Review Summary: Beautiful "nature metal" from Portland, Oregon. Heavier and faster paced than The Mantle with crisper production than Pale Folklore. An album of the year contender.
In their decade of existence, Portland’s own Agalloch have become the U.S.’s answer to Norwegian dark metal and one of our country’s more acclaimed folk/ambient/doom/black/experimental/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-metal bands in recent years. And for good reason; gaining inspiration from the rainy, dreary climate of their hometown, Agalloch have consistently put out some of the most beautiful, nature worshipping metal since Burzum mad genius (and convicted arsonist and murderer) Varg Vikernes freely roamed the backwoods of Bergen. Between unashamedly flaunting their Ulver influence on 1998’s Pale Folklore, increasing the bleakness of their sound on the 2001 stopgap EP Of Stone, Wind and Pillor, and adding spacey, post-rock atmospherics and beautiful folk harmonies to 2002’s masterpiece The Mantle, something happened. Agalloch began to slowly, but surely, change their sound; becoming more melodic and letting more of the gorgeous acoustic pieces that dotted their first full length and EP come completely to fruition. The delicate textures heard on The Mantle not only made Agalloch more palatable to music fans who had never heard a “necro” vocal or blast beat in their lives, but they also breathed more life into an already wholly organic musical collective. Both the accessibility and painfully beautiful soundscapes continue to grow on one of this year’s best releases, Ashes Against the Grain.
The album begins with a sorrowful echoed feedback effect, then breaks in with the first of many powerful groove/doom riffs on the intro track, “Limbs.” The groove continues until the three minute mark, when the beat falls away and a plucked guitar and simple keyboard melody are left to intertwine with each other until the song builds again and vocalist John Haughm begins his narrative in his trademark black metal rasp. Have no fear, though, his clean, emotive croon is also present in this disc, just in less quantities than the predominately clean The Mantle. Within the closing seconds of “Limbs,” it becomes apparent that this is a much more straightforward, rock-oriented approach than Agalloch has taken than in releases past. The second track, “Falling Snow,” continues with the trend; Haughm’s raspy delivery once again dominating the vocal space, as a driving double bass rhythm is played under enchanting, almost Explosions in the Sky-esque guitar melodies. The song holds its quickened pace for its entire duration, only briefly entering doom territory for the short breakdown in between the driving first half and even more up tempo second half in which Haughm gives his best clean vocal performance yet. Soaring over the song’s epic soundscape, the added clarity of the vocals makes “Falling Snow” a mandatory track among a disc comprised of stellar compositions.
As “Falling Snow” fades, the first glimpses of Agalloch’s true experimentation shine through on the ambient segue track "This White Mountain on Which You Will Die.” While the piece would feel right at home any of Montreal post-rock titan Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s albums, it easily fits right into this album’s already bleak atmosphere. The track also serves to break up the first two introductory tracks from the last five pieces, which are the real meat of the album. The next two songs, “Fire Above, Ice Below” and “Not Unlike the Waves” blend together nicely; the former serving as the album’s halfway point, with its solid rock rhythm and soulful chorus, and the latter being the album’s sole single, based on its excellent central riff. “Not Unlike the Waves” is by far the band’s most accessible song to date; its infectious, punishing riff, excellent clean (and harsh) vocals, and plaintive acoustic interludes make it an obvious choice for the album’s first single, as well as the band’s first music video.
Ashes Against the Grain concludes with the three part suite entitled “Our Fortress Is Burning,” which combines a strummed acoustic guitar intro track, a plodding, heavy midsection – complete with black metal vocals – which serves as a climax of sorts for the album, and the seven minute ambient finale, which closes the album with an eerily calming resolution.
There are so many things Ashes Against the Grain does right that would make it a warranted purchase to a fan of any subgenre of heavy music. From the double time pacing of the majority of the tracks, to the catchy, borderline hard rock riffs laying comfortably on a soft bed of post-rock inspired guitar melodies, Agalloch’s third full length is neck and neck with Isis’ In the Absence of Truth for progressive metal album of the year.