk style, but it is what makes the entirety of Living In Darkness so amazing, and along with the singing, one can find it in equal measure within the lyrics.  Truly deploying words that can be applied to nearly any situation, few lyrics so perfectly capture the angst and frustration of being "down and out" as one can find in many songs on this album.  Whether he is using the more traditional punk themes of anti-authority or anti-corporation, it is when Palm turns the pen on the community which he himself is a part of, encouraging them to take more pride in their individuality that one can see just how vital a role Agent Orange played in the overall punk scene.

While Agent Orange may not have as instantly recognizable a name as many other seminal punk bands, their influence on alter artists cannot be denied.  In reality, one can even make the claim that The Offspring completely lifted the core riff from "Bloodstains" on their own hit song, "Come Out And Play."  Though the later group denies this fact, simply listening to the two songs makes this denial very hard to believe.  Regardless, if nothing else, it solidifies the importance of Agent Orange, and one would be hard pressed to find a group that so seamlessly brings together the sounds of punk rock and surf rock.  The bands' debut record even features covers of surf classics like the aforementioned "Miserlou" and "Pipeline," yet there is also never a question of the groups' base within the punk style.  Largely the brainchild of Mike Palm, Living In Darkness is perhaps the ultimate punk crossover, as the band makes no attempt to hide their love for surf rock, and somehow manages to make clearly surf-based solos fit perfectly into the punk chaos that they created.  The trio bring as much power and angst as larger bands, and even with the new lineup, the group manages to create an uncanny sense of tension that drives the entire album to a brilliant frenzy that surely set off any and every live crowd.  Based around Palm's core of crushing guitar riffs, it is within this aspect of the music that one can also hear the influence of the heavy metal sound, and the fact that the group was able to incorporate this sound as well makes the album even more impressive.  Though often lost among the "larger names" of the punk movement, one would be hard pressed to find a more uniquely innovative band of the genre than Agent Orange, and their musical brilliance is perfectly captured on their legendary 1981 record, Living In Darkness.

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