TVD Live: Life of Agony at Starland Ballroom, 9/13

In 1993, the world of heavy metal was in flux. Grunge had entered the scene and helped give birth to the “alternative metal” genre, one that tended to be an amalgamation of various metal styles. One of the commercially less successful but critically lauded bands, both by press and fans, was Brooklyn, New York’s Life of Agony.

Their debut album, River Runs Red, and its follow-up, 1995’s Ugly, contained some of the most raw, emotional, and harrowing lyrical content, coexisting with thick, heavy riffs that spanned styles from hardcore to slower sludge metal. After calling it quits in 1999, the band has reunited a couple of times and drifted back apart again. The time felt right once once more, and there was no venue more appropriate than the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey for the occasion.

We arrived at the venue, said a few hellos, and after a few conversations, acquired a perfect spot at stage right. The show, which had sold out very quickly, was packed tight with fans eager to witness the reunion. We arrived right after opener Diablo Blvd finished, but the feedback I heard from people during and after the show was very positive.

A Pale Horse Named Death was up next. Led by Sal Abruscato on vocals and guitar, he was pulling double duty for the night, as he’s also the drummer for Life of Agony. One interesting dynamic about APHND is that in the band are two former drummers of gothic metal legends Type O Negative—Sal, and Johnny Kelly who took over on the drums in Type O when Sal left to join Life of Agony in 1993. Looking on in the crowd during the set was Type O guitarist Kenny Hickey—tonight was a night of multiple reunions.

A Pale Horse Named Death is not too far removed from its roots in Type O Negative, while standing on its own two feet and remaining unique. Low, heavy riffs and a slower tempo made for a fantastic set of doomy, gothic metal. The gloomy, heavy chug of “Devil in the Closet” sounded superb, and the trio of guitars by Sal and Matt Brown on rhythm and Eddie Heedles on lead created a noise so thick you could cut it up and serve it for dinner.

Sal commented on how special it was that Starland was the setting for the night’s festivities, and the crowd cheered in affirmation. “Shallow Grave” was another standout of the set, somehow managing to get their sound even deeper and heavier with magnificent vocals on the chorus. A Pale Horse Named Death finished out their set, and Sal presumably went to rest before playing his second set of the night.

As the lights dimmed and the intro music began, the crowd blew its proverbial stack and roared in anticipation. I turned around and was face to face with Sal, singer Mina Caputo, and bassist Alan Robert, who was surrounded by his family.

The three looked like a bundle of excited energy and before long took the stage and went right into “River Runs Red.” The entire floor seemingly hit the release button on whatever was holding them back, and moshing and crowd surfing began immediately. One thing of note was the fantastic staff at Starland who tirelessly insured that the overeager fans came to no harm during the melee. Mina would later acknowledge this onstage to a round of applause from the audience.

After “This Time” and the grinding “Method of Groove,” the band was fully in their zone. Mina Caputo’s voice was in fine form, and she happily engaged the crowd at every turn. Guitarist Joey Z was one part musician, one part hype man, yelling and encouraging the crowd, who responded immediately every time. Alan Robert didn’t stand still for more than 1.5 seconds at a time, alternating between spots facing the audience and drifting over to face his family. In what was, by far, the cutest thing I have ever seen at a metal show, Robert drifted back towards his amp, turned and blew kisses back and forth with his young daughter.

They continued with the emotional “Other Side of the River” and “Bad Seed” sped things up and got the crowd jumping. The vibe onstage was electric, and I’m not referring to the instruments. It was plain to see that this was a reunion done for all the right reasons. The interaction between band members was genuine and light. For instance, there was the moment were Mina’s boot came down into a tangle of cords on the stage, and inadvertently unplugged guitarist Joey Z’s guitar. Rather than get upset and frustrated, the two joked and had a laugh about it once he was plugged back in. Their smiles mirrored the smiles of the fans. Many, including myself, had been waiting a long time to see this happen. I drove three hours from D.C. to get to New Jersey, yet some in attendance had flown from Europe for the show. That is devotion.

After “I Regret,” all but Joey and Mina left the stage, and after technical problems thwarted Joey’s plan to play acoustic, he plugged his Strat back in, and the duo played “My Mind is Dangerous.” Mina’s acoustic seemed to work ok, and she stood alone at center stage and played a different, yet beautifully slow version of “Let’s Pretend.” During the song, Joey was sitting on the stage at stage left, embracing his two children. I said that this show was special, and it was truly a family affair, with both their blood relatives and their family of fans in the crowd. Not a single person in attendance wasn’t moved somehow by this performance.

Mina apologized with a chuckle for “putting everyone to sleep,” and the band returned to the stage. The second that Alan played the recognizable bass intro to “Through and Through,” the crowd instantly came back to life in an instant frenzy. Life of Agony closed out the night with “Underground.” The whole band said heartfelt thank-yous to the crowd, and to cap things off the right way, Alan Robert stagedove and crowd surfed on top of the appreciative fans.

In my job as a reviewer of live music, we are supposed to maintain a calm objectivity to a performance. There are exceptions to the rule. There are those occasions when the music fan in us has to let go and just lose its shit from time to time. This, for me, was one such show. I have been a Life of Agony fan for 21 years now, and I can honestly say I was every bit as excited for this show as every other fan in the Starland Ballroom that evening.

I felt the electricity along with every other person who was there and remember seeing the smiles on the faces of those who were moved as I left the venue. I have gotten goosebumps a couple of times while writing this. In a time when bands either get onstage and phone it in for the money or reunite for as a business decision, it was a real shot in the arm to see a band you love so dearly take that stage, have fun, enjoy sharing the space with each other, and put on a phenomenal show.

Life of Agony only has one more US date scheduled in October. We can only hope that instead of a handful of performances this year that maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of a new chapter for Life of Agony. As it says in “Words and Music,”  “It’s these words and music / That keeps me living, keeps me breathing.





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