Agrimonia’s New Album Shows What Can Happen When Crust Grows Up
Photo by Anders Bergstedt

Agrimonia’s New Album Shows What Can Happen When Crust Grows Up

The Swedish post-metal iconoclasts display deep crust punk roots on new album 'Awaken,' and the way they interpret the genre says a lot about its past—and its future.
January 25, 2018, 6:00pm

As any punk worth their “no gods, no masters” tattoo can tell you, crust punk’s earliest roots burrow deep into the hard-packed soil of Northern England and Sweden. It’s from here whence the bastard genre’s progenitors—Amebix, Antiect, Anti Cimex, Mob 47, Hellbastard—first came, kicking, screaming, and spitting out their visions of war atop atonal kängpunk riffs. Today, it’s a global genre, with offshoots continuing to leave a trail across multiple countries and continents (including North America, which lays its own heavy claim to the genre by way of early actors like Disrupt, early Neurosis, His Hero Is Gone, Aus Rotten, Nausea, and general 90’s-era New York City filth).

However, this breed of metallic punk still seems to thrive best in cold weather, left to rust beneath an iron-gray sky. For just one example, Gothenburg—a gloomy Swedish city enshrined in heavy metal lore for its melodic death metal legacy—currently plays host to a number of important crust and crust-adjacent bands like Anti Cimex, Skitsystem, Martyrdöd, Myteri, and Agrimonia.

The latter—with their penchant for mid-to-down tempos, roomy song constructions, prominent keys, and chiaroscuro sonic textures—perfectly illuminate crust’s unlikely evolution. Despite its apocalyptic predilections, crust punk is a constantly evolving genre; while many have chosen to pull from atmospheric black metal, hardcore, and post-rock to tread the more established neocrust route forged by trailblazers like Tragedy and Fall of Efrafa, Agrimonia instead joins bands like Nux Vomica and Morne in a small pack of punks-gone-prog.

The band’s crusty bonafides are impeccable, from its dismal aesthetic to its very composition (members of iconic punks Skitsystem and Martyrdöd round out their ranks, while members of death metal luminaries At the Gates and Miasmal keep the bottom end brutal). However, these Swedes deftly illustrate what can happen when a genre first forged by a bunch of young anarcho-punks who possessed little more than a few beat-up guitars, a passing familiarity with the concept of tuning their instruments, and something to say is exposed to heavier metallic elements and filtered through modern equipment. Their ambitious new album, Awaken, takes great care to show off the band’s masterful command of melody, even as vocalist Christina Blom delivers its ominous prophecies through bared teeth.

Blom’s rough-cut, hoarse roar remains the most potent and enduring reminder of Agrimonia's crust punk origins; even during the album’s prettiest moments, her vocals never falter or soften, refusing to temper the aggression that percolates within the album’s core. Certain sections of Awaken flirt with neocrust, particularly its fondness for expansive constructions and atmospheric black metal, but the dominant subgenre at play here is, for lack of a more precise definition—we probably should’ve figured that out back in the early 2000s—post-metal. Agrimonia being Agrimonia, though, there’s always more to unpack.

The shortest song on offer (gentle acoustic instrumental title track “Awaken”) is a scant 3 minutes, but it’s an outlier in an album stocked with 9-to-13 minute epics. “A World Unseen” gives us an elegant welcome to the party, its snaking melodic riffs playing off an icy Amesoeurs vibe. Ghostly, contemplative melodic breaks elevate second track “Astray” into a full-on odyssey. “Foreshadowed” starts off just lovely—the careful, delicate guitar work really sings—before dropping down into its crustiest moment, jackknifing straight into a gnarled churn of Swedish death.

Photo by Anders Bergstedt

The brilliantly dynamic “Withering” flirts with dissonance, blasting into black metal fury and back again over its nearly 13 minutes. They make plain their appreciation for a good rock ‘n’ roll riff throughout the album, but its final statement, “The Sparrow,” is as close to a power ballad as Agrimonia has ever gotten, thanks to a plaintive guitar solo echoing through the murk and delicately down-tempo opening salvo. On songs like “The Sparrow,” Agrimonia’s uncanny ability to cogently blur the lines between the already closely-related, often amorphous sounds of post-metal, post-rock, rock, and doom is on full display, and despite this sonic cannibalization, the result sounds completely fresh and new (especially once they fire up the keyboards and Blom unleashes her merciless growl).

The album’s due out this month via Southern Lord, who in recent years have pivoted from doom to d-beat (and crust, and grind, and hardcore—lots of fast, loud, angry, instead of slow, sad, and heavy). The Lord’s transition from drone mainstay into a general mercantile of dark, extreme music has been fascinating to watch unfold (and honestly warrants an article of its own) but I mention them here now because there really is no better home for what Agrimonia’s doing. The label continues to provide a platform for crust, hardcore punk, and d-beat bands old and new, and have thrown their institutional weight behind some of the genre’s old guard, as well—which as we’ve seen, can go a number of ways.

Recent years have brought us new albums from crust’s sacred cows, now greyed around the temples and possessed of a much firmer grasp on that whole “playing an instrument” thing (as Rob Miller once told me, the only reason Amebix’s earlier recordings sounded the way they did was that he and Stig had no clue how to tune their guitars). Amebix released a comeback album, Sonic Mass, in 2009 that doubled down on the band’s love for Killing Joke and 80s post-punk (full disclosure, I ran its US PR campaign) After a 34-year gap, Antisect put out an adventurous new record in 2017 (we streamed it, as a matter of fact) and their old friends in Hellbastard—who coined the term “crust punk” in the first place—have steadily released sometimes classic, sometimes out-there new material for decades, culminating in 2015’s thoroughly pissed-off Feral. Scandinavian jawbreakers Anti Cimex have just announced the imminent release of a mammoth _Victims of a Bomb Raid 3-_CD boxset spanning all their classic EP and LP releases. Mob 47 continues to sporadically release records and tour their asses off. The evolution of crust continues, carried by the efforts of new bands, and occasionally shepherded by its own forefathers.

Some of the newer musical forays from the old guard have been met with mixed reactions, and it’s an understandable thing—there’s a marked contrast between the raw desperation of Amebix's 1983 track “Winter” and the groovy, well-produced stomp of Sonic Mass' “God of the Grain,” and not every fan of crust is going to be okay with that. Progress is never easy, and luckily enough for those who haven’t connected with the modern incarnations of Amebix or Antisect, albums like In Darkness, There Is No Choice are still in print, and countless younger bands have lined up to carry vintage crust’s grimy torch. As I was writing this essay, my iTunes segued from Awaken straight into Aksumite, another newer punk band with eyes to both the past and the present. Those who elect to push past its ragged boundaries do just as much to keep crust relevant as those who swear fealty to the graves of the 80s. There’s room for both.

The power remains, and thanks to boundary-breaking bands like Agrimonia, the past is alive and well—even as its creators’ visions of an apocalyptic future seem more real than ever.

Kim Kelly is grinding down the axes on Twitter.