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Head Shots: Agalloch

Whether it’s due to maturing tastes or shifting allegiances, one’s musical taste can change over time. But what about those bands they signed off on a long time ago? Head Shots gives writers a chance to re-examine bands they don’t like, allowing them to either re-evaluate their opinion or sign off on it once and for all.

My initial Agalloch listening experience occurred when I was a teenager and heard “I Am The Wooden Doors” on some sampler that had come with a magazine. At the time, I was hopeful—the name sounded evil, and the cover of the album was pretty cool. The use of a hart instead of the typical satanic goat intrigued me. But upon hearing the track, I was nonplussed. It was too arty, too flimsy for my taste. I wanted music with a hard surface that I could repeatedly slam my head into. Agalloch wasn’t that.

But that was Scab at 15—impetuous, compulsive, obsessed by old-school thrash and grinding right-hand-path black metal. Now, nearing 30, I’ve found longform experimental music and droning doom that I consider interesting and emotionally relevant. On top of that, everyone, fucking everyone I know, loves Agalloch. Not only do they love Agalloch, they hail the band as a cultural force to be reckoned with, one that stands for progress in metal. And as a dude who believes in forward momentum and open-mindedness within extreme music, it became hard for me to say that I disliked an important band after hearing only one of their songs when I was a dumb kid.

So after my radio cohost and IO editor extraordinaire Wyatt Marshall got me into Woods Of Desolation and Gallowbraid, I decided it was time for me to re-examine my supposed distaste for the Portland quintet. I’m going to put my critical gun to Agalloch’s skull and determine whether or not it deserves to be left alive.

First up is 1999’s Pale Folklore, and man, if this album is any indication of the band’s catalogue, I’m in for a rough couple of hours. The opening three songs, each a part of the larger “She Painted Fire Across The Skyline”, are fucking comical—the confused production, the harsh vocal parts mixed with the fluttery female ones, the weird ranting midway through. It all sounds like Pink Floyd meets Cradle Of Filth. “The Misshapen Steed” rules, but only as cool Draculean haunted house music. Otherwise, this album is a stinker.

Next, we have 2002’s The Mantle, which I know many consider Agalloch’s shining masterpiece. Within the first minute of opener “A Celebration For The Death Of Man”, the production sounds better, more lush and organic than it was on Pale Folklore. The music is what seems to be the problem—it meanders on and on, with what feel like the same strumming chord progressions in every song. It’s like boring Rush or listless Voivod. The flickering guitar lead on “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion” is painful, and it’s not until “Odal” that we get a cool soaring solo. Interestingly enough, though it turned me off as a teenager, “I Am The Wooden Doors” is the only song on the album I dig. But by “The Lodge”, even that track is officially swallowed by the horizon-less taiga of this fucking record. “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms” has its creepy moments early on, but by minute six it’s torture. I wonder if this is what an Agalloch fan thinks when they listen to a Cannibal Corpse record—Ugh, more of this shit?

At least 2006’s Ashes Against The Grain switches things up a bit by trading the folk influences for spacey post-rock atmospherics. The soaring guitars are so much more haunting and resonant without the acoustic strumming behind them. “Falling Snow” is damn cool—aggressive in the forefront, and bearing the most powerful aspects of goth music throughout (Ashes definitely feels like Agalloch’s goth record). However, by “Fire Above, Ice Below”, I’m afraid we’re back to what I dislike about this music. How much can one band whisper? Why do all of these songs have to be 10 minutes long? “Not Unlike The Waves” has great chugging guitars at the beginning, but suddenly we’re thrust back into all of this kumbaya bullshit. “II: Bloodbirds” sounds like a jam band on Quaaludes; I keep waiting for a big kick that never shows up. Closer “III: The Grain” sounds like a drug trip from a bad movie.

The opening to 2010’s Marrow Of The Spirit—running water and pretty strings—is pretty cool, but suggests more of the campfire-style stuff that I’ve grown to dread. But then “Into The Painted Grey” kicks in, and I’m treated to an actual black metal song, full of dramatic grandeur and believable darkness. Marrow is definitely the band’s most interesting album so far, with “The Watcher’s Monolith” and “Black Lake Nidstang” providing the pained, melancholic anger I’ve been craving since beginning this Agallochalypse. Sure, “Ghosts of Midwinter Fires” has an opening that reminds me more of Imagine Dragons than it does Wurdalak, but closer “To Drown” absolutely rules.

Finally, we have this year’s The Serpent & The Sphere, which showcases Agalloch’s two primary flavors: ethereal spaciness, which I love, and folkish elementalism, which I don’t. It’s far more interesting than the first two albums, but manages to plod along without the excitement and energy behind Marrow Of The Spirit. “The Astral Dialogue” has lots of great moments and is a merciful five minutes long, and “Celestial Effigy” has some enthralling guitar solos towards the end, but “Dark Matter Gods” feels like it gets too quiet and introspective before it ever gets going and “Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)” could’ve been on an Ani DiFranco album. The best part about Serpent is most definitely that it is the last Agalloch album I have to slog through in order to write this piece.

It never occurred to me to listen to black metal written by The Edge, and as such it’s unsurprising that I never got into Agalloch. It’s a shame, too, that this experience didn’t change my opinion on the band; I actually really enjoy being part of a larger fanbase when it comes to metal. I like knowing what all the fuss is about. But after withstanding Agalloch’s entire catalogue, I can safely say that it wasn’t meant to be. Put a bullet in it, dude—I’m done.

— Scab Casserole

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