Strung Out's Blackhawks Over Los Angeles was a record that had a lot of ups and downs. The album showcased the band's improving musicianship and songwriting but the production really brought the record down. Singer Jason Cruz's voice felt processed in too many areas and it restricted the power that his vocals usually have. I also felt that the band tried a bit too hard to showcase their skills as musicians with unnecessary flourishes and solos. But the biggest problem I had with the album was that I had no idea how the band would build off it and that they were at the end of their rope. Thankfully, Strung Out have returned sounding better than they have in nearly a decade with their new album, Agents of the Underground.
Agents of the Underground sounds like a perfect mixture of Strung Out's older skate punk sound and their newer, more technical lenient sound. This album is full of melodies that made albums like Twisted by Design and Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues great but still has that heavier edge that their last two albums had. It's actually a nice medium for the band. They did a very good job of eliminating a lot of the excess wankery and over-production that was present on Blackhawks Over Los Angeles and the guitar duo of Rob Ramos and Jake Ira Kiley use their technical abilities to build melodies and heavy riffs rather than constantly having a shred-off.
Most of the tracks aren't anything out of the norm for the band, and it's Strung Out doing what they do best, only better. The band sounds a lot more energetic than they did on their past couple of records, which is evident on tracks like "Jake Knife" and the hard-hitting "Nation of Thieves." The former contains one of the best melodies I've heard from a punk record this year in it's powerful chorus. It's also one of the few tracks where Ramos and Kiley show of their work on the fretboard. "The Fever and the Sound" and "Vanity" are almost perfect examples of Strung Out combining their older skate punk melodies with their newer, heavier sound.
The closer, "Andy Warhol" gives the album a great sendoff as it's the main lyrical standout of Agents of the Underground as it sends a message of daring people to try something new rather than nothing at all.
You can't write a song if you've never lost anything you've truly loved / You can't start a fire crying in the rain / So light a fire, leave it all behind / Hit the road and lose your mind / Find out what it is you really need.
A good amount of songs on the album seem to be about leaving the past behind, starting a new life and the end of the world possibly being near. Most of these lyrics are written very well with the only notable exception being the disastrous "Carcrashradio," which, thankfully, is catchy enough to not be a skippable track.
The production on Agents of the Underground is really what makes the record for me. It's almost a flashback to Exile in Oblivion where the production was somewhat polished, but not too much. It really fits the band's sound a lot better. The one complaint I have is that Cruz's vocals are a tad over-produced again on a few songs but it's not as over the top as it was on Blackhawks Over Los Angeles and Cruz keeps a good sense of melody throughout the vibe, but it does lack a lot of intensity.
Agents of the Underground is a record that definitely took me by surprise. I enjoy just about every record in Strung Out's catalog but I honestly didn't see this record impressing me as much as it did. It's almost like they've been completely re-energized as a band after being taken down a little bit on Blackhawks Over Los Angeles. Agents of the Underground has the band reaching that perfect balance of punk and metal they've been aiming for years now. Well done, Strung Out.
8.7 / 10
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