The story of Swedish heavy rockers is one of perpetual evolution. There is no point in the outfit’s 16-year history at which they were doing the same thing twice. From their 2000 self-titled debut EP on Molten Universe (someday it will be mine), through the subsequent 2001 debut full-length, Revolution Rock (discussed here), the beginnings of their association with Small Stone Records on 2003’s Secret Alphabets, the grand productions of 2007’s Agents of Ahriman and 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) and the sustainable touring presence they became with 2014’s Trails and Passes, which recently led to their signing with Napalm Records for the release of their next album — currently in production — they’ve never been quite in the same place as a band. And for the most part, they haven’t had the same lineup either.
Begun as a side-project of Dozer by guitarist Tommi Holappa and Bengt Bäcke, who produced some of Dozer‘s earliest work and has played bass in Greenleaf through their entire tenure, Greenleaf has evolved from a studio outfit putting out occasional records in Dozer‘s downtime to Holappa‘s main focus — a considerable swap in position. When they released Agents of Ahriman, that transition was still a ways off, but the roots were being dug. Bäcke and Holappa were joined on drums by former Dozer drummer Erik Bäckwell and vocalist Oskar Cedermalm, who was at that time only beginning to make an impression with his own band, Truckfighters. Former Lowrider vocalist Peder Bergstrand (who was also the first singer in Greenleaf) and John Hermansen, who was then in the transition between The Awesome Machine and Mother Misery, also make notable guest appearances on vocals.
I do not at all mind telling you that Agents of Ahriman stands among my favorite heavy rock records — period. Of any era. Certainly it was one of the finest outings of the aughts, and I consider it a flawless execution of songwriting and performance. Not one second of its nine tracks/37 minutes is superfluous. Led by Holappa, Greenleaf bring a character to the modus of classic heavy rock that few have been able to parallel, let alone match, both presaging and out-boogieing the retro rock movement while still sounding modern in Bäcke‘s production, melodically complex in Cedermalm‘s arrangements, varied through the guest appearances — not at all limited to vocals; Jocke Åhslund‘s Hammond featuring on “Black Tar,” “Alishan Mountain,” “The Lake” and “Ride Another Highway,” while John Hoyles (now of Troubled Horse) adds a guitar solo to opener “Highway Officer” and Linus Arnberg brings cowbell stomp to swing-happy closer “Stray Bullit Woman” — and outright unstoppable in its righteousness of groove. Front to back, it is the kind of record one could use as a textbook to teach children about the joys of rock and roll.
And if this sounds like hyperbole, it is earned in the hyper-memorable choruses of “Alishan Mountain” and “Ride Another Highway” — Hermansen‘s one-man call and response rivaling Cedermalm‘s own — and in the spaciousness of the six-minute “Sleep Paralysis,” which in its last moments finally seems to be driving toward a payoff of its track-long tension, only to cut out at the moment of impact, breaking the rule under which it seemed to be playing, in Bergstrand doing his best Mark Lanegan on the attitude-soaked “Black Tar,” and in the riffs of “Highway Officer,” “Treehorn” and particularly organ-ic “The Lake,” which was the centerpiece of the CD and on the vinyl is the beginning point for a five-track side B that only gets richer as it pushes — and, in the case of “Ride Another Highway,” propels — toward “Stray Bullit Woman” as the closing statement. A more swaggering performance from Cedermalm there never has been, and the progression over which it comes is worthy of being called Mountain-esque — not a comparison to be made lightly.
There is one last guest appearance before Agents of Ahriman is finished, and it’s Emil Leo, who after emerging from a swirl of effects asks the simple question “And now what?” Eight years after the album’s initial release — worth noting this is the first time it’s out on vinyl — we know to some extent. Dozer would issue their final (to-date; one can always hope) full-length in the form of 2008’s Beyond Colossal, and after a few years of inactivity, Greenleaf would be resurrected again, this time with Dozer‘s Johan Rockner on guitar and Olle Mårthans on drums for Nest of Vipers — Dozer bassist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin also made a guest appearance, along with Bergstrand and keymaster Per Wiberg — and began a touring cycle. That would be the end of Cedermalm‘s run with the band, Truckfighters taking priority as a worldwide touring entity and an outfit of increasing profile, and vocalist Arvid Jonsson took up the difficult mantle ably on Trails and Passes, Sebastian Olsson also stepping into the drummer role.
Greenleaf remains in seemingly permanent flux, and what their next record might bring when it arrives I wouldn’t speculate to say other than to note the reliable quality of Holappa‘s songcraft, which in partnership with Bäcke‘s production, was so plainly on display with Agents of Ahriman in its whole-album, all-killer impact. The LP version is a somewhat different experience, the sides not quite breaking evenly with the second longer than the first, but whether you’ve experienced what I consider Greenleaf‘s finest hour yet — Nest of Vipers was a grander affair and showed progression, but these songs are tattooed on my brain — or whether you’ve never heard the thing, it still proves itself to be an utterly essential listen for anyone and everyone who wants to know what heavy rock sounds like at its most right. You can say I’m overstating it if you want. You’re wrong. It’s already stood up to eight years, and listening to the vinyl, I hear no reason Agents of Ahriman won’t continue to endure into perpetuity. Recommended.