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Pale Folklore

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  • Agalloch’s _Pale Folklore_ is a masterpiece. It is a rare debut that shows a band with stylistic cohesion, passionate songwriting, and full control over its considerable imagination. Some have compared Agalloch to Opeth, which is fair to a limited degree (particularly if they are referencing early Opeth, i.e. _Orchid_ and _Morningrise_). In my own opinion, this band is closer in spirit to Ulver’s early black metal trilogie (_Bergtatt_, _Kveldssanger_, and _Nattens Madrigal_) and the dark folk music of bands like Sol Invictus. Agalloch’s music embraces a pastoral aesthetic of lachrymose sadness, with long epic songs blending crunchy metal riffs that have a Katatonia-like melodic elegance (think _Brave Murder Day_) and the adoption of folk music features. Haughm’s vocals range from harsh screaming or rasping whispers. Lyrics are paramythical and romantic and melancholy, for example: “As a bird I watched her from my cold tower in the heavens, and when she fell from the northplace, I flew down and embraced her.”Taken by itself, a description of the band’s sound and style might cause one to dismiss them. After all, the whole “metal/acoustic” thing has been done plenty of times at this point (often by rotten bands imitative of Opeth). The ultimate reason for _Pale Folklore_’s accomplishment here is the evocative sound and flow. Most metal bands write albums of songs that are unrelated or at best the inter-song relationship is tangential. Agalloch instead follows a beautifully effect dramatic curve, where the emotional course of the music supersedes conceptual relationships and creates an utterly absorbing album from beginning to end. The three-part opener, “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline”, is beautifully illustrative of why Agalloch is successful. I’ve listened to this epic seemingly hundreds of times and never gets boring. The sounds of biting, frosty winds open the piece, with a few sparse guitar notes eventually spiraling into the crashing electric riffs that sunder this cold serenity. A powerful guitar theme soars above the churning metallic flurry, until the metal cuts out, replaced by slow, echoic guitar arpeggios and a softly treading drums. Then the vocals enter, with a snarling whisper setting the emotional undertones with “Oh, dismal mourning, I opened my weary eyes again.” Female soprano vocals float about the central instruments, as if the wind carries them, hinting at the loss suggested by the lyrics. Part II begins with a pretty motif on acoustic guitar, which is then embraced by a forceful, melodic metal drive. By now the music has gone from brooding and lonely to aggressive and melodic, and it changes again. Twangy bass chords fall against a simple, burnished guitar figure before cutting into the melodic, urgent theme of part III. The heavy riff cuts out for a moment, replaced by Haughm taking the role of an evil madrigal with angry acoustic guitar, and stuttering drum fills. He venomously spits the words, “I saw the nightfall…It called to me like a river of shadows, it sang to me with the cries of a thousand ravens that blackened the sky as they took flight.” Now the song approaches its incensed, alienated resolution, interlocking melodic tremolo riffing and plucked acoustic guitar, colored with glistening cymbal splashes and chimes on a propulsive 4/4 beat and timpani. The song climaxes with the electric guitar theme, then the lonely chords that first accompany Haughm’s vocals from part I. It ends at last with a sorrowful coda for solo piano with an underlying ominousness that suggests the story has not concluded.With such impressive piece kicking things off, the rest of the album has high standards to follow. Agalloch keeps the quality high throughout the disc. Next is the pseudo-chamber piece “The Misshapen Steed”, a beautiful instrumental of ghostly string synths & harp and electric pianos. Even with its somewhat clich├ęd cadences and chord selections, the sound fits delightfully into an album that has nothing to do with chamber music. Anywhere else, it would have seemed out of place. “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony” is an epic riff-driven song with Haughm’s searing vocals and crunchy, modal melodies that evoke In Flames’ NWoSDM masterpiece _The Jester Race_. The song proper ends several minutes before going onto the next track, leaving gritty electric arpeggios and the barking and growling of bloodthirsty hounds to segue into the next track, “Dead Winter Days”, another forceful track with an unforgettable, soaring main riff. It has ominous dark messiah lyrics like “I am the unmaker, I bring death to the beautiful dawn with pillor, cold, and a legion of dying angels.” It’s a great example of metal that is energizing and beautiful at once, so it can be forgiven for lasting a bit too long. “As Embers Dress the Sky”’s metal opening gradually passes into an extended acoustic guitar interlude as delicate piano notes fall upon the brittle riffs, and a starry electric guitar solo builds it back into a galloping final metal vigor. The 12-minute closer, “The Melancholy Spirit”, brings the album to a close with a slow, majestic cascade of icy riffs and the consolation of sentimental, lightly chiming acoustic guitars. When the closing piano solo plays its final, lugubrious notes, you’re left with a feeling of loneliness like the music passed it on to you.

    Posted on January 21, 2010