All photos courtesy of Agalloch
On Monday, I drove up to Baltimore to check out Agalloch, rising stars in the American black metal scene. You know, I try to defend DC’s metal scene, but what does it mean when a critically acclaimed band passes us by? Are we not metal enough for a band from Portland? Are our local venues discriminating against the longhairs?
Anyway. I usually scoff at black metal as being too Satanic, too repetitive, or too grim – but Agalloch bring something unique to the genre, mixing in elements of folk (including acoustic and orchestral instruments), psych metal, and post-rock. It coalesces into something heavy and complex, something that rewards multiple listens. Despite some weak opening bands and a late set (running past 1am), I left the show sold on their vision for the future of black metal.
About those openers: they just weren’t a good fit. I mean, you can classify Agalloch as “folk metal”, and I’d have a hard time arguing otherwise, considering all the acoustic guitars and nature sounds on their album. But Agalloch are truly metal, and their openers brought way too much folk. When I first arrived, Aerial Ruin – just one guy with an acoustic guitar – was playing. It was dark music, sure, but I really wanted something with more energy. Worm Ouroboros had me intrigued; they’re a trio with two women on guitar and bass. Their music was really solid, although formulaic; each song started with a dark, gothic folk-ballad style, which eventually morphed into something loud and distorted. The heavy parts were excellent, and I was impressed with how powerful they sounded for only a trio.* Still, I couldn’t help but imagine how sweet their set would’ve been with some anger behind the vocals – not even screaming or growling, necessarily, just something with more passion.
Vindensang, a six-piece from Pennsylvania, bombed in my opinion. Their first track showed promise – their frontman was screaming into the mic, as well as banging away on some toms. Plus, their percussionist was holding up metal chains and hitting them with a drumstick – neat, I guess. But the set went way downhill from there. Their next track was a long (10 minute?) instrumental that just never took off. It was closer to post-rock than metal, which is not a problem for me, but there just wasn’t enough interesting stuff going on. I mean, repetition is a core element of black metal, but it’s because repetition has a transcendental, meditative quality to it. The repetition of drums, riffs, etc. serves to emphasize the dynamic elements of the song, whether it’s melodies in the forefront, or motifs evolving slowly through the song. I feel like Vindensang relied too heavily on the repetitive nature of black metal out of songwriting laziness, rather than as a means to express themselves.
There wasn’t much screaming after that instrumental track, either – and what little screaming we got, there wasn’t much passion behind it. It sounded like the singer was trying harder to protect his voice than emote. I was pretty disappointed. To end the set, each band member took one of the candles on stage and blew it out in unison. Well, almost unison; I think their guitarist was too mortified by this to get the timing right. So yeah, they were the lamest opening band I’ve seen since the last time I went to Sonar and caught an all-too-serious historical metal band.
I instantly put these openers out of my mind when Agalloch opened their set with the first two tracks from their new album, “Marrow of the Spirit”. Great start for an album, great start for the set. You could read the looks on these guy’s faces, as the opening cellos faded – they were braced for impact, ready for an endurance challenge. Instantly, all the energy in the room transformed as the frantic drumming of “Into the Painted Grey” filled our ears.
I was really impressed with their song-crafting abilities. A typical Agalloch song falls in the 10-12 minute range, yet I wouldn’t call any of their tracks “rambling” – they each have clear themes, yet the songs themselves shift rapidly in style, so no 30-second section sounds just like the last. For example, one of my favorite moments of the night was this tiny part in “Falling Snow” where they switch to acoustic-ballad mode for just two measures, before switching back to full distortion and blast beats. A lesser band would’ve turned that acoustic part into a whole bridge – instead, Agalloch turned it into a startling wake-up call.
As a band, they mostly focused their energy internally. Their guitarist liked to show off a bit when he was ripping through complex melodies, but I could’ve used some more audience engagement. It’s fine though – they let their music speak for itself. The crowd was definitely into the show – despite the late set, the venue was still mostly full, even after the encore – but there wasn’t much action beyond all the headbanging. I watched one kid desperately trying to start a mosh pit, but no one would engage with him! He played it off like it was no big deal, lifted his skinny fists in the air, and resumed headbanging.
Going into the show, I only knew their latest album on Profound Lore, one of today’s most exciting metal labels. The older songs they played were a bit harsher, but still had the same magic to them. During an ancient track, “Dead Winter Days”, I watched as dozens of fans screamed along with the lyrics – even the guitarist and bassist moved to the front of the stage to join the chorus. I’m digging through their old material now – maybe next time I’ll hold my own in the front row.
* It turns out that Worm Ouroboros and Agalloch share a drummer. In Worm Ouroboros, I noticed how talented he was during the heavy parts – nothing too fast, just ultra-precise, passionate drumming in weird time signatures. Now I realize this was just to get him warmed up for Agalloch’s constant blast beats. I can’t even imagine how much skill and practice it takes to be able to drum like that for 90 minutes!