Black metal might have begun as a largely Scandinavian phenomenon during the early-1990s, but as of late, American bands have started producing a good deal of the genre’s most cutting-edge music. The last 12 months have been especially strong for American black metal (or USBM, to scenesters): there’s the atmospheric brilliance of Diadem of 12 Stars by Olympia, Washington’s Wolves in the Throne Room, Chicago’s Nachtmystium has turned heads with the lo-fi yet startlingly diverse Instinct: Decay, Xasthur mastermind Malefic continues to churn out challenging material (including the terrific Xasthur/Leviathan split CD and the forthcoming Subliminal Genocide) and delivered a jaw-dropping performance on Sunn O)))’s astounding Black One, and San Francisco’s reclusive, prolific Wrest, he of Leviathan notoriety, put out Howl Mockery at the Cross, an collection of demos that turned out to be better than most slickly-produced black metal coming from Europe. At the top of the USBM heap, though, remains Portland, Oregon’s Agallloch, who in seven years, have taken the sound in striking new directions, and on their long-awaited third album, establish themselves as not only one of the elite bands in metal today, but also one of the genre’s most accessible.
Agalloch takes its own sweet time putting out the new music, but it is always worth the often painfully long wait. Their 1999 album Pale Folklore set the metal world on its ear, one of the boldest debuts of the last decade, a genre-bending opus that combined classic elements of black metal (tremolo picking, quietly sneering vocals, atmospheric arrangements that evoked the frigid cold of deepest winter) with more melodic sounds like folk and post rock, performed so proficiently, the music far transcended the album’s crude production. 2002’s The Mantle continued where the debut left off, featuring a more crisp sound, heavier arrangements, as well as touches of neo-classical music, synth, and melodic, “clean” singing. Derived heavily from the band’s two principal influences, Norwegian progressive black metal masters Ulver and Swedish doom greats Katatonia, both albums are as awe-inspiring as their Scandinavian forebears, but also as drearily pretty as the rainy Pacific Northwest.
Now, with Ashes Against the Grain, the quartet not only continues their fascinating evolution, but for the first time, what we’re hearing is a sound all theirs, the myriad influences meshing together impeccably, with astonishing results. While the black metal aspect remains the core of their sound, it’s no longer the band’s raison d’etre; Agalloch is now so skilled at creating such richly diverse music, (to invoke a tired critical cliché, but I mean it, damnit) they’re starting to defy categorization, and now warrant inclusion among other artsy indie darlings such as Isis, Pelican, Mogwai, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Unlike Isis and GY!BE, though, the music isn’t strictly about the slow build. Sure, we do get the odd art metal tsunami of whooshing chords and crashing cymbals, but for the most part, Ashes Against the Grain remains on an even keel, not so much hypnotizing listeners as captivating them. E-bowed guitars draw us in as roaring distorted chords envelop us at the beginning of “Limbs” (come on in, indie kids, it’s nothing Broken Social Scene hasn’t done before, only a shade darker), setting us up for the first appearance of guitarist John Haughm’s menacing growl, which spouts such grimly poetic lines as, “The texture of the soul is a liquid that casts a vermillion flood.” “Fire Above, Ice Below”, with its clean electric guitars, acoustic strumming, tympani, and Haughm’s singing, could easily pass for a progressive metal ballad, as it comes to a pair of stately crescendos, while “Not Unlike the Waves” bears a subtle resemblance to the majestic doom of Opeth before pulling the rug from under our feet with an old-fashioned black metal maelstrom near the song’s conclusion.
Agalloch has been known for its moments of inspired beauty, and on “Falling Snow”, they’ve outdone themselves, an upbeat epic that makes its nine and a half minute running time fly by. The loud guitars remain, and Chris Greene’s drumming is powerful, but interspersed throughout the song are lilting, melancholy guitar melodies reminiscent of 80s goth rock and dreampop, bringing to mind the Cure and For Against, providing a dazzling backdrop for Haughm’s Pantheist-inspired lyrics. The album’s concluding trilogy “Our Fortress is Burning” has the band branching out even further, beginning with a moody overture of a plaintively-played piano, segueing into the lugubrious, Floyd-like “Bloodbirds”, before dissolving into a rising tide of distortion similar to that of drone act Skullflower during “The Grain”.
“Our Fortress is Burning” is an apt conclusion to Agalloch’s most ambitious work to date. Scintillating and starry-eyed, yet heavy and enigmatic, Ashes Against the Grain is the kind of bold, invigorating album progressive metal fans crave, the kind of towering statement critics love, and the kind of record that deserves to have people of every musical interest flocking toward the metal section in stores. The future of American black metal has never looked so bright.