For the last decade Agalloch have been pushing the boundaries of metal, creating a sound that is truly their own by exploring territory both dark and warm from not only a musical standpoint, but vocally and lyrically as well. In 1999 they released their first full length, the astonishing Pale Folklore. A near masterpiece in itself, it was only to be eclipsed by their following output of The Mantle three years later, considered by myself and many to be a landmark in folk, doom, or whatever other subgenre of metal one could use to describe its sound. Now, after four long years, the band has returned with a slightly different approach, but one that holds up easily to their previous offerings in every imaginable way.
Beginning with possibly the best song they’ve ever written, the band introduce us to the warm and beautiful sounds of “Limbs”. After a distant echo is left to ring and enter our concious for a short period of time, it’s eclipsed by a cascading barrage of epic and powerful electronic guitars, creating an incredibly pleasant melody that continues for nearly half of the song. As the passage begins to fade, it gives way to the band’s oh-so-familiar acoustics for a brief period of time, and finally introduces what will be the central melody of gorgeous tremolo riffing. More than five minutes into the track, John Haughm greets us with his unique vocal rasps. Sounding neither forced or fierce, his harsh vocals approach a sound of wonder and awe, showing a great passion for the message he’s conveying to the listener. Before approaching the song’s nearly indescribable climax, the melodies and vocals take a back seat to a soft and lonely acoustic arrangement. Finally, the band conclude the song with what must be their most beautiful of arrangements as a post rock inspired build-up leads itself into a somber and appropriate tremolo picked melody over John’s mournful rasps. One of the most powerful endings to any song in recent memory, the final lyrics lend themselves perfectly to the imagery created by the music: “…Earth to flesh, flesh to wood, cast these limbs into the water. Flesh to wood, wood to stone, cast this stone into the water…”
Though “Limbs” is, for me, the highlight of the record, that’s not to say the following tracks aren’t drenched in remarkable qualities as well. The following track “Falling Snow” introduces a light and uplifting guitar lead before morphing into a moderate pace for the rest of it’s near-ten minute running time. This track, and it seems the entirety of the album, is a lyrical continuation of “Limbs”, in what seems to be at least a loose-concept based around the death of man, becoming one with the Earth, and the failure of humanity as a whole. Also introduced for the first time on the album are John’s unique clean vocals which always manage to evoke an incredible sense of longing.
After a brief but ominous ambient piece, “Fire Above, Ice Below” gives us the most prominent example of Agalloch’s imminent post rock influence within their music. Throughout the track are epic and drawn out melodies of various kinds, including a quiet composition that wouldn’t have been out of place on “The Mantle”. The climactic ending of the song approaches the greatness of that found on “Limbs”, as an outpouring of overlapping guitar riffs drain the life from one another until the only remaining sound is of a strong and steady wind; of which briefly overlaps into “Not Unlike the Waves”, yet another unique track in Agalloch’s catalogue. Featuring a rare groove section that calls Opeth to mind and some agonizing Burzum-esque rasps from John, the song seems a bit more complex and involving than the others found on this record. As such, and with good reason, it may stand out to some listeners.
The album winds itself down in a trilogy of sorts with “Our Fortress Is Burning”, though only the first two sections are assembled as one. Part one sets the tone for the longer, more elaborate “Bloodbirds” found in the second section. Both of these tracks are reminiscent of the material found on The Mantle, while at the same time seem to expand on the post rock tendencies scattered throughout this record. Though at first I was disappointed with the final section of this three part conclusion, I’ve come to embrace it with repeated listens. As a seven minute ambient piece, it is both haunting and effective, though I can’t help thinking that more could have been done with the finale of this incredible album.
With Ashes Against the Grain, these men have not only become my favorite metal band, but one of my favorite artists of all time. Unlike any group before or after them, Agalloch continue to create their own form of art within music and poetry, allowing it to seem curiously familiar deep inside one’s soul, yet utterly foreign on the most basic levels of explaination and understanding. Along with maybe two or three other bands, the aural arrangements created by this particular group of individuals is as close as music comes to being purely transcendent.