Metal has been obsessed with necromancy for ages, but few get to live it. No matter how hard Charon has tried to ferry their souls across the river Styx, the past few years have borne witness to a number of New Wave of American Heavy Metal greats refusing to pay the toll and coming back from the dead.
Tulsa, Oklahoma’s The Agony Scene have spent the past 11 years sailing the waters of Styx and Acheron, but Tormentor is their musical Phlegethon, a current overflowing with pent-up creative fire. Their astounding comeback record—due out via new labels, Outerloop Records and Cooking Vinyl, on July 20—must have been inspired by Dionysus while the band lingered in Hades, as their creative juices are beautifully fermented like a fine wine.
Few lost souls raised by Hecate retain the memory of what made them great in their past lives, but Tormentor is a master of fury, energy, and—impressively—mood. Guitarist Chris Emmons notes that The Agony Scene’s varied past helped shape their future. “One thing that is weird is how each record, to me, is very much its own,” he says. “On the new one, you can hear elements of the other stuff. The thing we did want was to sound fresh. We didn’t want some rehash, and we weren’t trying to please everyone. There are people who still love our [2003 debut] self-titled record, but we were kids when we wrote that. We wanted to keep it fresh, and the result is really what came out. The only intention we had was to make what we wanted, to make sure we were really happy with it.”
“I remember looking back at moments where one of us wasn’t feeling something, and I’d say, ‘No, I think it’s fine,’” he continues. “Retrospectively, if I thought it was ‘fine,’ it wasn’t good enough; we should’ve kept working on it. I don’t think anyone goes into it with the mentality that good enough is just good enough, but it just happens sometimes, and we made sure that didn’t happen this time.”
When one successfully wakes the dead, it’s tough not to shout it to the heavens, but the band made sure all of their ducks were in a row before announcing the record. “We decided to keep quiet until we had something real to present,” Emmons explains. “It was hard to not say anything, but we didn’t want to speak too soon. We wanted to take care of business first.”
A big part of this growth and maturity was a sense of gratitude and knowing how to act on it. “The difference from then to now is—I don’t want to say we took anything for granted back then, but you just change,” Emmons shares. “Eleven years go by, and you grow up. You realize how awesome what you had was. We didn’t take it for granted; we knew we were lucky to be in that position to put records out and play shows. It’s just even more special now, getting a second chance. Not every band gets to pick everything up 11 years later.”
That perspective led to a renewed energy and attention to detail, and taking ownership of their creative revival made the process more rewarding for the band. “This was just so much more focused and planned out,” Emmons says of Tormentor. “We got the producer we wanted, the artist we wanted. Everything about it, we’ve been hands-on. Over the last 10 years, just in our personal lives, we’ve gone to school, held down management positions—we’ve just grown as people. It led to a much more focused record from top to bottom: thematically, art, riffs, everything. We were more professional about it. It actually makes being in a band much easier.”
During the time Emmons spent in creative Hades, how often did he think about old times? “I would daydream quite a bit,” he admits. “I miss being different places. I love being at home. Sure, when I’m on the road, I miss home and want to be here, but it’s cool to be in California every few months and see your friends out there. I daydreamed about travel quite a bit. We all had the spark during our years apart, but when we finally played together, that’s when it really lit up and took ahold of us.”
Releasing music before the advent of ubiquitous social media—sorry, Tom, Myspace doesn’t count—was a whole different beast, and Emmons notes that there have been other adjustments as well. “There’s a difference between being 23 and in your 30s,” he says. “A lot of changes happened there, but to play a reunion show and feel that old feeling, the spark’s there. That’s how it came to be. You just feel like you’re not satisfied with the day-to-day grind. The thought, for me, is if I’m going to work all day for not a ton of money, I might as well enjoy my life. One of the happiest periods of my life was playing music. It’s great to be able to create and also to help other people with it.”
Tormentor touches on religion—always a tough subject for The Agony Scene, who started out on a Christian label—but it’s about so much more. The record’s creative spark was ignited by a famous quote. “The record touches on religious, political, and even personal demons,” Emmons elaborates. “Everyone’s got that ‘tormentor’ in their life; it can be anything. The idea of the tormentor came along when we were talking about the Winston Churchill quote that history is always written by the victors of the battle. So, what if the religion we know was written by the victors—but maybe not the just side. It started turning into the idea of: what if the God of the Bible is actually the tormentor, not Satan. Maybe Satan was just trying to give people knowledge and freedom, whereas God was presenting the torment, the jealousy, the wrath. It’s not the theme of the record by any means, but it spun off from there.”
The band’s creative focus wasn’t limited to just theme. Tormentor is their most musically unified record, timeless in its purposeful flow and passion. That’s no accident, as they took an old-fashioned approach. “We wanted mood,” Emmons asserts. “We were looking for more than just riffs, heavy parts, and fast parts. We wanted to have an atmosphere without being too atmospheric, throwing in tons of keyboards or interludes. You can get caught up in riffs all day, but if it doesn’t have the right feeling, it doesn’t stay with you.”
“It only makes sense that we really wanted to focus on making a record that flows and has a feeling and is actually very cohesive when the industry is less and less concerned with records that do that,” he continues. “Of course we come and do that at the most inopportune time, when most people are most concerned with singles. It all makes sense for us. Yeah, why would we quit our jobs to do something that was good for our career, right?” he laughs.
However, it’s that focus and drive that makes Tormentor shine. Comeback records are rarely more ferocious and venomous after a band spend a decade-plus out of the spotlight, but The Agony Scene’s time away allowed for reflection. They stoked their creative fire, and it burns brighter in 2018 than ever before. These Oklahomans weren’t going to lay down and die with coins over their eyes: their creative purgatory only further ignited their creativity and passion.