Review Summary: Sometimes Less Is More, Other Times Less Is Just Less.
Agalloch is a unique American black metal band that has gained a fair amount of acclaim and notoriety in metal circles as of recent, due to a sound that is fairly difficult to categorize. Their style consists of a mixture of black metal, post rock, ambient doom, and folk woven together in a relatively unpredictable fashion. Many have hailed the band "Saviors of American Black Metal" or even the "American equivalent of Opeth." Not since hearing about the groundbreaking Swedish Prog metallers, have I heard of a band as universally raved about as Agalloch, and with all the heaps of praise one would be inclined to believe that there must be something truly special about the group. It is possible that I missed the memo, but despite listening to Agalloch's newest opus, "Ashes Against the Grain," countless times, I cannot see what so many music critics and metal elitists seem to see in the Oregon collective. As a person who generally loves experimental music and bands that push the boundaries of their respective genres I found myself in a state of uncertainty with this release, questioning my own perception of Agalloch's music and whether I as a person was simply not open minded enough in my own tastes to appreciate it. However, after a fair number of listens (far more than I usually give albums when developing opinions on them) I have come to the conclusion that the problem is not with me, but with the album itself.
Agalloch specializes in creating grandiose arrangements that are heavily layered with dense streams of delayed guitar melodies and occasional synth to envelope the listener in a cold, desolate environment of sound. In this regard the band is largely successful. There is, indeed a very absorbing quality to their music and the nature themes that surround it, this time dealing mostly with winter, and the frosty mountainous regions of the north. While the long songs are atmospherically impressive there is, at the same time, something very unsatisfying about them. The songs, most of which hover around the nine to ten minute range, lumber along achingly with shifts from slow, softer parts, to heavier moments. However, unlike groups like Opeth and Isis that utilize similar dynamics, Agalloch does not spice things up with rhythmic changes or parts that truly stand apart from each other. The songs instead just drift along with sections that much of the time do not really distinguish. This can make listening a fairly tedious experience. I can see how some might find such a quality enjoyable, but for the most part it gives the songs a sense of unnecessary monotony. This is particularly apparent on songs like "Falling Snow," "Fire Above, Ice Below," and "Not Unlike the Waves," which seem to wander aimlessly into unsatisfying conclusions. The only tracks which have truly satisfying climaxes are the opening and closing pieces, "Limbs" and the "Our Fortress is Burning" trilogy, the latter of which is sandwiched between relatively useless intro and outro parts.
Another fault I find with this album lies in the musicianship, which cannot be described as much better than adequate. Much of Agalloch's fanbase will most likely argue that the band's core strengths lie in their compositional skills (which I again disagree with) as well as their uses of atmosphere, and it is true that some bands have thrived on these merits (Deftones, Radiohead, and Isis are good examples.) However, given the genre of music Agalloch plays, a certain degree of virtuosity or at least proficiency is to be expected. The guitar work, while fitting in most places is fairly simple and in many places just relies on over-used delay passages and slow, arpeggiated melodies. There is also a distinct lack of soloing on "Ashes..." that is rather unfortunate, considering that they could have really enhanced the emotion of many of the songs. This is also particularly regrettable considering that the only solo in the collection, on "Not Unlike the Waves," is really very well done.
The bass does not really stand out either, typically following whatever the guitars are doing, however, by far the most desperate instrumental situation lies with the drumming. Chris Greene, the new drummer on this album, could really use some lessons. How he landed such a gig is a bit of a mystery to me. The beats sound very similar throughout the record, with very little in the way of interesting accents or fills to hold any interest. Perhaps he contributes most to the unappealing sense of tedium that afflicts the album. He is also rather sloppy in parts, the fill going into the double kick section of "Falling Snow" is a good example of this, and makes me cringe whenever I hear it. I am a drummer myself, so I may be flipping out about this more than most people, but it is generally pretty noticeable.
Lastly, we have the vocals of the group's, enigmatic frontman, John Haughm. I put this section last because, for the most part, vocals seem a relative after thought on this release, only showing up in sparse locations in five of the album's eight tracks. This in itself is not necessarily a weakness, as it allows the mood and emotion of the music to shine through in many places, however Haughm's voice, in itself, is most definitely a weakness of the band's. He uses a mixture of thin black metal rasps and wispy clean singing in most of the songs; unfortunately neither is done very well. The screams seem very out of place and even off putting in parts, sounding almost like a distorted whisper. A deeper, Akerfeldt-ian growl would have served the music much more effectively. His clean singing is equally weak, sounding like an emotionless, monotonal drone. To Haughm's credit, his over the top lyrics centering around nature, are well written, however their delivery greatly hinders their impact.
From these points I do not see "Ashes Against the Grain" as the masterpiece it has been hailed as and Agalloch as the musical geniuses many make them out to be. With this said, do not mistake my words; Agalloch is a band with a notable degree of talent as well as some worthwhile ideas however, they have not as of yet, in my ever so humble opinion, produced a work that is truly indicative of such ability. Perhaps in the future the band will create something that is really worthy of the praises many find them deserving of, but as for now, I remain unconvinced.