It’s almost hard to believe that we’re now 10 years removed from the 2013 release of Deafheaven’s sophomore effort Sunbather, a record that pulled just as much from the sublime, hazy realm of shoegaze as it did late 90’s black metal and screamo, and one that simultaneously had thousands of fresh ears fixated on metal as a genre alongside an equal number of die-hard fans with serious doubts of the merit and sincerity of the artists spearheading this new wave. In 2023 however, with genre-blurring at an all-time high, the once outlandish idea of black metal bringing an uplifting or positive mood sonically is far from one that garners surprise, and alongside the aforementioned, bands such as Alcest, Ghostbath and Liturgy have taken their own unique approaches to melding the genre’s core elements with previously foreign and straight up unwelcome shades of alternative rock and shoegaze. It frankly feels hard to turn heads with this particular approach to extreme music in 2023, but apparently not impossible: enter California band Agriculture, who’s debut self-titled LP for The Flenser stands as one of most passionate and sonically boundary-pushing releases the US black metal scene has seen in many years.
While clocking in at just under 32 minutes in length, there’s an epic sense of scale to this record that’s unable to be ignored. It's noticeable right from the moment opening track “The Glory And The Ocean” transitions from the sublime opening solo guitar intro that sounds like it could have been pulled straight from Mr. Bungle’s California into an explosive shimmer of heavy post rock for it’s first half. It shape-shifts again as the black metal hallmarks of blastbeats, high pitched screams and lightning fast melodic riffage hit with the force of a freight train. This 8 minute song could ride that out, but instead swerves into an incredibly heavy and catchy groove before regaining speed for it’s bright and triumphant end. The surprises don’t stop there, with the following track “The Well” throwing a sonic curveball in the form of acoustic guitar and clean vocals that evoke the most soulful, somber moments of grunge bands like Alice In Chains or Soundgarden for 2 minutes before adapting that same melody into much more extreme territory with the next song, the first of a three-parter called “Look”. The twists and turns continue to the album’s end, from the inclusion of saxophone in some of the records most intense moments and a sense of controlled chaos where everything can feel moments away from a complete loss of control before the band reigns it in just at the right moment.
All the while, Agriculture manage to never wear out the welcome of any particular moment in that song by resting on one particular sonic moment for too long, though they still allow its most engaging moments time to cement themselves. Bolstering all of this is an incredible recording that perfectly captures the band’s performance with a sonic clarity that makes every song feel like it’s own living, breathing entity. While certainly there’s a charm to the muddy, lo-fi production that has been a staple of so many legacy and modern black metal bands, it’s refreshing to hear a record of this style with such a stunning amount of punch and clarity. That coupled with the excellent songwriting chops on display here form something truly special, a record that is immediately impactful and one that continues to latch onto you with every subsequent listen.
Bottom Line: It’s been a long time since the term “ecstatic black metal” has been the cause for excitement, but what Agriculture has brought here with their first full length is enough to make anyone even remotely interested in extreme music pay close attention. Time will tell if this release has the same hugely influential impact that US black metal’s then new wave did roughly a decade ago, but certainly it’s the most exciting and fulfilling release the subgenre has seen in years.