Whilst colourful band histories are nothing new in the metal world, the story of Agent Steel is practically kaleidoscopic. At the same time, there may be some that cry “who?” – which would be a great shame because Agent Steel were in the right place at the right time, could have had the metal world at their feet at the point of and beyond the creative direction of their second full length album Unstoppable Force in 1987. Instead, the wheels came off multiple times; constant line up changes; a fickle fan base; a label that would mysteriously suspend the band for years; reformations without their founding member; legal discourse and reformations with their founding member. Agent Steel’s history is not one that could be made up or written and even from a musical standpoint was no ordinary metal band to begin with.
Agent Steel was formed by guitarist John Camps (later changing his name to Cyriss) in California in 1984. Following a stint in Sceptre as a guitarist Cyriis then joined Abattoir leading the band to re-configure their demo with Cyriss on vocals. Leaving Abattoir to form Sanctuary with drummer Chuck Profus the pair changed the name to Agent Steel, added two guitarists and a bassist for a demo that garnered terrific reviews but the line up failed not last. With different personnel, Agent Steel released their debut album Skeptics Apocalypse in 1985. The album – an Iron Maiden-meets-proto thrash tour-de-force – gained the band a “speed metal” tag and with some “otherworldly” lyrics as to aliens and life elsewhere in the cosmos leading to the record being referred to as a genre masterpiece. In a way, “speed metal” was quite limiting when in actual fact, Agent Steel was a hybrid of power metal and thrash encompassing lightning rhythm and Cyriis’ somewhat unique high pitched vocals. However, the innovative style displayed on Skeptics Apocalypse ,was hampered by poor production and as thrilling as it was from a technical perspective, it was a record that relied heavily on speed and very little nuance to counter balance it.
It was Agent Steel’s second album Unstoppable Force that really opened the door. The album added texture and moods giving way to semi-ballads, an instrumental as well as monumental speed metal tracks offering a more balanced and varied approach and backed with a solid production. It was an album that still had a difficult birth, though. The band went into the studio in 1986 with pauses for an Aardschokk festival appearance and a tour with Anthrax and Overkill. A further delay was created by issues with the cover art. Capitol Records expressed interest in signing the band but management wanted more money which was agreed in principle – providing a wait for departmental budgets to be replenished. For reasons unknown, Cyriis and Profus moved to Florida leaving the other band members in California leading Capitol Records to withdraw the offer due to ‘suspicions’ as to line up changes and eventually, the much delayed Unstoppable Force was released by Combat Records in 1987. There was once more a line up change with guitarists James Murphy and Jay Weslord plus bassist Richard Bateman and this line up played European shows with Nuclear Assault but a year later, Agent Steel had disbanded as their record label put them into suspension for the remainder of their contract. No reason was ever cited with Cyriis stating that Agent Steel was “buried alive for no justifiable reason.” Cyriis released a statement announcing his retirement from music and as of 1990, the whereabouts of Cyriis was unknown.
Agent Steel was reformed by guitarists Juan Garcia and Bernie Versailles in 1998 but this was without Cyriis’ consent. The band featured returning members Chuck Profus and Michael Zaputil and new vocalist Bruce Hall, although this line up did not last with Karlos Medina replacing Zaputil. An album, The Omega Conspiracy was released in 1999 but in 2001 Agent Steel were forced to change their name to Order Of The Illuminati due to legal pressure from John Cyriis. The Agent Steel name did return and an album Order Of The Illuminati was released in 2003 and a fifth album Alienigma in 2007. In 2010, Bruce Hall announced his departure stating that Agent Steel was a “cover band” and wishing good luck to whoever “filled John’s shoes”. That same year, it was announced that John Cyriis would re-join the band with a view to performing at a festival, rehearsing classic material and actually releasing new material. Further chaos ensued though with Cyriis not performing with Agent Steel due to “unfortunate events” and Helstar vocalist James Rivera and Steel Prophet vocalist Rick Mythisasin filling in but performing under the name of Master Of Metal. Further festival appearances were cancelled, although Cyriis did perform at the Sweden Rock Festival and denied that it was his last performance. This was short lived though as Cyriis performed with his own band S.E.T.I. a few months later.
It is 2018 that brings the story to today and the release of No Other Godz Before Me, the first recorded material with John Cyriis (now credited as Johnny) for 34 years. However, as in true Agent Steel style, the road to this album has hardly been straight and smooth. The reformation was announced in 2018 that the band would be playing a festival in 2019 and an album – original title 8 Lights Protocol – slated for release later the in the year. The band signed to Dissonance Productions and changed the album name to No Mercy From The Godz scheduling a release in late 2019 with a tour to follow in 2020. In July 2019 the band announced that the album name had changed once again and nearly two years later No Other Godz Before Me finally sees the light of day.
Some may question the legitimacy of the albums not featuring Johnny Cyriss and despite the Agent Steel history and the negatives, those albums were decent metal albums that stand on their own. Those early albums – Skeptics Apocalypse may have had its limitations which were massively improved upon with its successor Unstoppable Force – but both are deemed classics and the man’s return does bring back the authenticity and legitimacy, the vision and those unique vocals into the modern day. 34 years is a long time to wait, music – and metal – has morphed and changed but can any album bear the weight of the history and an extraordinary time frame? The answer is a resounding “yes” and to some degree, listening and No Other Godz Before Me feels like the last three decades never actually happened. This of course could be taken that the band are moving backwards but given the history, there is a more positive to ‘unfinished business’ and sonically, indeed, No Godz could be a natural successor to Unstoppable Force. The album does eschew any bells and whistles, there is no stratospheric production value but none is required, the whole event is encapsulated within speed metal realms and keeps everything tight. To hear Cyriis’ voice though and let us be honest here, the vocals sound quite impossible and for the man to keep his voice like that is simply out of the box madness.
Thematically, it is not too far a stretch from other releases, and the sci-fi of previous albums – even down to the cover of what appears to be the lights of a landing spaceship. Even a read of the thanks list makes interesting reading and it is not the first time that the sci-fi has been suggested could be metaphorical in relation to ‘freedom’ and more human factions that want to take control. The songs themselves hit various notes that are not backwards in coming forwards, heralding a legacy and ensuring that the “metal” in “speed metal” is as far upfront as possible. That low key production rams home the point that we are here to bang our heads and if that is the proposition then it is the perfect soundtrack. The thematic mysteries do get lost though, a lyric book is a pin head light into the world of Agent Steel but the full details of the lyrical machinations would probably blow minds and melt craniums as it is. The whole thing is truly bonkers at times but the music is so tight that rather than being forgettable, as a piece of metal music that is actually quite compelling as it whizzes through riff after riff that really seems to be intent on tearing the universe apart.
To analyse every song is pointless, this is an album that does easily meet, if not surpasses the legacy of Agent Steel and while there is a focus on Cyriis, there should be because at last, there is a continuation of a vision by a man that is a visionary. No Other Godz Before Me may be an album that flicks the switch back to the mid-1980s but it does this in a way that sidesteps nostalgia and there is that air of familiarity with other bands at the time, Veterans Of Disaster has some chug and nice time changes and just that streak of Rage For Order-era Queensryche running through it. The Devil’s Greatest Trick also shows off Cyriis’ greatest trick with the way he approaches the vocals, a sing-song of high notes before dropping a level that shows that the pony has a fair few tricks and the gut ripping solo is just superb. The album trips through not just speed metal but what is deemed as traditional metal while gleaming like a shiny spaceship in its glance over the shoulder to its past. It is new but it is old at the same time and what could have been a disaster is a quirky and heavy hitting album that does not fail to leave an impression.
No Other Godz Before Me is one of those records that may sound completely off its own face but it is an album that ticks so many boxes standing up to its own history and how it even came into being. The fact that Johnny Cyriis has not turned into a has-been crooner or decided to jump on any old bandwagon is both refreshing, shows integrity as well as that grit and determination – almost a warcry- to turn out a record that he feels Agent Steel fans have actually been denied for the last three decades. For sure, there are some “WTF?” moments and really does anyone make albums that are so ‘out there’ any more? Some may scoff at the eccentricty of the album, the band and the man behind the vision but No Other Godz Before Me will speak to every fan of Agent Steel. By the time the outro of The Entrance To Afron-V finishes it may be an exhausting journey but it is an exhilarating one too that yanks off the plaster of the past to face a brave new world.
Welcome back, Johnny. We’ve missed you.