Advancing the avant-garde in Houston's metal scene, the four-piece Agamemnon may be a band you’ve never heard of, but soon that unfamiliarity will be ancient history. Coming off the victorious January 30 release of their self-titled EP, Agamemnon is the stuff of ancient Greek gold or creative metal gold, whichever you prefer. Either way, this Houston ensemble is doing something gorgeously unexpected and unapologetic: bold, instrumental progressive metal.
Relaxing over a few beers on a warm spring day at Axelrad, founding members Tommy Middleton (bass) and Tim Walker (guitar) explain the transition from ordinary metal band to the Agamemnon of today. “We had a vocalist at one point,” Middleton explains. “When [he left] we just carried on, and pretty soon we realized we didn’t need one.”
“People tell us from time to time, ‘Oh, you need a singer,’” Walker wags his finger as both members laugh, shaking their heads. It’s certainly hard to imagine the success of a band without a front person in the limelight, yet after listening to Agamemnon's EP, it becomes even harder to imagine them changing.
While both Middleton and Walker realize that may turn some people off, it’s a risk they’re willing to take. Audiences long for a hero, a crooner, that centralized rock-star force that personifies the music and interprets the lyrics. A central figure leads the audience in how they react to the music, which is why they’re so key to a live performance. Yet these things are not really the focus of Agamemnon. They’re not trying to be heroes; after all, they didn’t name themselves "Achilles."
Instead, this interesting dynamic affords Agamemnon subjective artistic interpretations of their music. “You can bring whatever you want to the music, whatever is in you," says Walker. "Like your own sound track to your experience.”
That's a radical idea, kind of like interpreting visual art. Agamemnon’s music is really best translated by its listeners, for whom a transformative listening experience awaits.
Agamemnon capitalizes on one of metal's most interesting nuances, namely its love of historical imagery. As with Agamemnon's Trojan War reference, the genre often tells the story of tumultuous military campaigns: Slayer’s interpretation of WWII, Amon Amarth’s Viking tales, Thy Art Is Murder’s children of war, Metallica’s "One," Black Sabbath’s "War Pigs" and Nile’s every-ancient-thing-known-to-modern-man.
Yet, for Agamemnon, so many avenues remain untapped. Being instrumental allows them to take artistic liberties unbound by lyrical themes. While the name touches on Greek history, without lyrics, they’re not obligated to it. From experimentation within the genre to actually creating a film sound track, Agamemnon can do whatever they please.
It’s something they’re already doing, and doing well. Their song “Division” plays with recorded voice loops and noise, brave experimental stuff for a group of young guys not yet 30 years old. They’ve been able to avoid the rigidity that metal is known for, sidestepping those inclusive boundaries that have kept much of it formulaic and bland for years. The genre may contain a dozen subcategories and titles, as well as a reputation of elitism among its fan base, but Agamemnon is not concerned with following anyone’s idea of what metal should sound like.
For that, they deserve immense thanks.
Ballsy and masterful, songs like “Dominus” open with such a powerful display of force that it’s hard to comprehend why they claim fewer than 40 followers on Spotify. Mind-blowing and nasty, the bass in songs like “Chryseis” and “Purple Reign” routes them to such unexpected and aggressive places, you don’t immediately recognize the guitar has changed to jazz. The group's songs contain intricate arrangements so subtle that they often maneuver effortlessly between movements within a single song. To call these guys talented is a gross understatement.
Such complexity is deliberate, Middleton admits.
“We like to take a song and turn it on its side,” he laughs.
With songs resembling labyrinthine architecture more than simple melodic blueprints, it’s easy to see why Walker and Middleton laugh at their own joke. Yet the pleasure is all for the listener.
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There’s no easy letup or lax construction here. All of their songs are complex yet beautiful, qualities that make prog so sonically captivating. Mean and brutal with elements of aural landscapes unheard of in other forms of metal, it’s why the nerdiest corner of the metal room is inhabited by guys with long hair and Opeth shirts. The music is quite markedly superior in skill and execution.
Agamemnon plays music for musicians. Their musical variety is the fine stuff best appreciated by the knowing and artful ear of metal connoisseurs. In all honesty, my own discovery of the group was through musicians whom I know and admire. It’s the best way to learn of new music, when you find a gifted player gushing over an undiscovered talent.
Houston, it’s your turn.
Agamemnon perform tonight at Walters Downtown with Intronaut and Scale the Summit; March 27 during Axelrad's Grand Opening Party; and April 17 at Walters with Plini and Intervals. For more information, see facebook.com/agamemnonhtx.