Ashes Against the Grain
orwegian black metal bands can bang on all they want about their endless snowy forests, but Agalloch backs up such themes with sounds to match. Too bad The End saw fit to release Ashes Against the Grain in August when only Australia is cold, and when heavy metal is awash in overproduced summer blockbuster albums. Now that winter is here, this album is finally relevant.
Agalloch has been tagged "gray metal" or "post-black metal," awkward terms that connote black metal as a point of departure. While its riffs are muscular, with vocals occasionally dropping into a black metal rasp, most of this album is smooth, melodic, and, above all, cold. Playlists that include not only Katatonia but also Cocteau Twins and early Cure should add Agalloch to the rotation.
After two cassette demos, Agalloch made an incredible full-length debut with 1999's Pale Folklore. The album found the band fully-formed, with only traces of its black metal roots. The songs were essentially hard rock informed by doom metal and folk music. Agalloch's trademarks had already developed: acoustic guitars, glistening clean tones, and emotive riffs with anthemic upper-register melodies. Scandinavian bands Katatonia, Insomnium, and Sentenced have also explored such sounds, but few American bands have done so this well. 2002's The Mantle was also phenomenal, dialing back the distortion to uncover pastoral settings of heartbreaking beauty. For snowy days under a blanket by a fire, the first two Agalloch albums are incomparable.
On Ashes Against the Grain, the band brings back the rock. The songs aren't faster, but they are heavier, and the band spends more time than ever with distortion. But acoustic guitars and clean tones do appear at times, and when they do, they have greater impact than before. The signature melodies are also intact. Previous albums had masterful compositions, but were marred by the occasional out-of-tune guitar or out-of-time performance. Here, all the performances are spot-on. The smooth playing, thick riffs, and hot mastering job contribute to a singularly dense, electric sound.
The album contains six proper songs and two ambient instrumentals. Highlights are constant and many. "Limbs" opens with a single sustained note that splits in two, revealing melodic lines in contrary motion. Gorgeous, heavy doom riffs then drop, trudging through piano and lead guitar detours; the first vocal doesn't appear until five minutes in. "Falling Snow" is the closest thing to a single here, with clean singing and driving riffs. Near the end, the guitars hit chiming unisons that suggest Joy Division finding light; the song crests and breaks into a triumphant rideout.
This "hopeful Joy Division" vibe also arises near the end of "Fire Above, Ice Below," a slow waltz of clean tones and whispered vocals. "Not Unlike the Waves" is the album's most stirring moment. It, too, is in 6/8 time, with huge, rolling riffs that suggest Norsemen hauling boats overland, with snow underfoot and ice on the face. The album ends with seven minutes of distortion and delay-fueled ambience, its fiery embers dying in a haze of mead and frosted breath.