Agent Johnny Red is an electronic musician, singer-songwriter and composer based in Portland, Maine. He’s been fairly prolific in his music output over the past five years or so, recording and releasing several singles, EPs and compilations, most of which are available on his Bandcamp page. At the end of May, he dropped his first official album Run Against the Sequence, a concept work inspired by his own personal life experiences.
He explained that the album “is about how humans get stuck in recurring behavior patterns or programs that are based upon past events. This is an album about Agent Johnny Red running against the sequence or patterns that were ultimately controlling his life. Addiction to bad relationships, food and drugs are all part of the sequence.” He added that the word ‘Against’ stands for how difficult it is to overcome these bad habits: “Kind of like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, no matter what you do you can’t escape it. But the character in this story does eventually escape at the end.”
The album opens with sounds of a man speaking the words “I won’t deny that there’s some strange, evolutionary process going on, but mankind won’t be destroyed. The fact that you and I are already here today is evidence of that“, and thus begins the first track “Just keep Repeating“. Agent Johnny Red uses an array of dark, yet beautiful swirling synths set to a pulsating EDM beat to create a mysterious atmosphere that conveys a feeling of being in a kind of twilight zone. Eventually, the man’s voice returns to say “Another day is done all over again.” “Figure out this Mess” has an equally ominous vibe, with harsh swooping and pulsating industrial synths forming a psychedelic backdrop for Johnny Red’s droning moody vocals.
On “Lightning in a Black Hole“, Johnny Red seems to be speaking to someone who can save him from himself and his troubles: “Tell me what you want me to be. I’ll tell you I’m all that I can ever be. / I just want to go out for a drive. Just to see the sky. I know it’s crazy, but we’ll be fine if we forget about time.” I really like the lush combination of synth sounds and textures he uses in this and other tracks, and how well his music pairs with his vulnerable, rather melancholy vocals.
The album features a number of terrific instrumental tracks, including “Videodrome“, with its fascinating mix of synthwave, sci-fi, EDM and dubstep elements; the uptempo and otherworldly “Destination of Red“; the mesmerizing, psychedelic and spacey “Save Some Space“; the techno-heavy “Survival is Changes“; and one of my favorites “Don’t Destroy the Water“, a wonderful futuristic fantasia of swirling sci-fi synths and haunting female chorale-like vocal drones, set to captivating dubstep beats.
The title track “Run Against the Sequence” encapsulates everything the album is about, which is the struggle to reach a point of mental clarity and emotional freedom from bad habits and addictions that have kept you enslaved: “Every step that I take will get me closer to awake. Every love that you find will get you closer to rewind. I know that time’s confusing. What if it’s an illusion?” Musically, the song has a haunting piano-driven melody, with a colorful mix of wobbly and stabbing synths, accompanied by hand claps.
“Hack Time (You Work Harder)” has an eerie, almost goth-like vibe, with throbbing industrial synths set to a hypnotic rhythmic beat. The tinkling piano keys add a nice textural contrast, keeping the track from sounding too dark. Johnny Red’s electronically-altered echoed vocals sound pained as he laments of wanting to feel better and be free of his demons and addictions that offer only temporary relief from the pain: “Break free from the things in your brain. / You fell asleep at the wheel. You’re happy when you can feel. You’re happy when you heal. / I just wanna move around the sequence. I just wanna hack time.” It’s another one of my favorite tracks on the album.
“Save the Light” is the point of escape, when Johnny finds the truth in the pain of not succumbing to addiction. His vocals are auto-tuned, giving them an even more haunting feel as he sings of being trapped by his addiction, and wanting to break free. ‘Seven seas’ are a metaphor for his freedom: “Back when you thought you could be everything, you saw something great in the seven seas. You ran benediction through your head but addiction had you dead. But you were here and you were sure that if you come back to the seven seas. Come back and let me be. I believe this is a dream come true.” He realizes he needs to be strong, keeping freedom from addiction at the forefront of his goals: “Think the way that you can feel. Fight the urge to make the deal. All these scars that will not heal are just dreams, they are not real.”
Yet he continues to struggle with self-doubt and guilt over pain he’s caused others: “No I don’t want to go back home. I want to stay on this earth. I wanna stay on this earth but you keep killing it. I am telling you I don’t want to see them die. I don’t want to see them cry just so I can feel alive.” He ultimately comes to the realization that he wants to live a life free from addiction: “And if I save the light, then the dark might take me tonight. And on the seven seas everything might be alright.” Johnny Red uses complex and lush industrial and psychedelic synths and some lovely guitar notes to create a somber, yet hopeful mood. It’s a magnificent and moving track.
The album closes on a more upbeat and positive note with “A Puzzled Picture“. The track has a lighthearted vibe, thanks to a lively mix of skittering spacey synths. The man’s spoken voice we heard on the opening track returns to offer a few lines of wisdom, though I’m unable to make out exactly what he’s saying.
Not being a musician, nor very knowledgeable about music theory, technique or mechanics, it’s often hard for me to fully articulate what I hear when listening to electronic music. That said, I have nevertheless written about quite a lot of it, and can confidently state that Run Against the Sequence is in the top tier of electronic music albums I’ve reviewed. Agent Johnny Red is a highly creative, talented and imaginative composer, as well as thoughtful songwriter, and should be very proud of his latest work. This is an album that requires a couple of close listens to fully appreciate all of it’s many nuances, but you will be rewarded for your effort.