By Keith Perks

Life of Agony are out on the road with Sick of it All for their 30 Sick Years of Agony Tour, which is a celebration of the 30th anniversary of “River Runs Red,” the band’s debut album that was released on Roadrunner Records. 

A favorite of many, this concept album with lyrics written by bassist Alan Robert has ranked on multiple best heavy metal albums of all time lists. It’s an influential release from a Brooklyn band whose bassist said, “Back then, I figured the band thing would be over in like six months, so I put the art on hold while I pursued the music,” and here he is, 30 years later with more than 500,000 books sold and still in the band.

Before the tour ends on Saturday, April 1 at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, Robert chatted with Highway 81 Revisited about 30 years of “River Runs Red,” how LOA has kept its integrity despite the challenges of the music industry and his influences and unexpected success as a graphic novelist. 

You were in your early 20’s around the release of River Runs Red. Back then, did you see yourself being where you’re at now? And when you look back, if given the chance, what would you tell your younger self?

Back in the early days of Life of Agony when we first signed with Roadrunner Records to record “River Runs Red,” I was in my final year at The School of Visual Arts in NYC studying to be a professional comic book artist. I had to make the decision on what to do once I graduated … either jump in the van with LOA and support the debut album on tour, or begin taking my portfolio around to various comic book companies in an attempt to land a job. Back then, I figured the band thing would be over in like six months, so I put the art on hold while I pursued the music. Well, somehow that six months turned into 30 years … and here we are still talking about that album! Along the way, I managed to follow my other passion of storytelling and drawing comics, so it all worked out in the end. Having the balance of art and music is a wonderful thing. In hindsight, I would tell my younger self to not worry so much (laughs).

“River Runs Red” turned out to be a big release for you guys. In 2017, Rolling Stone named it the 58th-greatest metal album of all time (and again in 2023 the song “This Time” was named as one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time). More importantly I think, metal fans consider it a favorite of theirs and many say it influenced them. For some, they say it even saved their life. You guys left a mark on the music scene in both professional and personal ways. What’s it like hearing accolades and comments like those?

It is extremely humbling to hear how our music has made such a positive impact on people. It still blows my mind just how many lives we’ve saved over the years. Just last night, getting off stage, two separate fans approached me and shared their personal stories about how “River Runs Red” was there for them when no one else was. As a songwriter, that is the biggest accomplishment I can possibly achieve. To add a little light to someone’s darkest moments beats out any monetary reward in my mind. It’s all about connecting with people on a deep, emotional level. That’s what is important.

Was a follow-up to “River Runs Red” in your mind over the years, or did 2019’s “The Sounds of Scars” just come to be when you sat down to write a new album?

“The Sound of Scars” came about very organically. The concept for tying the album to “River Runs Red” was something that evolved over time after a few songs were written. The lyrics seemed to have this common message about overcoming hardships, survival and redemption, so I brought the idea up to the band about continuing the Rivers story. What if the teenager on RRR survived his suicide attempt? What would his life be like 26 years later (the actual amount of years between the two albums). We’ve met so many survivors through touring around the world all these years, and we’re survivors ourselves, that theme really resonated with all of us. We began to explore that idea even deeper and decided to create the audio scenes that continue the RRR narrative … another concept album was born.

We sometimes wish we did things differently, especially when decades pass. Is there anything in lyrics, music or even production that you wish you could go back and change on any album?

Absolutely. As a recording artist you’re always constrained by time and budget. You have a limited amount of time to write, rehearse and record an album based on the recording budget. You have to do the best with what you have at the time. That goes down to the producer, engineers and studio you choose based on their schedules and availability. It also has to do with the material you’re writing and finding the best match for the sound you’re looking to capture. I remember during the RRR album recording, we ran out of money, and producer Josh Silver (Type O Negative) kicked in his own personal money to complete the record. On “Ugly,” we had to do the mixes during the night shift at the studio in order to stay within the budget. And then some albums, like “Broken Valley,” it seemed like money was not an issue at all … we recorded at the best studios with all the time we needed. It really depended on the situation. Looking back, there are many things I would have changed on the “Ugly” album … especially the production. But I do believe that we did the best we could at that age, and in those situations. A bunch of those songs, like “Lost at 22” and “Let’s Pretend” became cult classics … real fan favorites, so what the hell do I know (laughs)?

Did you intentionally write songs for people to relate to or was it all just something close to your heart that turned out to be beneficial to others? That album has some heavy subject matter. Were you ever afraid it might have a negative impact in any way?

All of the songs were written from such an emotional and personal place, there was really no preconceived idea on how others would perceive it, let alone how it would affect them in such a profound way. Without even realizing it, there was this subconscious underlying message of hope that was infused into the songs that made listeners feel like they were not alone. The authenticity of the lyrics struck a real nerve in people and that allowed this band to become what it is today. Our audience has stuck with us through thick and thin. It’s because of that emotional connection that we’ve had this incredible longevity. We’re so grateful for that … It fuels us in everything we do. Not just as a band, but as individuals too. We never were really concerned with how people would respond to the songs we wrote. In fact, we set out to never repeat ourselves early on. That’s why each album has a different vibe and the material is so different. Some fans want bands to just churn out the same record 10 times, but we always pushed ourselves to try new things. We always wanted to grow … as musicians, as songwriters, and as people. When you listen to the songs all together from the various albums in the live set, there are a lot of dynamics and it makes for a more interesting show, in my opinion. Lots of diverse moments … gentle and ferocious.

What was the most difficult thing to overcome as a band since it formed in 1989?

It’s no secret that this band has had its ups and downs over the years … I mean, what band hasn’t? But I do think that because we have that unique passion for what we do, a real love for the music, our LOA family and our fans, that we have been able to overcome the many, many struggles of trying to navigate our way through the music industry while keeping our integrity intact. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve always done everything on our own terms and we’ve always stood in our own power. It’s not an easy thing to do. It is very important and rewarding to us that Life of Agony stays true to what we’ve built together. That it stands for something real and substantial. That it does not follow trendy bullshit trying to ride some bandwagon to make a quick buck. This band is too important to us and our listeners. Our legacy matters. We’ve followed our hearts for over 30 years now, so I think we’re in tune with what we are and who we are.

You’re one hell of an artist on top of being a great bassist. I was surprised to read that one of your teachers was Walt Simonson. I’m sure you look up to Walt as an influence. What other artists have influenced you?

Thanks, I appreciate the kind words! Oh, there’s a ton of artists that have influenced me … Mike Zeck has always been one of my heroes. He drew “The Punisher” and “Web of Spider-Man” comics back when I was a kid. I learned so much about visual storytelling from those books. As a teenager, I practically stalked Mike Zeck (laughs). I would hound him at comic conventions for autographs and custom sketches, and because he was so cool, he always made time for me. He was a real class act. Years later, he wrote the introduction to my “Wire Hangers” graphic novel … I am so grateful for that.

Having Walt Simonson (Thor) as an illustration teacher at SVA was such a cool experience, too. He would have us draw Robo Cop pages from the real comic scripts as assignments. He would bring in real working comic artist friends to guest lecture us and I would soak up all of their knowledge. It was a true full-circle experience when Walt later on wrote the introduction for my “Crawl To Me” graphic novel. What an honor that was for me! He has done some recent work with my publisher IDW, so we still run into each other every now and then at Comic Cons. He’s a great guy!

As an artist, what do you consider your greatest achievement to be? (I think doing art for Black Sabbath has to be way up there!)

Oh yeah, definitely. Drawing stuff for Sabbath is way up there on the bucket list! Pantera, too. Very honored to have been asked to work on those projects for them. It’s so much fun to see those designs being worn by fans all over the world … including on my own daughter. I got some real dad cred with that Black Sabbath hoodie (laughs).

My Beauty of Horror series has been a real standout achievement for me. Mostly because its success came as such an unexpected surprise. The first book was drawn in 2016, as kind of a twisted spoof on the whole adult coloring craze and it exploded out of the gate. Here we are, eight years later and over 500,000 books sold and I’m just completely blown away by the response. It’s amazing to see the book’s main character Ghouliana become a NECA action figure and fans all over the world using their creativity to bring the pages to life.

It was Rock Carnival, June of 2016 in Schaghticoke, NY. I was in the pit shooting and you were about to hit the stage and Joey Z’s daughters helped introduce the band and later your daughter brought you out a cupcake for your birthday. How do moments like that feel when your family and closest friends are around to see and support you? 

I’m not sure if I remember that specific show, but if I saw a pic I might … There’s nothing that compares to sharing these experiences with my family. It’s an awesome feeling. We just played a hometown gig on this last run, and having the kids side of stage always makes me smile.

2023 marks the 25th year since I first interviewed Life of Agony. We’ve crossed paths a few times since then and my initial feeling of you guys hasn’t changed. The word that comes to mind is “humble.” You guys don’t really seem to have fans, you have family. Where does that all come from, because it seems to be within every member of the band.

It must be from the Brooklyn water we all grew up on as kids (laughs). I dunno, man … we’re just normal people trying to follow our dreams like everyone else. We’re very grateful for everything. We don’t have any expectations and we try really hard to live in the moment. We’re all very similar in that way. If you check out our documentary “The Sound of Scars” directed by Leigh Brooks (on Amazon Prime) you really get a sense of who we are as people and where we come from.

Anything new on the horizon from the band or your artwork that you’d like to mention?

The band is out on this incredible world tour celebrating 30 years of “River Runs Red” for the rest of the year, and there’s three new Beauty of Horror releases coming that I’m very excited about:

  • The Beauty of Horror 6: Famous Monsterpieces Coloring Book (April)
  • The Beauty of Horror: Tarot Coloring Book (August)
  • The Best of The Beauty of Horror Coloring Book (October)


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