. issue XIV : v .

by barathron

. artist : latitudes .
. album : agonist .
. year : 2009 .
. label : shels .
. grade : a minus .


In the indelible furrow of etching or pen-and-ink: the hunting scene, the Dutch masters, the Dutch, ahh blunderbusses, powder and ritual, mastery, continental grasslands, nature slipshod harnessed by humanity. Here the wild boar routs the hog dog, turning for, fangs trowel-blunt and gnarled like bark, face pinched. Here the domestic that remembers to kill — albeit on behalf of: we see the instant when it knows it’s been giving — and given — the lie. Here the dog’s eyes finally wild, dismay in his too-human, too-primal mien. Both animals are soundless, though agape in temper and terror. The boor’s teeth are brandished, but there’s barely a glimpse of the dog’s, ahem, canines … as if it wasn’t clear who’d lost. Intimate and still in the moment of the action — too-late to avert but not yet its consequence — the animal reactivity to this terrible determinism catches up our mind; or, the scene’s laid out past and future consequence but halted in the shameless present. This isn’t an illustration we can venerate, but it gives us chills.

Just so, Agonist wheels to confront the listener and render them pensive and vulnerable by its vacillating, staid force, and sublime vocals; Agonist seems to occupy the selfsame energy of the heart — and the temperature of the chase. Indeed, the sepia and off-white of its gut-clenching cover perfectly approaches colorations we associate with sobriety, fragility, and the being most present in a past. There’s something liturgical about Agonist; a weight where, the lighter the touch — as with the falsetto, ghastly ether of song — the heavier the nostalgia. It feels extrapolated to another, and past, time, but immanently and vitally imminent re-present. Post-metal and sludge align their “Latitudes” in Latitudes’ Agonist, which, with moody nuance and dynamic composition, cyclically renews music both euphonious and indurate.

More detached than most sludge, Agonist is disinterested in its own image, antipositivistic, instead intent on the twisting of the knife — which is not quite to say ‘what could be done.’ It’s hard to form a mental image of the band, Latitudes, from only the album; they could be spindly post-rockers or more stolid thrashers. Though they turn out the latter, you had no way to know! Agonist occupies a space perfectly between and so above, generification (and commodification and subscription, &c.). Produced by hot shot Chris Fielding, Agonist is replete with a dangerous splendor, alternately responsive and despondent. Latitudes’ power seems, at first, proportional to the quality of their subwoofer, but another dimension emerges from the vocal tracks. These are more vocalization than song: the emissions of tenuous caws, alive like first cries and deep breaths. Also essential are the complexity of the guitars and their tonal range, and the dexterous efficacy of such brute but shivery drums. Agonist is mostly instrumental — at least four out of the seven songs are solely, and a fifth is ambiguous — if there’s singing, it only contributes pitch. The constitution of Agonist is that of monolithic, intimate power, with an attention to tonal strata most associated with post-metal.

Their nomenclature yields perfect insight into their aesthetic and substantial concerns. “Myth Cathexis” — cathexis being a habitual investment of psychological energy — wagers on the heavyweight of cultural ideation. “Antechamber” is a specious place — what’s it for, this room before a room? Precociously, it prefaces a bigger one, which may explain how it’s come to be that that character at the inception of the murder mystery so often bites it in these spare rooms, midway to liminal, approach, floodgates wide … spare things serve the only interesting functions (that nothing else wants). “Fluxes of the Womb,” or, fluid dynamics of the generative flush, submerges the listener in the vascular heat of the human condition. “Steppe and Veld” — two for one — are harsh expanses that connote … colonialism against and upon tribes, veld with a t, “Hitler never played Risk when he was a kid.” Most importantly, this near-barren and far-bounded environment quite expresses how Agonist’s listener finds himself situated. “Braille” offers both a struggle with sensory deficits and a new mode of reading the world, as well as, in itself, a nuanced terrain. “Hunting Dance” is showy, sinister, haughty, ghastly and sacrosanct, the ritual momentum of one mortal after another. And “Agonist,” so modernly pharmacologic, can offer retrograde appreciation in the contexts of the hunt: the inducement to psychological action.

“Myth Cathexis” is sternly compact, unbending and sturdy. It’s indeed habitual, with a formidable possessive influence. It begins with a stately anger, dogged riffs, insistent and angular, lancing down to a textured bassline. Melodic highlights abound, encasing explorative melodies that break away from the linearity of the riffing, instead, orbiting it. The bridge combines linear and circular elements, all held to an alternating ritual. A more challenging tone strikes mathy and askew — it’s the only fragile tendril in this otherwise stolid song. The drums, aligned, now play the piquant role of the riffs. Then brandishing strums are displayed and held. From a whirlpool of consternation, a persistent darkening bears down with troubled vengeance.

“Antechamber” builds layers in 20-second blocks: a frail guitar; then forthright drums begins the march forward, and the tumbling, melodic guitar continues around, producing a detached, melancholic, ecstatic aura; then an organ, while drum and guitar continue, yields a sacrosanct strain, a joyless compulsion, wooden pews skirting the darkening aisle; at the one-minute mark, “Antechamber” is full-grown and steady, resonant guitars subsuming the organ, but drums and melodic guitar project from the dank texture. A cathartic twist opens emphatic guitars that always return to Major roots, pulling out of the nosedive in the last instant. When unexpected vocals float in natural separation, there’s a nasality and fragility instantly recognizable from the contemporary alternative scene, but it’s sincere and strong, the unique sound and approach redeeming this technique. The crowning vocal note is terrific, powering out emphatically. With a great mix between regular insistence and flowing, crowning washes, “Antechamber” is too repetitive, but fickle and with enough novelty to make a good second track. It displays new strengths but still leaves a lot to be desired, and these both affect the listener so strongly that the repetition doesn’t bother them. The post-rocky interlude is tasteful and temperate. Then they pull out a fierce post-rocky riff like it’s a solo, but its robust, durable, and reverses the judgment about post-rocky effeteness.

“Fluxes of the Womb” is paced with a drum kit and an innocuous start, still managing to manifest a reverberant atmosphere even before they start playing! The light curtain ripple of riffing guitar feels organic, but an oblique, quirky held note on the beat in a few beats gives the lie. Bass — or vox? — begins underneath, and the feedback shakes. There’s a tremble from below…. A powerful guitar begins; physically brute. Scratchy feedback is toothy and coarse, a little unshorn. By the one-and-a-half minute mark, “Fluxes” has entered labor. Dominating guitars take off with such a simple riff and so much force; a bizarre ritualism, too; it’s exceptionally but also unreasonably impactful. A sinister downturn in tone tangles with the drums, and the feedback all-encompassing holds everything else, allowing chords both tuneful and untoward. Feedback conjures a staunch drone — Sonic Youth on bagpipes — and an echoic, spacious close begins. “Fluxes” is a production standout, mobilizing timbres forceful, artful, destabilized and consuming. Birth is a brave, bloody endeavor.

“Steppe and Veld” aptly evoke the slow crawl of vast amounts of land where little grows under the enormous sky. “Steppe” begins with soft riffing and a bright guitar emerging into liminal space. They create an intent, gorgeous atmosphere of slight foreboding (re: listen to that interval…). A bubbling guitar is used on pitched vocals treated like any other instrument. Closing the blunt piece, a strident drone — the bagpipe again — is tough and recalls highlands.

“Braille” drives on showy tops to its outstanding neoclassical riffing. “Braille” resembles its namesake in its staccato transitioning from binary pitches, the high notes curve like domes. A portentous riff, empowered, present and hard-hitting is reduced a dimension without its foundational bass. The texture of “Braille” creates, ironically, an absolute vacuum that’s negatively distressing. Small guitar gestures and tumbling drums stop “Braille” short.

“Hunting Dance,” Agonist’s standout so emotionally and tonally complex, summons quick and total changeups that completely work. It’s an enchanting, cunningly diverse piece. Even by the two-and-a-half minute mark, before “Dance” even properly begins with its vocals, just look how much ground Latitudes have covered! An ambivalent, downtrodden start keeps its ragged itself close, constantly re-gathering its tonal loose ends. Its call-to-arms drum rolls are efficiently obverse and straightforward, and antagonistic guitar chimes act as a rhythmic convener of sorts. Meanwhile, guitar riff arcs stretch above … and then higher. The steep, brash, unheeding melodic downturn into the vox is insolent and rambling, perfectly evoking desiccated grasses and heath. The percussive syncopation here (2:10 – 2:25) is outstandingly mature. The vocals are sort of obliquely nurturing, modest because they have something — though irrelevant — to hide. They’re reticent and haunted, even in content: “Was it a ghost / a hunting ghost / Nearest the skin…?” Latitudes’ songcrafting philosophy seems to insist on the alternate application of balm and choler, and the vocal performance is no exception. Listen to the sinister music turns (4:50, 5:10, 5:15) making squalid, productive dissonance with the gentle vox. The pace increases until out-of-hand, culminating in toothy melodic jolts, then falls to a dirge of transcendent harmony, with feedback let ring and fall.

“Agonist” stalks with a ceremony, like an inception, but despite showy feedback, quiets into spelunking guitars in thin air, negotiating the stifling, close space. “Agonist” is kind of ‘touched’ — there’s a bloodless, precious resonance to it. It’s a song of condensed drums alternately being charged ahead and sitting back, tamed, succumbed and cramped. Appropriately, Agonist closes with a trilling flute … the wildest call of them all.

Agonist is an exceptional post-metal effort: with a tense, equivocal nostalgia, it plays out the intense connection (“cathexis”) we feel to, and the regard we have for (“cathexis”), something most in- and yet pan-human: the chase. The only itch Agonist can’t scratch — extended as it is through time — is displayed in articulo mortis on its cover: the distilled instant in which the fateful chase has, indeed, caught up. Fortunately, it presents the emotional content of that knowing moment precisely. It’s an eloquent album. Highly recommended.

by Brittany Tracy