"There’s a certain irony to a band naming its debut album A Long Time Listening and then waiting five years to release its follow-up – but whether by accident or design, this is exactly what Agent Fresco have done. In the interim, however, with only occasional ventures outside of their native Iceland, the quartet have managed to build something of a cult following with music that is both electrifying and emotional in equal measure. Amongst their fanbase, anticipation levels for second album Destrier are several orders of magnitude beyond stratospheric. So how can they possibly be met?
So let’s put everyone who may have clicked on this review with a sense of trepidation at ease as soon as possible, because not only have Agent Fresco met those expectations, they have surpassed them with almost astonishing ease. Destrier is, bluntly, a fucking masterpiece. Whether you read what follows this paragraph or not, you need to hear Destrier as soon as you can. You have been told.
For those of you that are still with us, let’s delve a bit deeper into exactly what makes Destrier (pronounced DE-streer, linguistics fans) so very special. Like its predecessor, the contextual nucleus of the album is an extensive exploration of the complex web of emotions surrounding a pivotal event in the life of singer Arnor Dan Arnarson. Whereas the theme of A Long Time Listening was the grief following the death of his father, Destrier deals with the aftermath of a particularly violent attack that left some significant physical and mental injuries. As one might expect, Destrier is a considerably more burly – at times even angry – affair.
A significant proportion of what makes Agent Fresco’s music so special is how cohesively the band operate together. Throughout Destrier, they pulse, flex, twitch and turn together like the sinews of a single, well-honed muscle. There is layer upon layer of complexity in the sound they create, yet it coalesces into something so immediately accessible that it reaches out to hug the listener like a long-lost friend even during that first, glorious, play through the record.
What’s more, whilst each individual track stands firmly on its own two feet, they are given an extra lease of life in the context of the album as a whole. This is particularly apparent with lead single “Dark Water“, whose eruption out of the ominous, brooding, Massive Attack-esque tones of opening track “Let Them See Us” pushes it into a practically euphoric release. The album ebbs and flows as a single, continuous work of art that makes pushing the stop button tremendously difficult, so it’s best to make sure you have a free hour for that first listen. What’s more, as my colleague and our resident Icelander Jon Þor pointed out to me, final track “Mono No Aware” fades down to the same delicate note that opens the album after reprising the title track. This effectively means that the album loops almost seamlessly, which is a magical thing.
The titular Destrier itself is a type of medieval war horse, whose use was reserved for battle alone. It is metaphorically deployed here by Arnor as a kind of spirit animal, giving him the fortitude to confront the anger and vulnerability he felt in the aftermath of the attack. This shows neatly the cryptic yet vivid imagery that Arnor is capable of conjuring through his lyrics, placing him in the same league as Maynard James Keenan, perhaps coupled with Muse‘s Matt Bellamy in both his sense of theatre and his achingly beautiful falsetto. However, without access to a full lyric sheet as I write, I’ll refrain from any hamfisted analysis of half-heard lines; I think it deserves more than that.
Destrier also shows that whilst their music is almost immediately identifiable as Agent Fresco, they are not bound by any restrictions of genre, making the album as much of a musical voyage of adventure and exploration as a lyrical one. Perhaps the most surprising moment lies in the title track itself, which suddenly drops into dense, practically atonal shards of syncopated noise. Elsewhere, elements of greasy garage rock, slinky lounge music and soft, bubbling electronica can be found alongside more familiar choruses (which are often big enough to be visible from space), delicate piano-led sections and ebullient math-rock riffing.
With more dynamic surprises like the vulnerability of “Bemoan” dropping into the brash savagery of “Angst” to be discovered, Destrier is a near-perfect artistic expression that stimulates mind, body and spirit in equal measure. Listeners may well find themselves immediately besotted, then even more deeply gratified through repeated listens.
As you can probably tell, Destrier is a most uncommon delight. It will almost certainly prove to be one of the most essential listens of 2015, and maybe an even longer timescale than that. We can only hope that it won’t take another five years for Agent Fresco to release their next album, but even if that does happen, we will probably not have tired of this one by then. Destrier is a masterpiece; a glorious, life-affirming masterpiece that, once heard, will make you wonder how you managed without it. Go seek." - The Monolith