“White as the falling snow…”
As much as I struggle to say it, Portland, Oregon’s genre-bending metal act Agalloch is, to put it quite bluntly, one of the most important and interesting metal bands in the world today. They take the concept of ambient black metal and put it to new heights with heavy incorporations of folk, post-rock, and a touch of doom. Indeed, their unique nature-themed entourages play out like a deeply depressing and rather hateful film, in which the listener is but a ghost in the background, looking onward into the flowing scene with nothing but transfixion and a calming bliss.
Their works are, for lack of a better word, epic. With extremely long track lengths and a seemingly endless horizon in placed in front of the listener the album flows with the utmost consistency and care. Agalloch even manage to lay out their strange concepts through daunting trilogies, each conveying a different feeling, a different scene, and a different sound. Often enough, one is shifted from a volley of melodic riffs and raspy vocals right into seven minutes of pure ambient, something which you certainly will notice right away. It’s not that this ambience is dragging or boring either, because what this silence and seemingly random noise signifies is something greater than that single track alone, it is part of an ever-weaving storyline taking place from the moment you begin to listen to the album.
“…Black as our citadels burned against the sky”
Enter Agalloch’s latest, Ashes Against The Grain
. Coming off of their last album, The Mantle
, they change things up. While The Mantle
was breathing post-rock, Ashes Against The Grain
brings Agalloch back into more of a metal-oriented sound, something which I really enjoy, seeing how much Agalloch excels at making some of the darkest and most solemn metal songs ever laid down. The album structure tells something of the coming story, as do the lyrics and they way they are ordered and placed in the book that comes with the album. From the deeply peaceful yet haunting opener “Limbs” to the grandiose closing trilogy “Our Fortress Is Burning…”. The descent into chaos from the opening to the closing of this album is certainly noticeable with the lyrical content as well as the overall mood which is lingering in each song.
“Fall away from me to that citadel at the end of time…”
The opening five tracks set the stage, being some of the best and most interesting songs Agalloch has ever written. In these songs, the use of John Haughm’s black metal rasps are more prevalent than anything since Agalloch’s brilliant Pale Folklore
, and being a metal fan it certainly appeals more than the clean vocals. Although the use of the black metal vocals are more widespread, there isn’t anything to stop Agalloch from using the strangely distant and melodic clean vocals, which are actually used to a more appealing effect. Whether it be to add some desperation and sadness to “Falling Snow” or to open up the brilliant “Not Unlike The Waves”, the use of these clean vocals are much more well-placed and more appealing than what was used on The Mantle
Nature-oriented themes abound, the very woodsy and bleak atmosphere is only heightened by the lyrical content, which speaks much of animals, mainly birds. It seems with this album that the theme of birds is used to a larger extent than one may see upon first listen, because on nearly every track there is a reference to the animal, making it a very large part of the overall story to the album. Whether it be with the transfixing album art or the brilliant and bizarre lyrics, Agalloch work well with a certain theme, and can build an entire storyline and 60 minutes worth of music around it.
Drumming and guitars play a lead part in the creation of the ambience and depressed atmosphere, and there are enough great drum fills and guitar riffs to please any fan of either instrument. Along with electric guitars, Agalloch play the acoustic guitar in a role which is right at the forefront, something which I know Agalloch does a lot, because they realize the great potential it has with making each song have its own identity. It’s because of this shuffling of instruments and computer-aided ambient effects that this album seems so fresh and original to listen to, whether it be the first time you’ve heard the album or the 20th time. Acoustic riffs like in “Fire Above, Ice Below” or “Limbs” bring so much livelihood and feel to the song it’s hard not to notice. Usually accompanying these acoustic riffs are heavy, chugging and downright melodic guitar leads which give the song its identity and take it through it’s often lengthy runtime. Constantly changing to new riffs which are just as good, if not better than the last one which was played.
What does all this change add up to? Songs which build to epic and jaw-dropping climaxes of riffs, emotionally-tainted vocals and thundering double bass, before drifting off either slowly or abruptly into a world of cold, still darkness. The swinging of moods within each song goes simply unrivaled with anything Agalloch has written to date.
“Charred birds escape from the ruins and return as cascading blood…”
Aside from the first five tracks, the album has another, more connected set of songs which draws the album to it’s peak, and then drags it down into the abyss. The “Our Fortress Is Burning…” trilogy consists of three parts, the first of which is untitled, the second of which is entitled “Bloodbirds”, and the finale which is called “The Grain”. It’s like a culmination of everything which was laid down during the first part of the album, with calming acoustic melodies, ripping black metal vocals and melodic riffs, and bleak ambience.
Firstly, we have the song which eases the listener into a sort of lull before what I see as the climax of the entire album. “Our Fortress Is Burning…I” consists of nothing more than acoustic and electric guitar riffs which are introduced here but continue on throughout the rest of the trilogy. Ending with what sounds like nothing more than bizarre noise, the slow acoustic strumming slowly fades off into the background.
As the next part, “Our Fortress Is Burning…II- Bloodbirds” is introduced you know right off the bat this song is going places. The acoustic guitars and the eerie electric guitars slowly build up before an extremely captivating and melodic guitar riff takes the attention of the listener. Coming to an intensely emotional and hateful climax about 4:00 into the song, we heard John Haughm desperately crying to seemingly nobody:
The God of man is a failure
Our fortress is burning, against the grain of the shattered sky
The God of man is a failure
Indeed this marks the pinnacle of both emotion and sheer songwriting ability, because after this point, the album slowly fades, as the fortress of your mind continues to burn.
What meets us afterwards is "Our Fortress Is Burning…III- The Grain". This is almost like the point of no return, a journey into the depths of something like a war-torn land or even the depths of the human psyche, with nothing but extremely bizarre, yet fitting, ambient tones droning over and over again into the listeners thoughts. As terrible as it may sound, this track will probably end up captivating you in its complexity and sheer insanity. However, all falls silent as the white noise fades away…
“…And all of our shadows are Ashes Against The Grain…”
- “Not Unlike The Waves”
- “Our Fortress Is Burning… I, II, III”
- “Fire Above, Ice Below”