Progressive Punks

The punk rock genre has been getting a little formulaic lately. Various bigtime California bands -- Green Day, Rancid, Offspring, Bad Religon -- have basically laid down a blueprint consisting of boot-stomping rhythms and power riffs. But punk rock, by definition, rebels against established conventions. It was probably only a matter of time before punks in outlying areas decided to shake things up, and the Kendall-based trio the Agency is doing just that.

Featuring Mike Marsh on drums and vocals, Klaus Ketelhohn on guitar, and Chris Drueke on bass, the Agency has been a regular nightclub attraction on both sides of the Miami-Dade/Broward county line since 1994. Its fourteen-song CD, Rock to the Apocalypse (on the local label Habitual Records), is the kind of ska-punk stuff that breeds a good, healthy mosh pit. But the band also delves into a musical genre that the early punks pissed all over: progressive rock. With its dulcet, three-part vocal harmonies, complex bass riffs, and intricate guitar work, the Agency shares some common ground with Rush or even (gasp!) Dream Theater. In the world of punk rock, this kind of artistic sensibility and technical proficiency may well amount to career suicide.

"In a scene that's so antitech, we're about as tech as you can get away with," admits Drueke before a recent performance at the Hungry Sailor in Coconut Grove.

Whether or not the Agency can get away with it remains to be seen. Rock to the Apocalypse is receiving some spins on University of Miami's local-music radio show, and the band is planning a self-booked summer tour up the Eastern seaboard. (Marsh has already quit his day job as a guitar salesman.) But the Agency boasts only a handful of local followers. Perhaps that's because much of the group's music whizzes right over most people's heads. The trio admits their disc is slightly schizo, partly because the songs represent three years of experimental songwriting -- and partly because the songwriters are still in their early twenties.

"Adrenaline," for instance, opens the album with Ketelhohn's metal-bred guitar: crisp chords, quick fills, and pure progressive rock, though updated with a post-altrock style. "Duck and Cover," with Ketelhohn temporarily taking over lead vocal responsibilities from Marsh, represents the apex of the band's technical virtuosity. Then there's the tongue-in-cheek "Fat Guy," sung by Drueke, in which the group moves decidedly toward ska-punk.

The Agency certainly has what it takes to be a crowd-pleasing act. But the band has a few tricks up its sleeve. Take "The Iliad," for instance, an instrumental number that almost categorizes the Agency as a bunch of riff-rocking art geeks. "Leave" has a bombastic, orchestral feel. "What About Me" could almost be called progressive ska. It's all wonderfully unpredictable, but few fans care to follow the band while it strays across such divergent musical territory.

"What kind of sucks," says Drueke, "is that when we play a punk show, and you've got real punks there, they resent us. The new kids like it, but with a lot of the old-school fans you can see a lot of resentment."

The hostile, harrumphing attitude of the old school is nowhere to be found in the Agency. Marsh's voice has none of Johnny Rotten's sneer or even Billy Joe's depressed whine. In fact it's positively chirpy, especially when interwoven with the happy harmonies of Drueke and Ketelhohn.

"Pop is basically what we've always wanted to play," notes Marsh, who painted the Norman Rockwellian artwork on the cover of Rock to the Apocalypse. "We don't want it to sound like Third Wave ska. We just want it to sound like pop music. We just want kids to dance to it. Even though we do play a hundred miles an hour sometimes, and that's the punk thing to do, there's still pop in our music."

Back in the early '90s, when the band members were students at Sunset Senior High in Kendall, the Agency (then called Abstract) was playing almost nothing but covers of Rush, the Police, and Primus -- this at a time when Nirvana was the musical flavor of the day. The Agency's attitude hasn't changed since.

"We try to push it as far as we can," contends Marsh. "There's so much of the four-chord thing going on. It's cool to stand out against that. It's cool to have your own little style going on. We try to be as original as we can as far as the scene is concerned. Everyone's trying to do the punk thing. We're trying to separate them out a little and trying to do our own thing, which usually is technical."

The Agency's hard-to-categorize sound has made it a tough sell, especially in an area where live venues are few and far between. Like a lot of local musicians, Marsh grumbles about the downhill slide of South Florida's club scene. "There's not really any place to play," he says. "Everyone's just kind of trying to do their own thing as much as they can, and it's so hard because there's no place to play. So local bands don't really get a good chance to meet each other and converse and do the whole local thing. It's not like it used to be like when Washington Square was open, having shows every night, when Cheers was down here. There were shows every night, and the local scene was really booming then."

The band hopes that hitting the road will help build a larger fan base. Actually, the Agency would just like to build a fan base, period.

"We figure we're gonna have to use this first tour to just pay a lot of visits to radio stations and press," Ketelhohn admits. "Right now I think, more than establishing a following nationwide, we just want to let people know that we exist."

The Agency performs June 19 with Unwritten Law and Sprung Monkey at Spanky's, 500 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, 561-832-7964. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is $8 in advance, $10 at the door. The Agency also plays June 26 at the Underground, 400 SW 27th Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-792-9473. Doors open at 6 p.m. Admission is $5 for patrons age 21 and older, $7 for patrons under age 21.

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