Themed Thursday: Storytellers – River Runs Red

By 1993, Grunge had pretty much thumped American Thrash Metal back to the Stone Age as far as its popularity in the mainstream is concerned.  Thrash didn’t die; it was more or less pushed aside.  Only a handful of Thrash metal bands were still able to sell-out venues while the rest were getting pushed underground, getting released by major record labels, and going back to touring the club circuit.  The airwaves were dominated by the Seattle surge of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.  Then something magical happened from the Northeast; almost as far away in America as you could get from Seattle.  Brooklyn’s Life of Agony provided an alternative to Alternative.  Their fusion of metal, hardcore, and thrash opened another path for metalheads who needed an escape from Grunge.  Keith Caputo’s powerful baritone vocal style, accompanied by Joey Z, Alan Robert, and Sal Abruscato quickly became a new sensation.  But, in addition to their killer riffs and headbanging rhythm, Life of Agony’s debut album, River Runs Red, was a dark and tragic story.

While many new fans were enjoying their unique sound, River Runs Red carried with it a dark and depressing story that, as a reader/listener, we can assume is the life-story told through the eyes of vocalist Keith Caputo; an assumption I gathered through various interviews I read over the years.  I don’t think Life of Agony ever set out to record a concept album when they released River Runs Red in 1993.  It seems like everything fell into place to give the album that vibe.  The story they told was the all too common tale that many people can relate to; a story of neglect, anger, frustration, loneliness, despair, and suicide.  This story is played out over 13 songs and audio clips as it weaves its way to a dramatic and tragic end result.  This is the story of River Runs Red.

Track #1, This Time

When all is said and done
I’ll always be your son
But all is not forgiven
Well I’m on my knees pleading
Just ’cause I’m grown you think I don’t need
Much more than what you’ve ever given me

So when we gonna get together
Seems there’s no time for me
You act like you got forever
You’ve got time, but you ain’t got time for me

You said you’ve got time
But you ain’t got time for me

Now that you’ve gone and tossed
The bottle away now will ya
Start a new life with the new wife
Well she’ll never be my mother
I suppose that you know you oughta
Remember the one you left behind

You’re just letting it slip away now
You act like things are fine
I know you think you’ve been born again
But this time
You’re leaving your son behind

This time
This time
This time

Keith Caputo

It doesn’t take long to figure out the home circumstances of the song’s central character.  The son lets the father know that no matter what happens he will always be there for him.  That’s the blind dedication children have for their parents.  Despite evidence of alcohol abuse and the absence of the father-figure, the narrator realizes that his father, though “born again,” has no intention to reunite the father-son relationship that we can assume was much better prior to its current status.  You quickly realize that the father never really was there.  There is no This Time (it will be better).  Realization becomes reality as the one and only fatherly influence, probably the person who could have given him solid ground, is gone.

It doesn’t take long to feel the anger in River Runs Red.  The story unfolds as the classic state of the broken home gone to the extreme.  A misguided youth that needed nothing more than a solid foundation and proper guidance was left to fend unaided in an unforgiving atmosphere.  The three audio tracks that appear between every few songs are aptly titled Monday, Thursday, and Friday.  On Monday, we learn to understand that being fatherless was the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The mother, heard screaming as the front door closes, is not the nurturing kind.  Almost immediately we hear her berating the central character the second he walks in the door.  Her screaming insults are compounded by background noise (a loud television and baby screaming).  Monday is the first real clue that River Runs Red is more than just an album about hard-luck times.  As the listener we are drawn deeper into the psyche of a person’s inhospitable surroundings.  Unfortunately, the same surroundings most people find comfort in are the surroundings that slowly eat away the moral fiber of our central character.  By the end of the answering machine message, he is discarded by his girlfriend who doesn’t have the decency to end their relationship face to face.

Track #4 River Runs Red

I got the razor at my wrist
’cause I can’t resist
I’ve got this fever burnin’ fist
That does as I wish
But when I get downtown
And see what’s around
I just know there’s got to be
A better place to be found

Oh, God help me

The river runs red and I think I’m dyin’

Well I know there’d come a day
When my mind would say “Hey are you afraid”
Well all I know is that I been down here tryin’
Well, I’ll bleed on through the night
I suppose I’ll be dead by the morning light
So don’t be surprised if you mind when you find me

The river runs red and I think I’m dyin’
The river runs red and I think I’m dyin’

Oh, God help me

Alan Robert

There are noticeable signs and symptoms of those with suicidal tendencies.  Cutting is probably the boldest and most serious cry for help shy of an actual failed attempt.  The title track, River Runs Red, says it all in the first line “I got the razor on my wrist ‘cause I can’t resist.”  The central character is looking for a reason; not to die though, a reason to keep going.  He is looking for a better place; trying to find some motive to keep the razor away.  Who can he turn to?  There is no comfort from family or anyone he can say loves him enough to help him.  Only the streets offer any semblance of security; but, it isn’t there.  The answers are never in the streets.  He is begging for help.  God doesn’t seem to be answering is prayers; what else is there?  Is there anyone that can save him?  Can he save himself?

Through and Through illustrates how detached one can be from their surroundings. “But for now I’ll take shelter deep in the  back of my mind” sums up how painful it can be to be alone in the world while still surrounded by people you love, or I should say, people who are supposed to love you back.  By now the façade is in full effect.  “Smiling is just a phase yeah and nothing can phase me” – the last line of the song.

It is now Thursday (technically track #7).  More berating as he comes into the apartment.  The same loud television and screaming child accompanied by more insults from Mom; insults that would cut the strongest-willed person to the bone.  By the end of the messages, he is now fired from his place of employment and also notified that he will be failing school if immediate actions are not taken to rectify the situation.

Track #9 My Eyes

A little older, little wiser
With every breath I learn just a little more
And with all I’ve seen, I’ve finally made up my mind
Enough of this world
Enough blood in these eyes
So, so, so sick of this life

It’s about time that I realized
Release this hate from inside
Enough blood in my eyes

Call it what you will
Call it suicide
Disregard how you feel
I’m just freeing my mind
Clench my teeth as I sleep
So, so, so sick of this life
Cannot take, cannot fake
Can’t shake this blood from these eyes

All I have and all I will be
Nevertheless I’ll live for all eternity
‘Cause you can’t erase my words, can’t erase my mind
You can’t wipe out my thoughts
Can’t shake this blood from my eyes
So, so, so don’t even try

Just give me one good reason to live
I’ll give you three to die
Let’s leave this world behind

The final stage is nearing.  The reasons to die outnumber the reasons to live.  A little older and a little wiser now; the level of courage has increased.  Still unable to tackle the issues that plague him; unable to escape the reality he lives in, suicide is the only answer that offers any kind of promise…it’s his rationale.   His mind is made up.  It is now just a matter of time.

Joey Z

The 13th track, Friday, is the end.  An even longer audio track than the previous two takes us once again on the dreaded trip up a flight of stairs and into the only place in the world people are supposed to feel safe and secure; home.  Again, mother berates him even more intensely.  This time, the central character yells back where previously he remained silent.  People swearing, dishes crashing, baby screaming!  He probably never said anything before because he knew it would only escalate the situation.  His bedroom is his only solace; the only place he can clear his mind…prepare his mind for the next step.  He turns up the music, River Runs Red, as the water runs which we can assume is the tub.    His breathing is shaky – perhaps out of nervousness or fear.  Once again, the mother yells through the door.

When the cut happens you can hear it.  There is a slight wince of pain just before the sound of dripping…blood.  The mother opens the door and screams in horror.  What?  Why?  Does she really love him?  Why would she be so hurt if she didn’t seem to ever care?  The end of the clip is simply the sound of blood drops landing in the pool of water.  The sound slowly fades…as does the life of the central character.

As the listener of River Runs Red, I do not advocate the final decision of the central character.  I believe every suicide is preventable, but someone has to recognize the signs and act.  The victim might not have the means to reach out, so it’s up to the rest of us to take action.  The people closest to him offered no stability.  His untimely death is unjustifiable.

Sal Abruscato

The band’s moniker – Life of Agony – sums up the entire debut album in a nutshell.  A life of agony isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s a universal language for how some people feel and live every day of their lives until one of two things happen; they get help or they die.  For the central character of River Runs Red, his demise is a classic example of an individual who probably could have been saved given the nurturing effect of at least one person.

Life of Agony quickly rose in popularity despite the Grunge movement.  I had the pleasure of seeing them live early in their career at some dive club in Providence, Rhode Island.  They were a great live band who was really proficient at taking their emotion and turning it into raw energy on stage.  I saw them once again few years later in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Whitfield Crane of Ugly Kid Joe took over vocal duty.  There was something fundamentally wrong with that.  Crane looked like he was having fun on stage which kind of went against what Life of Agony sang about.

River Runs Red is a story; a sad angry one at that.  However, it made for some great music that still holds up almost 19 years later.

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About WarpRider

Just a dude writing a heavy metal blog and always on the prowl for a cool metal show. I am also a family man...first and foremost!

Posted on 2012-05-17, in Storytellers, Theme Thursday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Awesome post. River Runs Red is on hell of a powerful album. Listening to it again now it still gives me chills. It’s such a strong reminder to love each other.
    I had the pleasure of seeing them live and what an experience it was. They played the Gigantour with Megadeth and they played the “second stage” which was just essentially their equipment set up on some boxes with a dinky barricade leaving the band some room to mover around near the entrance of the outdoor arena the show was at. It was their first show back together at River lineup and their “second stage” was a last minute idea by the band, they had been scheduled to play the main stage. When they took the ‘stage’ Keith said since this was their first hometown show in a long time he wanted to do something special for the fans. He pulled some strings somehow and wanted to do a very up close and personal show, and that it was. He said that if everyone stuck around and listened to some of their new material which they had just released that they would play all of River. For almost the whole set they played in the crowd. He talked about the album and said that it was very autobiographical and nearly came close to the conclusion of the album. He said that he wrote the album so that no one else would have to go through what he did. I was standing (read: going bat shit crazy) right next to him most of the show and at times he was almost enveloped in tears. That was probably the most intimate and emotional shows I’ve ever seen. Talk about a show stealer, and Dream Theater and Fear Factory were also on the bill.

  2. I agree, this is an awesome post. I had never heard of this band before, but reading this really made me want to listen and experience it too. Nice that you included lyrics, pictures and lots of videos. Gives me a very good picture of the band’s music.

    Almost made me cry too, but great art should make you feel.

  3. I just noticed from on the “Underground” clip you posted is quite recent and I’m guessing it was recorded after he came out. Listening to it after giving RRR a couple spins today Keith’s voice has gone through some changes. It still sounds great though and really fits the song. In this mode it puts a new spin on the song. I wonder if they are going to put out any new music soon. The last album I bought from them was pretty damn good. It was more along the lines of Ugly, but still nice and heavy.
    @Irmelinis – Definitely get this record. It is one of the best, emotional, and most powerful records ever recorded. One of my all time favorites

  4. Yes, sir. If you say so, I will get it. ;)

  5. Life of Agony did put on a very emotional show, that’s why Whitfield Crane was wrong for the band; great for Ugly Kid joe, but not Life of Agony. Even fron a distance (the snow I went to) you could tell Keith felt what he was signing.

    I did continue to buy their albums. Soul Searching Sun was a good album, but not nearly as emotional as the RRR. Despite it being more pop sounding than RRR it was still good metal/rock I bought their newer material Broken Valley in 2005 and it was…ok; a bit heavier, but not quite the same as RRR or Ugly.

    This one is Weeds from Soul Searching sun.

    This is Last Cigarette from Broken Valley

    @Irmelinis if you like a really mellow experience, I liked Keith Caputo’s solo album Died Laughing. Here is a vid from that…

  1. Pingback: Retro Roundtable Review: Life of Agony – Ugly | A Metal State of Mind

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