…I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes a bit when I saw this band name. You don’t exactly have to be a huge fan of gaming to know that assassins have developed a huge amount of interest among the general public in the last decade or so thanks to the highly popular Assassin’s Creed series of video games, so a band with the word “assassin” in their name forming since 2007 is pretty much doomed to be written off as being formed by people who like the series too much…unless you pick something like Sanity Assassin, then you are doomed to be written off as being formed by people who like Nevermore too much!
(For the record, yes, there IS a band named Sanity Assassin: they’re from Sweden and play melodic death metal. Their debut was released independently in November last year and I actually like what I’ve heard from it!)
Assassin’s Blade are a band who are from both Sweden and Canada (specifically, the vocalist is Canadian while the guitarist, drummer and bassist are Swedish) that formed in 2014. The band is arguably a supergroup on some levels, as the members may be familiar with people who have kept their ears to the ground about the metal scene: vocalist Jacques Belanger sung on Exciter’s records from 1997 to 2004, guitarist David Stranderud has played on records by the bands Autopsy Torment, Devil Lee Rot and Portrait in the last decade or so, drummer Marcus Rosenqvist has been drumming for Void Moon since 2014 and bassist Peter Svensson has played on records by Cult of the Fox and Void Moon over the last few years. While the big name is almost certainly Belanger, the other guys definitely have some chops of their own! As far as I can tell, this is also the first release of any sort by the band, so they definitely have hit the ground running!
Being honest…I’m not impressed with Agents of Mystification. Is it awful? No: there’s certainly some good moments and I can’t deny that it’s a pleasant enough listen if you like traditional heavy metal. But the eagerness with which it hits every cliche of the genre makes it so predictable that it’s hard to really say that it’ll appeal to anyone except for the hardcore traditional heavy metal fandom and the songwriting as a whole feels like it is less impressive than you would expect from a group with members of the calibre that this band has.
Musically, the whole album is basically a fusion of US power metal and traditional heavy metal, with the occasional bit of doom metal influence slipping in every now and then (‘League of the Divine Wind’ starts out sounding like it’s on the faster side of what you’d hear on a doom metal record). It’s nothing that’s going to set the world on fire, but it’s not a bad sound overall and many bands have made this sound work very well in the past, so it’s not exactly uncharted waters by any measure. Unfortunately, I think the band’s eagerness to stick with the cliches of the genre lets them down: every cliche that you can think of related to traditional heavy metal and US power metal is present on here, played completely straight. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a genre’s conventions, I’ll admit (and, for what it’s worth, I don’t have too much of a problem with it), but, as a critic, I want to hear stuff which is at least trying to offer something new, so retreading the conventions of the genre is a bad mark in my book.
The songwriting, I will admit, is not bad, but there are issues I feel I should highlight. Probably the big one, surprisingly, is that I feel the epic on the album, ‘League of the Divine Wind’, ends earlier than it should do. The pacing isn’t the best on it to start with, admittedly (I found it dragged a lot), but it feels like it ended more because nobody knew how to continue it than because it had reached a satisfying conclusion. It says a lot that my first response to it finishing was “…That’s really what you’re ending on?”, because it didn’t feel like a proper conclusion to the song at all. I also feel like the songwriting failed to really grab my attention, as most of it didn’t really leave an impact upon me beyond “Yep, that sounds like what I’d expect to hear from this sort of record”. That doesn’t make anything bad, admittedly (certainly, I did find some songs decent enough, like ‘Transgression’), but I just wasn’t grabbed by it.
The performances on the record on the instrument front are actually fairly good, though nothing that is going to impress progressive metal fans. While Svensson feels like he got the short of the end of the stick overall, as his bass work is generally not that interesting, I will say that Rosenqvist’s drumming is very solid (I particularly like his drumming at the start of ‘Transgression’, although his drumming across the whole record is honestly a highlight for me!) and Stranderud is not a bad guitarist at all, with some very good lead guitar and rhythm guitar across the record as a whole. Not a lot I can fault them for, really!
Belanger’s vocals on the record can be summed up as basically being like a more aggressive Rob Halford. The problem, unfortunately, is that his performance style has been done by so many other US power metal vocalists that it doesn’t really feel that unique and there are enough vocalists out there who do it better than Belanger (including Tim Owens) that it’s hard to really enjoy his performance now. That’s not to say Belanger is a bad vocalist, though: on his own merits, there’s nothing wrong with his voice at all, as he has a decent vocal range and his falsetto means that he is capable of hitting some surprisingly high notes. His vocal tone is also not bad, although the more aggressive edge to his voice that he uses in some of the lower notes on the record that he sings does seem a bit forced to me.
The production of the record is honestly pretty good. It could do with a better bass guitar mix, as I felt it was lacking a bit in that regard, but the overall sound is actually fairly solid beyond that: the guitars and drums are well mixed (though I think the guitar could have done with a bit more of a kick to it, as it does feel like it is lacking some proper punch to it), the vocals are high in the mix without dominating the rest of the record and the general sound does feel fairly good. Credit to everyone involved in the production for this record, you did a good job!
Ultimately, I think that Agents of Mystification, while not bad by any measure, just suffers from being too heavy on the cliches and from songwriting that, while not hitting any lows at all, simply should have been better, which is disappointing when you remember that the members have been part of other bands in the past. There’s definitely potential here for this record to be liked and I can’t say that I dislike this record, but it feels like it’s more aimed towards people who love traditional heavy metal and US power metal and don’t want much more than that. That’s not a bad audience to aim for and it definitely should go over well among that audience, but, for me personally, I feel that it doesn’t do enough to win me over. Take my opinion on this one with a good pinch of salt if you want to, but I’m not convinced that I can give this a recommendation to most people, as I don’t feel it does enough to break out of the niche it has set itself in and the lack of anything really unique to the band makes it unlikely to get the support of all but the most diehard of traditional heavy metal/US power metal fans. Not a bad record, but nothing special either.
Agents of Mystification will be released on the 29th of April by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.