Live Report: Agalloch, Taurus, Musk Ox
Like a lot of people, I waited a long time to see Agalloch live. For me, the wait was almost 10 years. The show I caught that ended the draught was earlier this year at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. At that show, when frontman John Haughm greeted the audience after a few songs, he made a point of saying that Agalloch had played some small village in Belgium three times, but it was the first time the band had performed in NYC, the greatest city in America. Or something like that. Agalloch’s always done things on their own terms, and when it comes to touring, that means infrequent tours and unorthodox tour stops. (When it comes to releases, it means long breaks between albums broken up by limited edition EPs that, sadly, reach astronomical prices on eBay shortly after they sell out. Their latest interesting move? Releasing a 21-minute long song as an EP.) The rarity of an Agalloch concert or album is one of the many things that make the band so special, but it can also be a bit frustrating for fans—the wait between albums and shows can feel like an eternity. This is all to say that when Agalloch comes to town, you don’t sleep on it. You buy your ticket.
A collection of bands hand-picked by Agalloch filled the opening slots on this latest tour in support of Faustian Echoes, that 21-minute EP, including Pallbearer, Eight Bells, Velnias, and Pinkish Black, among others. Stevie Floyd’s (Dark Castle) Taurus was the only constant throughout the trek. In Brooklyn, the Canadian neo-folk band Musk Ox opened, a group that channels the same sort of reverence for nature that Agalloch frequently calls upon.
Musk Ox’s music is a trek through acoustic melancholia, the type of contemplative instrumentals that Agalloch favors on some of their rarer EPs and serve as interludes on their LPs. When Musk Ox took the stage, the hall was only partially filled, with a few dozen committed fans clutching the front of the stage to watch. If you are of the Metal-with-a-capital-M persuasion, Musk Ox is not for you. Nathanaël Larochette, the frontman/guitarist, started the set with two lengthy numbers with no vocals, and the crowd up front followed each plucked and picked note in a sort of daze. For the next two, Larochette was joined by a violinist, which allowed for some deeply moving harmonies. Musk Ox normally features a cellist, and one performed with the band earlier on the tour for a couple of Canadian dates. Even though as a duo Musk Ox sounded gorgeous, I couldn’t help but wish for the cello’s depth and additional voice at the performance in Brooklyn. I also couldn’t help but wonder what sort of different feel the overall show would have had if, say, Pinkish Black had opened.
Taurus couldn’t be much further sonically from Musk Ox, and it was a good thing that there was a considerable break between sets to allow everyone to digest Musk Ox and prepare for something completely different. If you haven’t heard it yet, Stevie Floyd’s new project with Ashley Spungin (Purple Rhinestone Eagle) experiments with noise/drone, creepy spoken word samples, and Middle Eastern-ish scales. Plodding dark/psych elements are overlaid with Floyd’s banshee-esque wail. It isn’t for everyone.
The band performed in total darkness (apologies for the poor photo—no-flash rule if you have a photo pass, even though every person with a cell phone seemed to be lighting the place up). Floyd stood stage left in a leather cowboy hat and vest, Spungin’s kit was set up on stage right. Clips from the eerie 1968 Soviet film The Color of Pomegranates were projected onto a large screen behind the stage. The film tells the story of the life of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova through a series of surreal static shots that represent the poet’s life. Taurus selected to primarily use the portion of the film where Sayat-Nova discovers the female form and love (around the 16-minute mark in this link), a part of The Color of Pomegranates when, notably, the same actress (Sofiko Chiaureli) plays both the poet as a young man and the love interest.
The juxtaposition between the strange film and Taurus’ performance was striking, and I found myself more drawn to the film than the music. Taurus’s compositions tend to meander, and there is little difference between one song and the next. Occasionally, Floyd will zero in on a hook-y riff, mess with it for a while, and let it dissolve instead of reaching the resolution that the ear so desperately wants to hear. I suppose that’s the point, but in a live setting it was frustrating, the music not compelling enough to warrant being toyed with. The crowd didn’t seem to know how to digest it, and, like me, more than a few people I spoke with chose to pay attention to the film rather than the music.
The hall was jammed in anticipation of Agalloch, and Haughm did his usual ritual of lighting incense and placing deer antlers and bones on pedestals at the front of the stage. It would have been hard to imagine ten years ago, but as the band members came on stage there was a nuanced roar for each. They tore into “Limbs,” then “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires,” and then took on the entirety of “Faustian Echoes,” which, haters who find the song disjointed be damned, sounded incredible.
Speaking of sound, the sound at Music Hall of Williamsburg was much better than last year’s NYC show at Le Poisson Rouge. The mix was even and clear, just the right levels to allow for the complexities of Agalloch songs to come through. Aesop Dekker’s powerful drumming contributed a sense of urgency to the performance, which unfurled like a “Best of Agalloch” set. They drew mostly from their earlier albums, playing four songs off Ashes Against the Grain, three from Pale Folklore, two from The Mantle, and only one off their latest album, Marrow of the Spirit. The closing four songs, before the encore, were an Agalloch fan’s dream: “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony,” “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms,” “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion” (featuring Larochette from Musk Ox on acoustic guitar), and a cover of Sol Invictus’s “Kneel to the Cross.” “Falling Snow” served as the closer of a two-song encore.
The band was lively on stage, with guitarist Don Anderson leading the charge with his enthusiastic and theatrical playing. Towards the end of “Faustian Echoes,” the band convened at the center of the stage around Dekker, Haughm kneeling as he seemed to summon all of his strength to get out the final chords of the 21-minute epic. He and the rest of the band called on the same energy reserve at the end of the almost two hour-long show as they pounded out the final lines of “Falling Snow,” a song that, like “Faustian Echoes,” ends on an extended exploration of an incredibly catchy and epic chord progression. At the end of the song, as the crowd cheered with fists and horns in the air, Haughm continued to solo, collapsing to the stage. The rest of the band stood almost motionless, the exertion evident in their posture. They exited stage left, Haughm followed a few moments later.
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Agalloch Set List
Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires
Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor
Our Fortress is Burning… I
Our Fortress is Burning… II: Bloodbirds
As Embers Dress the Sky
Hallways of Enchanted Ebony
You Were But a Ghost in My Arms
In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion
Kneel to the Cross
Dead Winter Days