At the dawn of the ’80s, New York City was mired in debt and crime, grappling with one of the most trying periods in its history, yet ironically (or perhaps fittingly), its underground music scene was seething with activity like never before. Still reeling from the violent inception and subsequent implosion of punk rock, hundreds of underprivileged kids living in Manhattan and its outlying boroughs began forming rock groups to rail against the everyday trials, dangers, and prejudices of urban existence. As had been happening in other urban centers (most notably L.A. and Washington, D.C.) equally affected by the lean, recession-laced early years of Reaganomics, New York became a melting pot/hub for a flourishing hardcore scene — a cultural phenomenon that used punk rock as a platform for politically charged, inherently regional musical catharsis.
And though it would eventually splinter into countless subgenres, at least initially, NYHC (New York Hardcore) far superseded the original punk movement’s ragged collective (known as much for art rockers like Talking Heads and Television as for “true” punks like the Ramones and Dictators) in terms of a cohesive creative vision. Among the bands at the forefront of this united, seemingly unstoppable army were Agnostic Front, whose frantic, minimalist assault and sociopolitical rants came to epitomize the essence of hardcore, New York F*ckin’ City style.
Guitarist Vinnie Stigma was a first-generation punk rocker and an early-’80s skinhead who finally got around to forming his own band, Zoo Crew, in mid-1982, with vocalist John Watson. But Watson only lasted a few months before being replaced by Cuban-born Union City, New Jersey native Roger Miret, a product of refugee parents with firsthand experience in social injustice and opinionated views about politics coursing through his veins. When combined with Stigma’s primal rhythm guitar ferocity, Miret’s charisma as a decadent urban messiah would come to personify AF’s sound. Bassist Adam Moochie and drummer Ray Beez joined soon after and, after adopting the new name Agnostic Front (at Stigma’s insistence because he thought it sounded like a movement), they recorded their first independent release, the United Blood EP, the following year. This was followed by 1984’s career-defining Victim in Pain album, which contained a 15-minute blast of pure New York hardcore and saw the arrival of new members Rob Kabula (bass) and Jimmy Colletti (drums). It also confirmed Agnostic Front’s brief status as leaders (along with precursors the Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law) of the already cresting movement, which found its weekly showcase via the now legendary Sunday matinees at favorite Lower East side haunts A7 and CBGB’s.
UNITED BLOOD by AGNOSTIC FRONT
But Agnostic Front were always on the verge of collapse due to Miret and Stigma’s mercurial relationship and, like most of their hardcore brethren, were already tampering with their sound. Inevitably, as their musicianship continued to improve, the bandmembers (now including drummer Louie Beatto and additional guitarist Alex Kinon) began losing some of their raw hardcore spontaneity, and with heavy metal growing in popularity day by day, it was no surprise when they started experimenting with the tightly controlled velocity of thrash metal (i.e., buzzsaw riffing and double kick drums). Coincidentally picked up by the speed metal-friendly Combat Records, they struggled through the sessions for what would become 1986’s Cause for Alarm album, today acknowledged as a crossover landmark alongside efforts by D.R.I. and Corrosion of Conformity. It was also considered a betrayal and a travesty by many of the band’s early supporters, who couldn’t have cared less that Cause for Alarm was teaching thousands of metal heads to appreciate hardcore.
OUT FOR BLOOD by AGNOSTIC FRONT
Some saw 1987’s subsequent Liberty & Justice For…, which featured an entirely revised cast of backup musicians in guitarist Steve Martin (no relation), bassist Alan Peters, and drummer Will Shepler, and did away with the metal-style drumming to pursue a looser, less disciplined direction, as an act of compromise. Not that it mattered: the original hardcore scene had pretty much disintegrated by this time anyway, with growing dissension among the movement’s many factions (straight-edge, skinheads, etc.) transforming most concerts into armed combat, and leading to many clubs being shut down. Released in 1989, Live at CBGB’s (with new bassist Craig Setari) collected Agnostic Front’s best-loved material as heard in the band’s natural element and, in a way, symbolized NYHC’s official wake. As if to punctuate that fact, Roger Miret was arrested soon thereafter on serious drug charges and sentenced to nearly two years in prison.
LIBERTY AND JUSTICE (LIVE CGBG) by AGNOSTIC FRONT
In the interim, Vinnie Stigma and Agnostic Front carried on as best they could, undertaking their first European tour with new guitarist Matt Henderson and substitute singer Alan Peters, while Miret found solace writing lyrics about his predicament. These would comprise the bulk of 1992’s comeback album, the overtly metallic One Voice, which was pretty much dead on arrival, since much of Agnostic Front’s following had moved on to other things during the band’s extended absence. A greatest-hits set entitled To Be Continued was also issued at this time, prompting Agnostic Front to call it a day following a farewell concert at (where else?) CBGB’s. The final show was recorded for 1993’s Last Warning, after which Stigma and Henderson formed Madball with Miret’s younger brother Freddy Cricien.
OVER THE EDGE by AGNOSTIC FRONT
Come 1997, however, Stigma and Miret began discussing a possible comeback for Agnostic Front. And when top punk label Epitaph Records showed interest, the band’s long-rumored resurrection became fact, with former members Rob Kabula and Jimmy Colletti completing the lineup that recorded both 1998’s Something’s Gotta Give and 1999’s Riot, Riot, Upstart in quick succession. The latter boasted an especially strong set of retro-hardcore, and featured guest appearances from M.O.D.’s Billy Milano and Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen, among others. With the hardcore scene that they’d helped build effectively dead in the dirt, few listeners outside the band’s New York stomping grounds seemed to care about their return, but Agnostic Front continue to perform and record occasional albums like 2001’s Dead Yuppies (with new bassist Mike Gallo), 2003’s Working Class Heroes, 2005’s Another Voice, 2006’s CD/DVD Live at CBGB’s, 2011’s My Life My Way, and 2015’s The American Dream Died.