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Music

Marrow of Their Spirits: A Reflection on Agalloch

Agalloch regularly melded metaphysical ponderings into its light-and-dark sonic tapestries, yielding a catalog that’s as enticing intellectually as it is musically.

For roughly 20 years, Portland outfit Agalloch stood as one of the most inventive and idiosyncratic metal acts of its era. Launched by vocalist/guitarist John Haughm in 1995, Agalloch infused its black metal roots with a healthy dose of neofolk, post-rock, classical instrumentation, and ambient/avant-garde experimentation, consistently earning distinction for its “brooding, colossal, and cinematic sound that provide[d] the soundtrack to existential themes concerning man, nature, loss, and death”. (Agalloch.org) Often alluding to celebrated philosophical works (such as Yeats’ “The Sorrow of Love”, Tessimond’s “Birch Tree”, Shaffer's The Wicker Man, Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and Goethe's Faust), the group regularly melded metaphysical ponderings into its light-and-dark sonic tapestries, yielding a catalog that’s as enticing intellectually as it is musically.

Sadly, though, that catalog recently became a finalized legacy, as Agalloch announced its end earlier this month. Explicitly, the band posted this official statement to its Facebook page on 13 May:

Following 20 years, 5 full length albums, many tours around the world, and numerous other recordings, John Haughm and the rest of the band (Don Anderson, Jason Walton, and Aesop Dekker) have parted ways. What the future holds for the separate parties remains undetermined. We collectively thank all of our fans across the world. There are also way too many other people to thank who made this band possible. You know who you are [sic].

To comprehend fully Agalloch’s contributions to the genre, one would need to hear mostly everything they produced; that said, the following selections paint a justly varied and all-encompassing picture of what made their work so special. (Note: this is not a “best-of” list, but rather an attempt to discuss some personal favorites while also giving a general overview of Agalloch’s sound from formation to conclusion. Feel free to share your own picks in the comments section.)

“The Misshapen Steed” (from Pale Folklore, 1999)

Despite being Agalloch’s starting full-length (succeeding a couple demo tapes), Pale Folklore is still a remarkably ambitious and confident debut that deserved its comparisons to the atmospheric and doomy vibes of early Opeth and Ulver. The disc also showcases two of their most notable penchants: poetic titles and lengthy suites (it opens with the three-part “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline”). While that initial segment is impressive, it’s the record’s fourth track, “The Misshapen Steed”, that truly stands out.

Clocking in at just under five minutes, the instrumental begins softly, with gusts of wind providing the grounding on which two interlocking guitar melodies lie. It’s a simple yet strongly mournful moment. From there, a faint horn passage introduces chaotic orchestration, thunderous percussion, and wailing strings, which join to elicit the sensation of a lost battle. Afterward, the two arrangements combine (minus the percussion) with slight variations until the combination settles away.

While it’s certainly not an especially intricate composition, “The Misshapen Steed” is an eloquent and tragic slice of sorrow whose regal delicacy torrents a sense of remorse and longing. Beyond that, it’s the first demonstration of how well Agalloch provoked robust emotions with ingenious subtlety and simplicity. In other words, they only needed a little to make you feel a lot.

 

“A Celebration for the Death of Man ...” / “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” (from The Mantle, 2002)

Revered for its improved production, seamless flow, and more cinematic, mellow, and arty approach, Agalloch’s second (and likely pinnacle) outing, The Mantle, saw the troupe looking to groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor for inspiration. Whereas Pale Folklore featured only the core members (and Anderson’s then-girlfriend, who provided operatic vocals on a couple tracks), this record saw the band incorporate several guest players, causing more robust and classical instrumentation. Really, The Mantle provides the perfect soundtrack for a tranquil, introspective walk through snowy landscapes (you almost feel winter upon your skin as you listen), and its preliminary duo set the stage expertly.

Although “A Celebration for the Death of Man . . .” and “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” are two pieces, they act as two halves of a whole, so they should be discussed together. The former begins richly, as warm acoustic guitar strums are accompanied by delicate synths, electric guitar strums, blunt sound effects, and a repeating timpani outburst. It’s quite gripping and serene, but it also feels downtrodden, tribal, and epic. It effectively indicates how The Mantle will be a more folkish and grandiose journey, and it segues brilliantly into the latter piece with the same percussive flare-up that began “A Celebration for the Death of Man ...” (which really helps make them feel coupled).

A magnetic electric guitar riff covers the soundscape until a morose acoustic guitar counterpoint (joined by standard drumming) collides into it, yielding a gorgeous and dense opening that instantly transports you into a barren, frosty field. Subsequently, Haughm interjects his trademark growls for a few pensive verses before layering his clean vocals for a low-register chorus: “Fall ... so shall we fall into nihil? / The nothingness that we feel in the arms of the pale / In the shadow of the grim companion who walks with us”. The following verse allows both singing styles to intersect, which is quite interesting, and the music soon slows down to grant more suspense to the lyrics. An emotive and sharp dual-layered guitar solo enhances the feeling of angst and urgency before an abrupt tempo shift (with a marching beat) signals the start of the next section.

A waltz-time electric guitar pattern is matched with single bell strikes and another acoustic guitar motif, which eventually erupts into a dazzling arrangement of echoed notes and enticing syncopation. Haughm offers another charismatic melody, and while his voice has never been especially ranged or expressive, his monotone, defeated delivery fits the situation very well. The same marching percussion and guitar outline return roughly two-thirds in, complemented by upsetting deadened notes. The blend swells into chaos until a sweeping guitar surge reprises the initial formation. It concludes with more harrowing harmonies, as well as a somber guitar treatment (which dies off into ominous rubbings).

While every part of The Mantle is profound and infectious, its first two chapters easily rank among its best. Its multipart structure is executed wonderfully, entrancing listeners in a world of rustic regret and tasteful upheaval. In fact, while this list isn’t meant as a definitive ranking overall, it’s fair to say that together, “A Celebration for the Death of Man . . .” and “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” cumulate into Agalloch’s greatest achievement.

 

“Falling Snow” (from Ashes Against the Grain, 2006)

For its third studio LP, Ashes Against the Grain, Agalloch decided return to its stripped-down, black metal roots while also exploring more progressive rock/metal textures and tendencies. In this way, it feels more like a spiritual successor to Pale Folklore than to The Mantle (albeit with a more refined sound and more variety). In any case, Ashes Against the Grain was critically praised by several reputable outlets, including here on PopMatters, and while Haughm sees it as Agalloch’s “worst album”, many fans find it to be their superlative entry. After all, it’s packed with complex and captivating moments, with its second song, “Falling Snow”, situated as a standout selection.

Kicked off (and centered around) one of the most hypnotic and thrilling guitar riffs the band ever cut, “Falling Snow” explodes with potency and purpose. Haughm quickly takes over with devilish proclamations as various other guitar patterns move around roaring percussion, decorating the changing vocal segments with enthralling precision. Three and a half minutes in, Haughm issues a cryptic statement—“Red birds escape from my wounds and return as falling snow” -- with forlorn acceptance, while the six-and-a-half-minute mark introduces a maleficent chord progression that drones with hellish intent. It leads into a dynamic instrumental breakdown before becoming the sole sound as the track ends.

“Falling Snow” (and Ashes Against the Grain in general) feels like a wise synthesis of its predecessors; it combines the fury and momentum of Pale Folklore with the melodic prowess and soft-spoken interruptions of The Mantle, resulting in a highly focused and exciting direction. One can surely hear how far they pushed themselves in terms of musicianship and composing, and “Falling Snow”, in particular, is multifaceted and abrasive but also gentle and inviting, making it an obvious benchmark in the group’s sonic evolution.

 

“This White Mountain on Which You Will Die” (from Ashes Against the Grain, 2006)

At just under two minutes in length, “This White Mountain on Which You Will Die” (which follows “Falling Snow”) is the shortest track in the quartet’s catalog. In addition, aside from some angelic yet grief-stricken choral ambience and a thick hum, there’s no music here at all; instead, the majority of the composition consists of a single loop involving an echoed train whistle and the sound of the train going over tracks. Although this may sound relatively inconspicuous and forgettable, it’s actually incredibly affective and absorbing, conveying an overwhelming sense of dread, isolation, and uncertainty. Because of this, it stands as Agalloch’s most blatant attempt at putting substance over style; there’s almost nothing to it, but it speaks volumes.

 

“Black Lake Niðstång” (from Marrow of the Spirit, 2010)

Feeling like Ashes Against the Grain was too polished, Agalloch decided to go for a grittier and drearier vibe on Marrow of the Spirit. As its cover suggests, the album also comes across as more of a stylistic follow-up to The Mantle than Ashes Against the Grain did; really, it’s like a much harsher companion set, and with only six tracks (four of them exceeding ten minutes in duration), it showcases an increased emphasis on singular, epic compositions. Arguably the strongest of these is the centerpiece, “Black Lake Niðstång” (“Black Lake Nithing Pole”, a pole used by Germanic pagans to curse enemies).

At the start, pounding drums declare war as piercing guitar squeals cascades over tempered acoustic guitar notes, creating ominous medieval dissension. Soon an elusive acoustic guitar solo covers distorted riffs before the initial instrumentation returns; from there, Agalloch delves into pure post-rock simplicity by showcasing a modest note progression as Haughm (acting as “Voice of the Dead”) whispers chilling remarks, such as: “We are ... we are the faces below the ripples / A deep sorrow travelled through the woods / And found a home in our humble grave”.

A new, rhythmically sophisticated riff leads the charge before the aforementioned progression returns, segueing into Haughm (acting as “Voice of the Niðstång”) screeching defiant decrees like “I've sent this peril to the world / This peril shall spread all sorrows / And you are but gods watching from below / At the base of the totem in the black temple of the Earth”. This moment is notable because it’s the most horrific (in a good way) vocals Agalloch has ever featured, thereby representing the sentiments with unnerving accuracy.

Roughly halfway through, the aural carnage dissipates as the music deviates into a haunting and somber new section. Distressing tones oscillate around a glockenspiel melody and an overpowering ether, eventually receiving intersecting guitar loops that are beautiful, hypnotic, and troubling. (Honestly, this movement is what sets apart “Black Lake Niðstång” from everything else in the band’s discography.) The remaining minutes see a reprise of the precursory demonic blend before fading away with the same movement. It’s a harrowing yet beautiful sequence that imbeds itself into your soul.

 

“Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)” (from The Serpent & the Sphere, 2014)

Billed as “an album that reveals the band’s darkest, most meticulously crafted, and atmospherically surging work of their 17-year career” (Profound Lore Records), Agalloch’s fifth and final full-length, The Serpent & the Sphere, maintained both the critical success and artistic excellence of its predecessors. A sort of hodgepodge of previous techniques, the LP feels like a culmination of everything that makes Agalloch so special (which is fortunate since no one anticipated that it’d be their last one). Much like its career began with a beautiful instrumental (“The Misshapen Steed”), so too did it end, as the sixth (and shortest) song on the disc, “Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)”, is a touching and rich acoustic guitar ballad.

At first, the interlocking patterns evoke the openings of “Limbs” (from Ashes Against the Grain) and Anathema’s “Deep” (from Judgement). A foundation arpeggio assists a leading motif, carrying a welcoming intricacy akin to similar constructions by Opeth, In Flames, Yes, and ['70s-era] Genesis. Truth be told, it doesn’t vary much from its introductory fusion, and there aren’t any additional timbres, either; however, what it lacks in density and diversity it makes up for with its emotional elegance. Rarely, if ever, has Agalloch written something so majestic and overtly tasteful, so the piece deserves distinction for casting a bit of warmth into a catalog that’s majorly bleak and brutal.

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