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.)