Agent Fresco – “Destrier” (2015)

That moment.

If you’re a music fan, you know the one I’m talking about.  That moment when you’re ready to hear the new album by one of your favorite bands.  You’ve waited a long time for this.  God, I hope it doesn’t suck.  What if it sucks?  That would be terrible!  But it won’t suck, because the band is awesome.  But that lingering doubt… what if I don’t like it?  Will I feel disappointed, or like I somehow betrayed them with my dislike?  Am I the only one who goes through this?  I think not.  But maybe I am.  What if I don’t like it???

It’s been about five years since Agent Fresco released their debut LP, the mammoth 17-song A Long Time Listening, an album built around five tracks from their first ever release, the six-song 2008 EP Lightbulb Universe.  Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, who is quite often way ahead of the music curve than yours truly, brought that CD home from our Iceland Airwaves experience in 2009, but I didn’t get on the Agent Fresco train until we saw them live for the first time a year later at Reykjavik’s ultimate music venue, NASA.  And they crushed it.


Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2011

I’ve seen Agent Fresco live five more times since then.  I’ve seen them play in bars, in clubs, and an acoustic show in a museum.  I even saw them twice in the same day just so I could make sure to get my hands on a vinyl copy of A Long Time Listening after the second show, having bought their live CD Live at Gamla Bíó at the first.  I was once referred to unironically as an “Agent Fresco superfan.”  So I can’t promise you an unbiased review of Destrier.  But is that really what you want?  I mean, really?  Or do you want to an honest review by a fan who loves Agent Fresco’s work?  One who desperately wants their new album to be epic, but is secretly afraid that it won’t be able to plum the emotional depths of its predecessor.  Well, that’s up to you.  But today I got access to a pre-release copy of Destrier (oh, don’t worry, I already have my vinyl copy on pre-order…).  And I can’t wait to listen to it.

I’ve done my best to not listen to any of the material from Destrier until now.  I’ve avoided the videos and singles.  I wanted to hear it all, straight through, for the first time as a complete work (though, to be 100% accurate, I believe I heard a few of these songs live in 2013).  So here it goes.

Agent Fresco - Destrier

To me the element that truly defines Agent Fresco’s sound on A Long Time Listening is Arnór Dan Arnarson’s voice and the emotional power it carries.  And certainly Arnór’s voice is incredible on Destrier.  But more on that a bit later.  If I had to squeeze and condense my thoughts on Destrier into just one word, that word would be dense.  The sheer musical density of the soundscapes the band creates and Arnór accompanies is, frankly, difficult to comprehend.  And that’s saying something, because Agent Fresco has always been a challenging band, with their seemingly jazz-influenced timing structures and changes that can leave the listener off-balance while also conveying a tremendous amount of feeling.

I went back and listened to A Long Time Listening again, as well as the song “Tape End,” the only track on Lightbulb Universe that didn’t make it onto their debut LP.  I wanted to get a sense of how Agent Fresco’s sound has developed over time.  There are certainly some changes, but the more I listen to Destrier the more I can hear the similarities as well, just nuanced in different ways.  Þórarinn Guðnason has shown impressive development on the keyboards/piano – even the first time hearing the opening moments of the album’s second song “Dark Water” shows that, and he only gets better as you work your way through the track list.  In many instances it is the keyboard that sets the initial mood of Desetrier‘s songs.

But the real gem of Destrier is the incredible percussion work of Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson.  Keli doesn’t just keep the beat.  He provides flourishes and fills and attacks the skins with so much abandon that at times the drums make the songs feel like a stormy sea that’s just battering your senses.  His drumming has a personality.  But he’s not just an uncontrollable monster on the skins, like Animal on The Muppets (though with that amazingly huge red hair of his, there are some similarities beyond their shared love of drumming); he knows when to use that power, and he knows when to be subtle, like in the quieter parts of “Pyre.”  Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane actually remarked the other night as we were listening to Destrier that Kelli gave the best live percussion performance she’d ever seen in her life when we saw Agent Fresco perform at Reykjavik’s Nordic House in 2012… an acoustic set at which he did the entire show using just his hands and a wood box.  No drums.  A wood box.  And his hands.  And it was brilliant.  He’s versitle as hell, and his influence is all over Destrier.

AgentFresco_Birta Ra'n Photography

Copyright Birta Ra’n Photography, 2015

The challenge in describing Destrier is that I hear something different in it every time I listen.  Whether it’s on the stereo, on the computer, or on headphones, every listening both reveals something new and destroys some preconception I’d built up about it.  Right now I’m all about the quieter songs on the album, many of which are grouped in the second half of its 14 tracks.  There’s just something about Arnór’s that makes it ideally suited for singing alongside the keyboards as he does on songs like “Let the Curtain Fall,” “Bemoan,” “Death Rattle,” and “Mono No Aware.”  His voice is clean, even in the higher register where he seems to keep it throughout much of Destrier.  Arnór is certainly known for his high notes, but he seems to be taking them to the next level on this album, both with power and frequency, spending more time signing high than he did on A Long Time Listening.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to shred his throat to pieces when the song calls for it, so I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear him let loose on “Angst,” reminiscent of some of Agent Fresco’s earlier, more metal-like work.

It’s difficult to pick a high point on Destrier.  The album offers a range of styles, and really it kind of depends on what mood I’m in.  “Dark Water” has a near-perfect Icelandic opening and maintains an atmospheric and natural vibe throughout; “Wait For Me” with it’s vocal effects on Arnór’s voice (a rarity in the world of Agent Fresco) just begs for radio airplay; “Autumn Red” and “Angst” are great rockers; and “Death Rattle” and “Let Fall the Curtain” are soothing trips across the smooth lake water on a still morning.  Whatever mood you’re in, Agent Fresco has something to fill your soul on Destrier.

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