When unexpected reunions turn into long-term campaigns, the results can be wildly variable. Perhaps surprisingly, given the media's inevitable preference for discussing Mina Caputo's personal journey rather than celebrating her music, LIFE OF AGONY have yet to drop the creative ball and arrive at their sixth studio album with reputations enhanced and credibility intact. If 2017's "A Place Where There's No More Pain" didn't exactly set the world on fire, it remains a highly regarded addition to the New Yorkers' catalogue, and some of us are still evangelizing about "Broken Valley" from way back in 2005: a simply superb dark rock record that, in a sane world, deserved to be huge. Okay, it's also undeniably true that most metalheads will point to LIFE OF AGONY's seminal debut, "River Runs Red", for evidence of the band's greatness, but 26 years on, it would be ludicrous to expect these now middle-aged musicians to revisit the sound they intuitively conjured as wide-eyed innocents. Instead, "The Sound of Scars" offers another opportunity to appreciate the ongoing evolution of Mina Caputo's glorious voice and her band's unerring knack for penning memorable but intense hard rock anthems.
Opener "Scars" says it all: succinct and spiky, it's propelled along by a tooth-rattling groove and graced with a soaring melody from Caputo; that classic LOA blend of hardcore grit and soulful melancholy hitting as hard as ever, but in an eminently more sophisticated form than on those beloved early records. "Black Heart" is even better, with a taut, agit-funk gait and a rampaging chorus, while "Lay Down" switches from brooding, post-grunge rumble to an urgent, rat-a-tat refrain redolent of TOOL at their fieriest. As ever, Caputo sings every last word as if teetering on the edge of desperation, a remorseless blaze of passion and charisma that carries these songs far beyond their initial potential. LIFE OF AGONY may not be breaking new ground in the way they once did, but it's the formidable spirit that courses through the likes of "Empty Hole" and "Weight of the World" that makes "The Sound of Scars" impossible to dismiss as just another act of post-comeback content provision. There is no shortage of bands operating in similar territory at this point, but just as LIFE OF AGONY stood apart from everything else back in '93, so the band's interpretation of modern hard rock possesses unique charm and character.
For the metalhead contingent, there are a few moments that stray tantalizingly close to the heaviness of "River Runs Red": "My Way Out" is a menacing, dual-pace affair, powered by guitarist Joey Z's syncopated riffing and Caputo's eerie harmonies, while "Eliminate" is a breathless two minutes of turbocharged punk rock gloom. But in truth, it's satisfying enough to simply hear LIFE OF AGONY in such fine form and still inching forward, tinkering with that inspirational formula and finding new ways to wring fresh hope from troubled times. Closing with the epic emotional splurge of "I Surrender", "The Sound of Scars" is a welcome display of class and power from some perennially unsung champions.