Warning #1: There’s no Prog here! If you’re expecting IQ or Marillion then you will be disappointed. This is about modern, progressive Rock. And Jazz. And Metal. Probably.
Warning #2: The deliberate and seemingly incorrect use of upper and LoweR case fonts and italics in this article may cause seizures in grammar-sensitive individuals. [EeeeEEk! – Ed]
In June 2021 I was approached by Stefan Huth, who you may remember from such album reviews as Isaac Vacuum’s Lords. Stefan is involved in a musical EP by a collective know as art against agony. He asked if I would care to review it. There are few things in life that you can count on, but one of them is that Stefan Huth is always involved in mind-bendingly interesting music. art against agony is one such project.
Just who are/is art against agony? Information relating to who plays what, or who is in the band, is thin on the ground, but what do we know?
– aaa is an instrumental jazz/metal band and an international artist collective founded 2012 in Stuttgart, Germany. This much information is given away.
In researching some of the music through YouTube I came across several videos of musicians, running through music, reminiscent of certain bands associated with the “progressive metal” genre and a live stream concert from August 2020 (which I heartily recommend – consider skipping the intro, and start with the track Coffee for the Queen).
In keeping with my suspicion that, in the same context as ants serving the colony, the band is an extension of an artistic collective; egos must have been set aside (as far as any musicians’ egos can be 😉 ) as it is the music that must shine – and indeed it does! The identity of members of the aaa band, I suspect, is secondary to their output. Indeed, the performance videos and live stream show them resplendent in their Vendetta masks, further underlining my hypothesis about ants and egos. Oh, before you start wondering how adopting Vendetta masks could possibly still be cool, watch the videos on YouTube because art against agony don’t just hide behind this device, they positively own it.
aaa – What are they like?
As is my latest habit, we must examine this question through an alternative reality lens.
In our universe, art against agony boldly ignores convention, as they demonstrate by consistently flaunting their disdain for upper case letters (which poses certain practical problems when using a word-processor to write about them, whatever universe you’re from).
In one parallel universe, Brand X has been infiltrated by Art Against Agony, the bastard lovechild of Gojira and Slayer. AAA writes all of Van der Graaf Generator’s songs, who are facing off across No-Man’s Land in a war waged against the 1980s incarnation of King Crimson, whilst avoiding the prog clichés that so put me off the bands who represent the “Neo Prog Movement”. These tropes have been banned by The Progressive Aspect Accord of 2107 and are gloriously absent.
This is not old-school Heavy/Progressive Rock, oh no! This is not your Dad’s Prog Rock.
In every universe, AAA is the American Automobile Association.
On this side of the looking glass, art against agony has much in common with our parallel universe Art Against Agony. Armed to the teeth from an arsenal of staccato drums, pinch harmonics, tapping, fanned fret 8-string guitars, Touch Guitar and many-stringed bass, aaa attacks your senses, fusing heavy guitar-based progressive rock with jazzy experimentation.
Reincarnation Suite has a little of everything that I like. It’s percussive, complex, and dynamic, using polyrhythms and odd time signatures. I hesitate to use the word Djent. Certainly, they can Djent. It isn’t Djent (it is …a bit, sometimes).
For those of you who have read this far with a quizzical raised eyebrow, here’s a truncated history for a bit of, you know, context:-
2014 – aaa release their first album, Three Short Stories, through Vault Records, which inspired descriptions I wished I’d have written, like:
“a journey from a metal concert to an absinth jazz-bar”,
2016 – The second album: The Difference Between A Duck and A Lobster.
2017 – A busy year for aaa. Tour influenced re-imagined versions of five songs from Three Short Stories was released as an EP, Russian Tales (where they had recently toured).
2018 – The third studio album, Shiva Appreciation Society, was released. A new member, an Indian mridangam player called The Maximalist (who I assure you is not Chris McCormack – Google him), meant a blending of classical Indian music with progressive jazz/metal. aaa concluded 2018 with a European Tour (Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland).
2020 – Solanaceae EP
As a live band they have toured Russia, Brazil and Europe. In 2019 they supported British prog metal band Haken for their European Summer Vector Tour.
But am I diving too deeply?
I haven’t been sworn to secrecy or anything, so I decided to contact Stefan with a few questions.
But the enigmatic aaa could have people everywhere! Maybe they might even put a contract out on me or for Stefan for being as forthright! I could risk turning art against agony‘s collective attention away from “contemporary aesthetics applied to music, photography, videography and performance arts”, even if it means they engage the services of a hit man, who I shall call Trevor. Trevor only works in broad daylight whilst, by night, maintaining a presence as his alter-ego, as the head plastic tube wrangler for The Blue Man Group. Where was I? Oh yeah…
I cut to the chase…
PL: I was surprised to see that art against agony have been going since 2012. Can you tell me a little more about art against agony: How did you become involved?
Stefan: “A few years ago me and my band Isaac Vacuum started our own small festival called Vacuumfest. Since we are always struggling to find bands that fit to our music genre we are constantly searching for new acts. Our guitarist Phil came up with a video of art against agony’s Nandi. That is the first time I heard this music and I instantly liked it, especially because of the use of the Indian mridamgam, it sounded really unique. I like these sounds since I played with tabla players before so we wrote to them for booking… but never got an answer 😛. During the last year there was one evening where I was watching some djenty YouTube video in my hotel room, Nandi popped up again and I checked what they are doing right now. On the website they wrote that they are always searching for interesting new members to be part of the art collective so I wrote a message to those guys. Two weeks later I was already recording my parts for the Reincarnation Suite and an I am now a proud member of the collective with my Touch Guitar and it is so much fun to work with these guys although I am 500km away from Stuttgart where most of the musicians are located.
Are there members of this collective who have feet in more than one camp – musician photographers, performance videograph artist?
As you might have seen, all members are wearing masks. We don‘t want to distract the listener by the individuals. We want them to concentrate on the music and the art in general. For me, it is difficult to hide behind a mask since I am also the head of Touch Guitars and the people know me and my instruments. But yes, most of the people in the collective do have feet in more than one camp, there are photographers, film makers, sound engineers, painters, poets and musicians in this collective.
I was aware of you through the Tapping community and then your involvement with Isaac Vacuum. I loved Lords. I played the crap out of it and it’s still in my playlist for the car. How does art against agony sit with your other commitments, like Isaac Vacuum?
Great to hear that. I am still really proud of Lords and it is still my favorite release next to my solo album Time. We are working on new songs and hopefully there will be a release next year. We always write these in the rehearsal room with the whole band and a lot of jamming, which is very time consuming.
With art against agony it is completely different. Since we are not from the same area we write all the music at a distance which sometimes is a challenge but it works pretty good. When there is an idea it will be recorded, sometimes just a sample and sometimes a whole song. Rehearsals are before gigs and video shoots. That works really well when everybody is prepared.
Beside these two projects I also played on Stephan Thelen‘s Fractal Guitar 2 with guys like Markus Reuter and David Torn, which was recently released, and I recorded Touch Guitar bass and a guest solo for a German prog band called Force of Progress. The album Redesign will be released within the next months. As you can see there are a lot of things that keep me busy during these crazy Covid years.
To answer your question, it works together really good.
At the moment of compiling these questions, Bandcamp lists the featured artists – Nippy Noya (percussion), Mars Williams (saxophone), Mattias IA Eklundh (guitar) – but not the band members, as such. Was this a conscious decision to maintain some anonimity?
Like I said, we want the listener to focus on music and art. That is why we cover our faces with the masks and act with other names. Since it is kind of a tradition for art against agony to have guest musicians (we had Richard of Haken and Jan of Panzerballett in the past), I just asked some friends to be part of the album as guest musicians, and they all did a great job.
Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline is billed as an LP and it’s 27-minutes long. On Bandcamp, Reincarnation Suite is also billed as an EP, but it’s just short of 30-minutes. To me, this is every bit an LP. Am I wrong and does it matter?
It doesn‘t matter 😃. While making the song we always thought about a vinyl release and we tried to make the piece fit the two sides of the vinyl exactly. All of a sudden it is just one big song.
Some of this music is incredibly vibrant and highly energised… for example Differentiate. Were any of you able to be in the same room for this recording, given these strange locked-down times?
I love Differentiate and especially like Mars’ sax solo on it. We met at a Festival in my area and he spontaneously joined my fusion band at a gig back in the day. I heard this part of the song and thought it would be a perfect match and it turned out to be amazing. Back to your question; everybody recorded their parts in their home studios. I am sure there will be some live recordings of this, soon. Tough stuff to learn for me since a lot of my parts are just improvised.
Is there anything you wish I’d asked but didn’t?
Yes, the masks are hand-painted and we have an artist in the collective from Belgium who is doing it. We also do a lot of exclusive things for our Patreon followers, free lessons, early access, free merch and so on. So following us on Patreon is highly recommended.
[I meant the important stuff readers want to know about, but Stefan didn’t hold back here]:
What’s your star sign?
What’s your favourite colour?
Are there likely to be gigs?
We are already planning gigs for 2022. Just follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep updated.
Have you ever experienced performance anxiety and, if so, how did you deal with it?
Oh yes, I have stage fright, but it is getting better and better, especially when I play solo concerts. When I perform it usually takes 5 to 10 minutes for me to get comfortable and my hands not shaking anymore. Starting with an easier song at the beginning helps a lot.
Do you have a cat?
I have a cute French bulldog called Jutta. Every tapping instrument manufacturer should have a Jutta 😉.
TPA’s readers are interested, primarily, in the music – but hopefully this piques their curiosity and I’ll wager some will be interested in experiencing some of the work from other individuals in the collective. Where would you direct them next?
The art against agony website, Bandcamp page, Patreon page and Facebook.
aaa – conclusion
You should check out everything about aaa – it’s not as if nobody told you about them!
01. Recreate (4:20)
02. Differentiate (3:56)
03. Elaborate (7:37)
04. Condemn (3:56)
05. Rejoice (2:17)
06. Procreate (3:28)
07. Dissolve (4:02)
Total Time – 29:36
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: