Agent Steel are one of those “cult” metal bands, bands who made a few records back in the day that stirred a heady buzz in the underground, then more or less called it day (or, more appropriately, faded into even greater obscurity). Well, 13 years after the band’s second and last album, Unstoppable Force, and an equal number since the Bay Area thrash-metal scene they were a part of gave its last vital gasps, Agent Steel are back with a bite, Omega Conspiracy fully re-figuring the quintet for the new millennium while still retaining their more drama-minded end of the thrash spectrum.
Where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing during that long hiatus is pretty much a moot point on Omega Conspiracy, with three-fifths of the original Steel returning to the fore, in the process finding a new bassist (Karlos Medina) and vocalist (Bruce Hall), both of whom click even more than the men previously occupying those stations (Michael Zaputil and John Cyriss, respectively). Though Hall’s vocals may be a spitting image of Cyriss’ oft-hilarious approximation of Queensryche’s Geoff Tate on caffeine, Hall’s range seems more confident and dynamic, less sing-songy and dog-whistled, but caffeinated nevertheless. Still, Hall is the right guy for the mic – nay, a bit more modern – to fit like a glove Agent Steel’s reinvigorated, updated brand of tech-thrash, sounding much tighter and livelier and nowhere near as scrappy (however endearingly so back then, like all those lost Combat records), guitarists Bernie Versailles and Juan Garcia cooking up shred-head riffs all those retro-thrash bands could only pray to crap out. But, surprisingly, the best development here is the band’s heightened sense of dynamics, a discontent not to merely thrash away but, rather, let the drama breathe the way it should, making the climaxes all the sweeter (best examples: “Bleed Forever” and “Awaken the Swarm”).
Also, after all these years, the band’s fascination with extraterrestrial life and conspiracy theories is obviously still intact; in these post-post-’80s times, really the only metal bands remotely tackling such territory are Swedes Hypocrisy and In Flames. Finally, major props to Versailles for his production job, which arrives at the most deliberately speaker-shredded guitar sound this side of Defleshed’s Fast Forward. The only head-scratcher here, though, is the bonus-track cover of Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”; if my vinyl copy of their 1986 EP, Mad Locust Rising, and its reading of “The Ripper” serve me right, that now makes two Priest covers – sheesh! Don’t make your influences too obvious. Nonetheless, welcome to the new millennium, guys.
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