Agents of Mercy: The Black Forest
  • Production
  • Musicianship
  • Composition
  • Originality
  • Use of Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory

We all reside in a world of instant gratification; if this news comes as a shock to you, it’s highly likely that you live in a cave, or at least in Idaho. We worry about ADD and ADHD in our children, when realistically a great number of those poorly diagnosed cases are simply examples of children who have grown up in the Internet age. Darwin was right: evolution exists — and a short attention span has evolved its way into society. Why exactly is this relevant? Because The Black Forest, the latest effort from Swedish prog rockers Agents of Mercy, absolutely grabbed me by the balls within five seconds, essentially stealing the title belt for “shortest time it’s taken an album to pique my interest” from Van Halen’s debut album, which I first heard when I was seven years old.

An impressive feat from a band led by Roine Stolt. That certainly isn’t a knock on his musical abilities or musical aptitude, both of which he has in great abundance, but my experiences with The Flower Kings, Stolt’s well-known prog giant, have required several listens to really get into. They weren’t bad — far from it, as Stardust We Are remains a personal favorite. They just didn’t capture my attention right away. Now, I consider myself a fairly patient listener, so this isn’t a negative for me like it might be for others, but an album that captures you immediately and throws you directly into the musical vision is hard to come by.

Enter the opening piece, which also happens to be the title track on the album. Talk about getting off on the right foot. The listener is treated to an 11-minute epic that opens with several seconds of dark ambiance before a creeping piano abruptly enters, quickly giving way to some dark, moody progressive goodness. All within 30 seconds. I’d normally give some comparisons to other groups’ work, but I’m hesitant to do so because this track, like most of the others on the album, is unique. Sure, you can find influences here and there (I personally hear an overall mix of a darker Flower Kings, early Genesis and maybe a splash of late 70’s Rush), but none of it feels copied and the overall sound seems unique to Agents of Mercy. The piece keeps up it’s energy throughout, maintains a good balance of dark melody and some bright counterpoint, and is graced with a screaming Lalle Larsson keyboard solo, a common occurrence in the album. Full disclosure: I rate the opening track on The Black Forest as one of the best album openers of all time, in the same class as “Jordrök” off of Änglagård’s album Hybris. It’s that good.

And the party don’t stop there! There lots of diversity to appreciate in this album. The track A Quiet Little Town takes on a funky and sometimes quirky vibe while Citadel almost has a 70’s hard rock quality to it. The most noticeable triumph of The Black Forest, though, lies in its ability to return to the moody atmosphere that defines the concept album; even while it deviates and experiments in an almost organic jam session at times, the point of the story isn’t ever lost. The lyrics are deep, poignant and don’t really seem to insist upon themselves, which is a pretentious way of saying that they don’t seem forced. I won’t spoil the story for you, mostly because I’m too lazy after just two listen-throughs to synthesize it for you. So I’ll let the band do it (straight from their Web site:

“The Black Forest” is a surreal journey –  a mysteriously glowing metaphor for a trip thru  dark, disturbing, scary times, a lifelong uncertain journey bookended by greed, lust, hunger for power & money, eternal life, mindcontrol, – and guess what? …..we’re the prey !!

We navigate thru dark dreams of the immortal, dark waters, eerie topics hinting at death & dreams, forest ghosts, blood countess Elzbeth Bathory’s life, a freak parade of monstruosity galore, a quiet tidy town with hidden horrors, the touring circus of freaks, dark realms of endless wars and lost kingdoms, the unwanted darktowns of our minds ……… fun stuff eh ?

Dark! Disturbing! Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory! Why didn’t I get this album before Halloween!?! And I haven’t even started with the production and instrumentation. Tremendous drumming is made even better by the sound, with perfect (in my opinion) snare drum attack and decay and great cymbal work. The onslaught of keyboard tones are never overwhelming and are always appreciated, and both players (vocalist Nad Sylvan also contributes) get the right patch for the right situation. I couldn’t pick out any obvious playing errors, and I’m sure I’d be nit picking if I went looking for them.

In short, I was abundantly impressed with this album. In fact, if Wobbler hadn’t released Rites At Dawn earlier this year, I would most likely be heralding The Black Forest as the best progressive album of 2011. A deservedly solid rating for an impressive album.