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Ashes Against the Grain

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Average Rating
★★★★½
(34 Reviews)

Metal Album Reviews[RSS]

  • 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.

    –Matthew Dyess

    Posted on January 9, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • It’s been a long 4 years since Agalloch’s last opus, “The Mantle”. Since then, fans have been entertained with various EPs, Sculptured, ELS and Nothing…all of which has been good and nice, but it wasn’t Agalloch. The waiting is over. Ashes Against the Grain is here, and it does not disappoint at all.

    8 tracks long and clocking in at around an hour, this is an album you will not be pushing the skip button during. The album opens with “Limbs”, which begins with a very post rock type intro. It reminds me of “The Lodge (dismantled)” off the Grey EP before an ominous acoustic intro segues into a standard Agalloch sound. As always, the band seemlessly weave folk music, black metal, post rock, noise, nature and everything else into an extremely cohesive and addicting mixture. The second track is “Falling Snow” which ups the tempo up a bit. Here, I will mention that the addition of Chris Greene on drums was an excellent choice. Greene does not miss a beat, and his playing is extremely stylish (not too conservative, but not too modest). “Fire Above, Ice Below” is the longest track of the album, and also one of the standouts. The following track is my favorite, “Not Unlike the Waves”. Here, Haughm does probably his most intense vocal performance since their demo–very much in the style of Burzum. The song, as all of them are, is hypnotic.

    The album closes with the “Our Fortress Is Burning” trilogy. Comparisons can be drawn to the “She Painted Fire” trilogy from the “Pale Folklore” cd. Infact, there is only a few seconds difference between the two trios. The first part is instrumental and sets the mood, leading straight into the second section of the song proclaiming “The god of man is a failure”. What’s interesting to note is that the trilogy is dedicated to Escape the Day’s frontman, Florian, who tragically died earlier this year. The band, particularly Don Anderson, were fans of the band and of Florians work. I definitely encourage you to check out Escape the Day’s myspace. The ending track is the one you will probably hear the most complaints about. The last track is a mixture of feedback and other noises. To me it simulates the bleak, desolate landscape that has become mankind. The last line of “Our Fortress is Burning Pt. II” is “and all of our shadows are ashes against the grain”. Eerie. The last track does not act as a comforting close to an epic. Instead, I believe it serves to let the listener reflect on what he/she has just experienced and to almost meditate on its meanings. To me, it is just as vital to the album as Burzum’s “Tomhet” was to Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Drudkh’s “Smell of Rain” off the “Forgotten Legends cd.

    Uncomparable musicianship, thought provoking lyrics and equally important artwork all play into the experience of Ashes Against the Grain. As with all Agalloch efforts, it takes a few listens to really get a grasp as to what’s going on. Once it clicks, though, you become hooked. If you’re looking for your album of 2006, look no further.

    Posted on January 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • An American metal band influenced by heavy European guitar music that doesn’t sound like Iron Maiden or In Flames? With a “Loveless”-inspired album cover? Fascinating, Mr. Spock might say of Agalloch and their new record.

    The sound is like Explosions in the Sky engaging in a (perhaps one-sided) battle with Celtic Frost in the parking lot of a cathedral. A reverse-delayed guitar aria begins “Limbs”– skin crawls from the chilly reverberation of a war horn blown through a mountain range. The song swan-dives into a roiling sea of distorted guitar, piano-cum-acoustic-strumming, and even an evanescent “Something in the Way”-toned break featuring naught but a lone acoustic guitar with dead strings. Neverending blizzards of harmonic-stew guitar crunch bury the ears on “Falling Snow,” combined with growl vocals that add rather than detract from the atmosphere of the track. Chorused guitar breaks provide pivot points for the song, and further texturize Agalloch’s raucous, mind-bending distortion-fueled trance music.

    No, not THAT kind of trance. The good kind. Mesmerization through the paradoxically warm earthiness of screaming guitar amplifiers humming and droning. It’s probably the feeling you get in your gut standing under exposed powerlines at night for over an hour, gazing at your shoes.

    The “Our Fortress is Burning…” suite gains more yardage into Explosions in the Sky/Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s territory, treading out slowcore, post-rock guitar. But everything is sped up: the climactic build-ups crescendo or expire/regroup with the speed of a mutating viral infection, and the guitars don’t stay shimmering clean for long. Agalloch’s apocalypse came by disease rather than by war-born radiation.

    In a very good way, this record is all over the place. There’s enough grooves to satisfy, almost enough grit to require goggles in addition to headphones, but the record is balanced with a great sense of melody/harmony (and the top notch production that such things demand). Though anchored in melody, it’s hard to know what to expect from one moment to the next– ever the mark of a great record– making a listen-through of “Ashes Against the Grain” an absolute experience.

    Posted on January 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Agalloch, has done it again. “It” being the creation of another masterpiece. Agalloch, IMO, has forged a melancholic, sad, despairing, and yet hopeful brick of Grey metal. I am not pigeon-holing this band, I am saying that Grey metal is a distinct and clear vision that Agalloch has constructed. Is this as good or better than their previous records, well you the listener decide. On AATG, Jason Walton’s bass is more up front in the mix, which to me is a good thing. The drumming has improved with the addition of Chris Greene. J.Haughm, however, played drums on “Not unlike the Waves” and “Falling Snow.” The production is superb, as the mix has greatly improved with each release. The musicanship is filled with tension and release. I’ve had the special wood-box edition for 2 weeks now, and after several listens, I’m still hearing different nuances in the music. Brilliant songwriting. BTW, the wood-box edition is a burnished brown wood with Agalloch ingrained across the slip-off top. Very cool packaging. These guys are the masters at what they do. Which is convey their concepts of this world, and the condition of this planet we all inhabit. And let’s be realistic, it really is not a wonderful existance. Music that makes you smile is very important, but music bringing about truth and a certain realism is also important. This is what Agalloch’s music can do. There is sadness in beauty, and beauty in sadness. And that, my friends, is Agalloch’s Grey soundscape.

    Posted on January 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Reviewgium – Volume I, issue XVI

    I was never really familiar with Agalloch until just a few months ago, and to be honest, this is the first album I have ever bought by them. I have been meaning to pick up their highly-acclaimed album The Mantle for quite some time, but…well, I digress. Ashes Against the Grain…this album…I really don’t know where to start on this one. I really have never quite heard anything quite like it before. It is hard to describe because it is really an incredibly unique alloy of so many different stylings; a mystifying potpourri of musical elements, blended to form a perfect “aural aroma.” Perhaps the cover sticker described the style of the album best as a blend of “black metal, Scandinavian prog, and post-rock.” But even this is not an apt description of the music itself. It is metal, yet not metal. It is sinister yet benign. Abrasive yet sinuous. Simple yet complex. Ugly and beautiful at the same time. It is as if God and Satan put aside their differences for just a brief celestial moment, sat down in the crisp forests of the American northwest, and made an album together.

    The album is a sea of atmospheric acoustic passages, driving electric rhythms, and pristine solo figures, that all complement and overlap each other in a meaningful way. The vocals are dark and grating at times, clean and mysterious at others. It’s not really fair to compare them to typical death/black metal vocals, because they are not really shouting, screaming, or grunting. Just dark and wispy, like an icy wind blowing through the fading treetops on a clear night in the early winter. As for the clean vocals, listening to them like hearing the reincarnated soul of an invincible medieval warrior from the 12th century. Not in a cheeseball power metal way, but in a “we actually travelled back in time and lived in a medieval forest-village for five years to get ideas for this album” way. Definite album highlights include “Falling Snow”–that strong solo guitar that starts and pervades the track is excellent–and “Fire Above, Ice Below” with its interwoven yet perfectly straightforward guitarwork. The haunting 3-track “Our Fortress Is Burning” is a great piece that seems to summarize within twenty minutes everything this band can do: from the mystic acoustics, to the enthralling vocals, the symetrical-raindrop solos, the eerie soundscapes, and finally what seems to be the entire band fading away into the shrouded depths of the forest, to return only when they deem us worthy to behold their visages again.

    Ashes Against the Grain is one of my strongest recommendations of the year, almost worthy of a ranking higher than a 9/10, and will definitely rank within my top ten albums of 2006. (Edit: I now rate this album 10/10.)

    Posted on January 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now