Soul Searching: the pain and triumphs of Life of Agony - Knotfest
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Soul Searching: the pain and triumphs of Life of Agony

Posted by Dan Franklin in Culture on March 22, 2021

In a searing new documentary the Brooklyn quartet embrace the demons at the heart of their music.

It’s all in the name. For over thirty years, Life of Agony have pledged themselves to explore the hurt and anguish of their existence. It has been a painful journey, and also redemptive. In a new documentary, ‘The Sound of Scars’, they excavate the emotional history of the band. Directed by Leigh Brooks, and sharing the name of their last album, it revolves around the axis of bassist Alan Robert, guitarist Joey Zampella and singer Mina Caputo. Friends since they were children, theirs is a tale of depression, family alcoholism, domestic violence, and in Caputo’s case, the turmoil and then liberation of transitioning.

I spoke to bassist Alan Robert about the film and the band’s remarkable story. He described to me how Life of Agony’s formation and music was ‘a system to heal ourselves’. Feeling inspired by the recent Agnostic Front documentary ‘The Godfathers of Hardcore’, Robert and the band retrieved a wealth of archive material which is interspersed with interviews and recent live performances captured by Brooks. It’s not a conventional music documentary. ‘It’s more of a story of how we connected with each other and what we were dealing with; how that translated to making the music, and how the music impacted on people who were going through similar situations,’ Robert explains.

It makes for harrowing viewing. Caputo and Joey Z are cousins. Rosanne, Joey Z’s mother, is the sister of Caputo’s father, Tony. Caputo’s parents were both heroin addicts. Rosanne found the one-year-old Caputo crying in her playpen after both her parents had overdosed. Caputo’s mother, Marilyn, died. Tony survived, but was largely absent after Caputo moved in with Joey Z’s family. ‘Part of her is living through me,’ Caputo says of her mother in the film.

Back then, Mina was Keith Caputo. In the documentary, Caputo is adamant that ‘Keith was a lie, a social construct. An idea to get me out of the abusive home situation I was in at the time.’ Caputo’s femininity was raging inside her for years until she came out as a trans woman in 2011. For her, as she describes in the film, Life of Agony was ‘a place to exorcise those demons’ and ‘a personal diary open to the public’. On beautiful, brittle performances of the songs “Let’s Pretend”, “Heroin Dreams” and “How It Would Be”, she tackled the spectre of her parents head on. She summed up her turmoil perhaps best on “My Mind Is Dangerous”: ‘My mind is chaotic, unless I choose to be free.’

Life of Agony by Gino DePinto

There were damaging consequences of knowing she was a woman but seeing a man’s body in the mirror. In the film, Joey Z recalls that ‘she hated the concept of Keith. Keith Caputo was a very angry, closed up, introverted kind of person.’ Speaking to me, Robert felt Caputo’s internal struggles were plain in her performances: ‘Even in the beginning of recording ‘River Runs Red’ or ‘Ugly’ she always felt a bit… she seemed detached from it,’ he says. ‘You could take it or leave it. Even though she looked like she was going for it, I knew there was more potential, because I knew her capabilities. To see it now, she’s fierce – a fierce performer.’ Today, Caputo says she understands the songs better than ever.

Life of Agony released ‘River Runs Red’ in 1993. It remains an extraordinary album. Born out of the New York Hardcore scene, it is a violent, howling descent into a world of damaged families (“This Time”, boasting one of the greatest riffs ever), inner-numbness (“Through and Through”) but also community (“Underground”). For the teenage members of the band, that community centred on Brooklyn’s L’Amour venue. Robert and Joey Z roadied for Biohazard. While roadying, they used to smuggle an underage Caputo in a drum case into the other mainstay punk and metal venue, CBGB’s, and unleash him on the crowd when Biohazard started playing.

Life of Agony themselves spent two years working up to selling out L’Amour. The footage of those early shows depicts electrifying, broiling crowds with no-one standing still. In the film, Brooks pointedly juxtaposes the live archive with the members rough-housing as teenagers in the basement of Robert’s parents’ house. One was the extension of the other. As Robert described it to me: ‘Everyone turned up to eleven, the loudest we could be, the most aggressive we could be with our bodies and our instruments.’

Tragedy has punctuated their triumphs. The documentary covers the death of fan Chris Mitchell on 16th December 1994 at a Life Of Agony show. A security guard was accused of throwing him from the stage so that he landed on his head, but it transpired he fell of his own accord because he was intoxicated. It has eerie parallels with the trial of Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe on charges of manslaughter in the Czech Republic in 2013, accused of pushing a fan off the stage and inflicting fatal injuries on them. Blythe was later acquitted of the charges.

On ‘River Runs Red’, Caputo’s baritone emulated the histrionic delivery of singer Paul Bearer on NYHC band Sheer Terror’s 1989 album ‘Just Can’t Hate Enough’. ‘River Runs Red’ was produced by Type O Negative keyboardist Josh Silver – he gave it his own band’s gothic overtones. Aside from the raw emotion and vulnerability of its lyrics, it had an imposing, theatrical atmosphere, reflecting the band’s love of Pink Floyd. ‘I don’t think this band would exist without Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or ‘The Final Cut’,’ says Robert. ‘There’s something so stripped down with Roger Waters wailing just with a piano note behind him on ‘The Final Cut’.’ Robert admits as the designer of the band’s circular, red, black and white four-skull logo, that it owes something to Gerald Scarfe’s marching hammers design for ‘The Wall’.

The band made an instant impact. The footage from 1994’s Dynamo Festival in Holland in the documentary shows a heaving crowd as the band sprint between their stations on the stage. For a long time they were more popular in mainland Europe than New York. This was largely down to the support shown to the New York scene by festivals like Dynamo, but also the alien allure of Biohazard, Type O Negative, Madball and Quicksand, who were all exploding at the same time. There was also the culture shock. The band’s spiritual home from home seems to be Belgium (they recorded a live album of the whole of ‘River Runs Red’ in Brussels in 2010). For the typical teenager in a medieval city like Ghent, the shock of this powerful new sound evoked a gritty Paul Schrader-like vision of trying to survive in Brooklyn.

Life of Agony by Gino DePinto

This was deliberate, but it was also true to life. ‘River Run Red’ has a series of vignettes between tracks that depict a teenager’s life falling apart. He is dumped by his girlfriend, is fired from his job, and is informed he won’t graduate high school (all by answerphone message). He eventually attempts suicide at the end of the album – whether he has succeeded is uncertain. Throughout these scenes his screaming (step?)mother recalls the invective of hot-headed Italian-American family life depicted in ‘Raging Bull’. In the documentary, Caputo compares many family evenings to Jake LaMotta upending the dining room table in the film’s infamous ‘You Want Your Steak?’ scene.

Joey Z’s father drank heavily and huge family brawls frequently erupted, even involving his grandparents. Joseph Zampella Sr fed his son whiskey at the bar as a child. Now 74, they have found peace with one another. Another powerful scene in the documentary sees them talking about how much it means for Zampella Sr to spend time with his grandchildren. It makes a key point: that the cycle of violence can be broken. The band should be given the credit for helping break it.

The documentary afforded Robert the opportunity to sit down with his parents, Marcia and Richard, to talk about his experiences with depression. Robert describes himself as a ‘latchkey kid’ in the film. Both his parents worked full-time in the school system when he was growing up. It’s clear they find it difficult to understand why Alan and his sister Pamela have struggled with their mental health: ‘I don’t know why both kids are depressed,’ says Marcia in the documentary. ‘We are not the depressed people. Of course some days you feel down, but in general we’re pretty up.’

At one point in the film, Robert’s parents read out the lyrics of “My Eyes” from the back of a vinyl copy of ‘River Runs Red’. It is stark and awkward hearing the words isolated from the music. I asked him how that felt. ‘Odd. Very odd. Because we’ve never had conversations about depression,’ he remembers. ‘It was all uncharted waters for us, as a family. So It was actually a good way to start that conversation, and expand on what we were all dealing with. And how secretive we were to hide those feelings and to put on this facade of “everything’s fine” when you’re really internalising and dealing with so much.’

In one of the most chilling moments in ‘The Sound of Scars’, Robert says he would have liked nothing better than to have been discovered hanging in his hotel room on tour by his bandmates. After the release of sophomore album ‘Ugly’ (1995), Robert sank into a deep depression on tour, exacerbated by staying sober while his bandmates were partying – as well as the privations and loneliness of travelling around Europe in a cramped bus in the deep winter. As the band’s chief lyricist and writer of “Lost At 22” on that album, I asked him what his 22-year-old self would make of the documentary: ‘The 22-year-old self would not even participate in the film. You notice we never made a music video on the ‘Ugly’ record and that’s for good reason, because we couldn’t agree on anything: as a band or with the label, or… we were just anti-everything.’

But there was a rock-solid creative partnership at the heart of the band. Robert’s words found their expression in Caputo. Hers is the voice in his head when he writes lyrics. ‘It’s amazing and it’s grown so much over the years,’ says Robert. ‘Because writing lyrics to hardcore songs where it’s all screaming and yelling is a lot different to writing melody and trying to champion someone to really put their whole selves into it to capture those emotional vocal performances.’

It was on 1997’s ‘Soul Searching Sun’ that the band took a big step towards a breakthrough. The performances from Caputo and the whole band were heartfelt in a whole new way. The band reimagined their sound: it was stripped down, rockier and the production felt more honest. Its lead single “Weeds”, with its massive three-chord chorus hook, was a staple at rock clubs in the late nineties. There was the spry pop-rock and gentle psychedelia of “Haemophiliac In Me”, the heaving dirge of “Neg”, and then the hint of the transcendental on “Tangerine”: ‘Cosmic hunger I’m your fruitful whore/Soul sun searching let your spirit soar’. 

Just as it seemed Life of Agony were about to ascend to a higher plane, and with it commercial success, Caputo left the band. Informed on the week of release, they had the ignominy of appearing on one magazine cover at the time whilst advertising for a new singer in the back. It was crushing. Joey Z recounts spending days crying in bed.

Determined to continue, the band made an unusual choice for a new lead singer: Whitfield Crane, formerly of Ugly Kid Joe. Scott Ian of Anthrax tipped them off that Crane was looking to front a heavier band. He had been backpacking and snowboarding around the world. At the audition he ripped into the song of “River Runs Red” and hit all the high notes, blowing away the competition. With a support slot with Megadeth fast approaching, they whisked him off on tour. Robert had to lay out a set of handwritten lyrics in front of Crane every night to get through their 40-minute set.

I saw the band play with Crane at Ozzfest in June 1998 at Milton Keynes Bowl in England. Robert clambered up the scaffolding behind Tony Iommi’s rig to watch the recently reformed Black Sabbath headline. He vividly remembers the fires which audience members danced around while they played, like a pagan ritual. But the feeling that the band wasn’t quite right with Crane persisted – the band stopped performing with him in 1999. It’s great to see Crane appear in ‘The Sound of Scars’ for his short role in Life of Agony’s story. Apart from current drummer Veronica Bellino, other past members are notable by their absence.

Another tragedy brought them together again. When Caputo’s father died, the members reunited at his wake. When Caputo had lain down next to her father’s dead body, it reignited her will to live. Two sold-out shows at New York’s Irving Plaza followed, immortalised on the phenomenal ‘River Runs Again’ live album. It is still haunted by their past as Caputo enjoins an overexcited crowd to calm down because the band had ‘already lost a life’, referring back to Chris Mitchell’s death. I was similarly ecstatic to see them on the tour that followed, with Caputo at the helm.

A new album, ‘Broken Valley’, was released in 2005 but was grossly mishandled by their new major label, Epic Records, who seemed unsure what to do with the band. All physical copies of the album were withdrawn from the market six months after its release because of a scandal involving parent company Sony using its discs to install spyware on consumers’ computers. It wasn’t deemed worthy of re-releasing.

What followed was another prolonged, difficult hiatus. As the years passed, Caputo saw her identity increasingly as an imposition and resolved she couldn’t ‘live another day the way they want me to.’ So she decided to let Mina out, beginning hormone replacement therapy 11 years ago. Injecting herself with Oestradiol summoned uncomfortable echoes of her parents’ heroin addictions. In the film she says it was six to seven years ago that she began to feel much more stable. But with the physical changes come the societal pressures and prejudices. 

Another recent documentary, ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, is billed as an ‘emotional history of the modern world’. Directed by Adam Curtis, it is a loose, hit-and-miss affair, but some of its threads stop you dead in your tracks. One of these is the footage of transgender activist Julia Grant, first broadcast on British television in 1979. In one scene she is subjected to questioning by an off-camera psychiatrist. His disdain at her claims to feel like a woman, versus what he perceives as the hard evidence of her anatomy, is clear. His is the cold, faceless perspective of transphobia – still rife at this stage of the twenty-first century. Grant is a powerless individual versus an indifferent medical establishment. Over forty years on, who could watch Life of Agony’s film and not understand the suffering of someone who knows they are living a lie?

Mina Caputo’s coming-out has been revelatory for Life of Agony. It has thrown their back catalogue into a new light and energised them on comeback album ‘A Place Where There’s No Pain’ (2017) and then ‘The Sound of Scars’ (2019). I asked Robert whether he ever thinks about what might have happened if Caputo had not left after ‘Soul Searching Sun’: ‘I wonder that sometimes. Because she left and came back and all these things have happened, and we were able to make ‘The Sound of Scars’ record together – it was such a triumphant feeling we had amongst the group, to be able to do that after everything we’ve gone through. If the album [‘Soul Searching Sun’] would have came out and let’s say it did well and then the band went away, I think we would have missed out on this growing opportunity. As people and as a band and just the ability to reflect on it all these years later.’

‘The Sound of Scars’ is an important music documentary because it puts people before the process of creating music. There is no doubt that Life Of Agony have saved lives – they have been told as much repeatedly by their fans. What makes it a gripping film is how perilously close their music came to not saving them, and how – flaws and all – they have persisted to overcome their greatest obstacle: themselves.

‘The Sound of Scars’ is available to stream for a two-week period from 16th April. Visit https://www.soundofscars.com/ for details.

Watch the trailer below.


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