John Peel kinda ruled. He basically served as the main media force in promotion of grindcore as a fledgling genre*, giving Napalm Death, Carcass, S.O.B., Extreme Noise Terror, Bolt Thrower and myriad others radio support that, let's face it, wasn't going to come from anywhere else any time soon. For many of these groups, their Peel Sessions serve as a priceless artifact of a level of energy and ferocity soon forgone for other goals (most of the above-mentioned grinders' next stop was by-and-large something akin to death metal, although the exact definition of that term varied by group) and by some not matched on other studio releases.
Enter Agathocles. After 25 years, it hardly even seems fair to bother with an introduction. For almost the whole of that time period, they've been faithfully producing socially and politically targeted grindcore LPs, splits and 7”s with varying degrees of punk, death metal and experimentation mixed among them, characteristically recorded in varying degrees of low fidelity.
This session, as Peel's almost always do, finds the band riding an energy and songwriting peak. Two years prior, the group had released what I consider their career statement in terms of LPs, the diverse, 44-song lo-fi grind opus Razor Sharp Daggers. Thus, many of the cuts come from that record, along with 1997's Thanks for Your Hostility, whose “Be Your Own God” offers the highlight performance from Peel Sessions 1997.
While Peel's Sessions were all exclusive performances for radio, they were less live performances than exclusive demos, since the bands took most of a full day to record them. For that reason, this album offers the best-recorded performance we've ever heard from Agathocles. Coupled with the fact that these songs were performed and largely written during a portion of the band's most creative period, it makes this record perfect for everyone from the die-hard completist Agathocles acolyte, the sometimes Agatho-fan who feels like there's always been something missing in their understanding of the group, and the newcomer who's always been too daunted by the pages-long discography to even know where to start.
What truly makes this album, beyond even the prowess and cult status of the band, is Peel himself. His banter opens and closes the album, and though both are brief, it lends a certain magical, 25th-hour quality to the record that says, “This is a moment in time. This will never happen again, so enjoy it.” Peel's sheer enthusiasm for grindcore, coupled with his refined, British radio voice, give an authenticity to radio broadcasting that seems unable to be matched anywhere, in any country today. Take, for instance, the professional, NPR-announcer way in which he introduces the band on the album's first track.
“And uh, finally tonight we have a session for you from AGATH-ocles, as they must be called, rather than Aga-THO-cles. Brief pieces, by and large. This is --”
And instantly, the Belgians finish Peel's sentence, spewing forth the beginning of Razor Sharp Daggers' “A Start at Least” with characteristic vitriol and in blissfully uncharacteristic fidelity. That instant when the refined form of Peel's announcing voice and the pure form of grindcore meet rockets the listen forward, and Peel lets the band carry that momentum from there. Carry it they do, offering a tight, rewarding set whose recording and mix leaves the requisite grit and riverbed-muddy distortion intact, but ensure that nothing ever cuts out or gets buried, and that the drums are mic'd well enough to actually be discernible, instead of being the wall of kick drum and flailing cymbals some of their recordings are reduced to. The band is a ball of energy throughout the set, and even the rare moment where they actually slow down a bit, the 4:10 “Kill Your Fucking Idols,” the pacing and volatility of the other songs is maintained admirably.
Neither credentials from the Agathocles or John Peel fanclubs are required to enjoy this offering, but filling out applications for one or both by your first couple listens wouldn't be unusual, either. In either case, Agathocles' Peel Sessions 1997 is best taken as an artifact, a passport to a time before Peel's tragic passing in 2004 and a time when Agathocles were still receiving recognition as a grindcore band, rather than the record-churning, LP/7”/split machine many genre lifers have reduced them to.
*[Ed.: Not to mention countless other amazing groups of disparate genres, the names of which I can't even begin to enumerate here; the show's raw guest list includes every letter of the alphabet, plus numerals, most entries in double digits.]