Retro-Review: ‘River Runs Red’ by Life of Agony

Life of Agony’s 1993 album River Runs Red is one of the most unique albums not only of 1993 or the 1990s in general, but also in the band’s repertoire itself.

Also, it’s one of my favorite albums EVER.

River Runs Red stands alone in the way it sounds. There’s never been an album like it before its release and there’s never been an album since. Heck, Life of Agony themselves haven’t even tried to replicate it.

Which I’d say is a good thing. Sometimes, you just get things right the first time.

Why’s this album unique?

After all, New York Hardcore, which Life of Agony could be called a part of, was in its heyday. With the path cleared by then-hugely popular Biohazard, bands like Madball, Sick of it All and Pro-Pain were gaining respectful fanbases.  

Life of Agony, though, only loosely fits in that category. They weren’t straight ahead and in your face like most New York Hardcore bands. Instead, they were often nuanced, experimental and created songs that reached the listener on a deeper level. Sure, there was that anger there, but an anger rooted in sadness. Whereas most hardcore bands’ angry lyrics were directed outward at institutions such as the police and the government, Life of Agony directed that anger as much inward as outward.

Lyrically, their songs dealt with topics like broken families, loneliness, abandonment and self-hatred. River Runs Red is sort of a concept album in that way, with the songs being broken up by an answering-machine based story about a teenager who is really having one terrible week.

Life of Agony circa the early 1990s

Mina Caputo, then known as Keith, is front and center with a diverse delivery that ranges from croons to snarls that has become one of the most recognizable staple of the band. The songs are based around her vocal delivery, which provide a emotional gut punch and make this album really heavy. Not heavy as in sonic delivery, but in weight. You feel what Caputo feels in this emotional roller coaster which seems to have only one direction: Down.

Alan Robert’s bass adds to the weight, with its deep and clear sound. He doesn’t stick to going along with the bass drum or rhythm guitar like many metal bassists are apt to do. Instead, he is often upfront, providing bass melodies that are crucial to making many of these songs memorable.

Speaking of memorable, guitarist Joey Z provides a lot of fresh sounding rhythms and melodies that I personally never heard before I bought this album. A lot of these songs are recognizable right away, thanks to Z’s delivery.

Finally, then drummer Sal Abruscato is amazing on this album. At the time, he was pulling double duty, being both the drummer for Life of Agony and Type O Negative. Abruscato does more than keep the beat here. He throws a lot of little things, like a secession of snare hits or extra boom on the bass drum, that add to the impact of a song. Like his stuff with Type O Negative, he has a distinctive sound to his drum playing and, man, is it good.

The album

When River Runs Red was first released back in 1993, it seemed that all the reviewers were obsessed with figuring out who Life of Agony sounded like. I never got that. They didn’t, and still don’t, sound like anyone else.

Now, they do have a couple of things in common with Type O Negative. Obviously, that’s Abruscato’s drumming. Aside from that, there’s the gang shouts, which Peter Steele and company used a lot on their album Bloody Kisses, itself a great album released just weeks before River Runs Red.

You’ll hear those gang shouts used to great effect on “My Eyes,” which also has one of the most memorable guitar riffs in metal to kick it off. You’ll hear these gang shouts in other songs like the chorus for the slow moving beast that is “Underground” and the rather soulful “Respect.”

Of course, when it comes to this album, there’s a lot more to talk about than gang shouts.

Life of Agony in the 2010s before the departure of Abruscato.

There’s a lot of songs that you can instantly name thanks to their opening notes. The title track, “River Runs Red,” is an excellent example of that. When you hear “I got the razor to my wrist cause I can’t resist,” you know that song right away. And as my friend the Salty Seaman said, you’ll mark out when you hear it blasting from Dwight Schrute’s car on an episode of The Office, It’s a great song among great songs on this album.

Many of the songs on this album have that instant recognition factor on their opening riffs. You KNOW what’s playing when you hear the first notes of “This Time” and you KNOW what’s playing when you hear the first few bass notes and Caputo’s croon on “Through and Through.” You know those songs and the instant they kick off, you just want to slam dance in your living room, despite being forty-something and having young children who might think you look like a nut … or an ass.

Life of Agony isn’t afraid to experiment on this album, as obvious with the harmonized vocals on “Words and Music” which leads to one of the most mosh-friendly songs on the album. It is in turn followed by “Bad Seed” which is both groovy and hard-hitting as well slow and fast.

That’s one of the best things about River Runs Red. As far as sound goes, it’s an adventure. There’s so many changes of tempo and approach in the songs, it seems like they should just fall apart. But somehow, Life of Agony holds everything together, making all those unsimilar things sound like they should like they belong together.

Method of Groove” is probably the closest you get to what most people had in mind as New York Hardcore back then. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album with Z and Robert being co-vocalists through the verses with Caputo taking over on the chorus. It’s a great song and it grabs one by the emotional neck and doesn’t let go.

The last actual song on the album is “The Stain Remains.” From the ethereal opening it builds to a crescendo that’s like standing in the end. It brings together everything we’ve heard over the album and wraps it into a volatile package, leaving the listener with one final blow and leaving them on the ground as we enter the final chapter of the very depressing wraparound story.

Like I said, that wraparound story is about a kid who is having a very, very bad week. It’s largely told through his answering machine, something we had back in the 1990s when voicemail wasn’t a thing. I don’t want to spoil it for those who never heard the album, but just imagine your life just going to crap within the span of Monday through Friday. If you listened to the first two chapters, “Monday” and “Thursday,” then you have a good idea what happens on “Friday” while “River Runs Red” plays once again in the background.

I’d advise sitting and listening to the album as a whole the first time around, wraparound story and all, after that, you can skip over them unless hearing about this kid’s terrible week over and over again is your thing.

The verdict

Why are you still reading this? You should be online ordering this album right now.

I bought my copy of River Runs Red shortly after its release 25 years ago when I was 16 years old. It has gone from being one of the albums I made sure to keep in my CD case to being one of the ones I make sure to have on my MP3 players.

Like I’ve said about a few other albums, River Runs Red is an experience. It transcends being a collection of songs and really touches you on a deeper level. This is one of the few albums that despite its accolades, just doesn’t seemed hyped enough. Everybody on earth should listen to it. If they did, the world may just be a better place.

Australian Amazon Shoppers, click her to purchase RIVER RUNS RED

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