Oct 102011

Over the weekend, I added a post about an article by Sasha Frere-Jones on black metal in the most recent edition of that bible of all things metal, The New Yorker magazine. The article has drawn scorn in certain quarters of the underground metal empire and provoked a nice, protracted discussion in the Comment section of that NCS post. One thing Mr. Frere-Jones did was to contrast (in a way some think was condescending) the original Norwegian BM scene and sound with American black metal bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy.

By sheer chance, I experienced a similar black metal contrast of my own this weekend after adding that post. On Saturday night (Oct 8 at El Corazon) I witnessed a live performance by Portland’s Agalloch. They played a show in their home town on Friday night and then made the trip north to Seattle for a second show, and that’s where I caught them. If there were a heaven as well as an earth, I would have moved both to see that, because I have such vividly awesome memories of the first (and only other) time I got swallowed up by Agalloch performing live.

In Seattle, the band closed a very long set with two songs, “In the Shadow Of Our Pale Companion” from The Mantle (2002) and an instrumental called “The Lodge (Dismantled)” from The Grey EP (2004). More about those songs, plus a live video of the latter from the Portland show after the jump.

The Norwegian half of my contrasting BM experience came via Ragnarok — not the “death of the gods” cataclysm from Norse mythology, but the cataclysmic black metal band who borrowed that name for themselves back in 1994. I’d never spent time with their music until getting an e-mail from Patricia Thomas, who seems to manage about half the black metal bands in Norway. She reported that Ragnarok was finishing a 14-date tour of Brazil and Mexico and would be returning home to continue work on their seventh full-length album. She included a link to a Soundcloud player that includes all the songs from the band’s live set list, plus another link to an official video of the band performing the title track to their 2004 album, Blackdoor Miracle, with frontman Hoest from Taake providing the vocals. (more after the jump . . .)

I watched the video and then listened to the first few songs on the Soundcloud player and emerged from that experience with all the skin shredded off my face and skull, figuratively speaking. The band unleash hellfire, churning out a fireball of head-whipping black thrash that I found irresistible. The video, in particular, captures the wild, cathartic mayhem of the music in the barely contained viciousness of a live performance. Hoest’s vocals are also amazing, like a full-force flood of acid being ejected from a firehose straight at your face.

Here’s the video, and after that is the Soundcloud player. I’d recommend at least listening to the first track, a re-recording of the song “It’s War”.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/1040321″ height=”200″]

And now, let’s go back to . . .


In all genres and sub-genres of metal, the music evolves over time, borrowing from other musical traditions (or other styles of metal), branching off and leading to something different from where it started. Agalloch represents a branching of black metal that has carried the music to a quite different place from its Norwegian roots. It’s unabashedly emotional and sweepingly melodic, embued with a kind of nature-centered mysticism, often ambient in tone and feel, and even incorporating elements of prog-rock or prog-metal. Agalloch isn’t the only band in the world doing this (Ireland’s Altar of Plagues comes to mind, as well as the afore-mentioned Washingtonians in Wolves in the Throne Room), but they’re certainly one of the standard-bearers.

The stylistic divergence of Agalloch’s music from the scalding acid-bath of the original Norwegian template doesn’t mean the music has become wimpy or hipster — not by a long shot. Especially in the band’s live shows, where even the acoustic parts of their music are performed by fully electrified guitars, the experience is one of complete immersion in primal power, though of a very different kind from what Ragnarok conjures — more the power of an immense forest of oaks than the voraciousness of a wolf pack on the hunt.

In Saturday’s show, Agalloch played long instrumental jams that emphasized the melodic sweep of their oeuvre. Fittingly, the night ended with “The Lodge (dismantled)”. The original version of “The Lodge” was an acoustic instrumental that appeared on The Mantle. On The Grey EP, Agalloch stripped away the acoustics and converted the song into something quite different, calling it “The Lodge (dismantled)”. On the EP, it lasts for more than 13 minutes, which includes about 4 minutes of feedback at the end.

In the live show I saw, it didn’t go on for that long, but it still retained a load of feedback at the end, with the guitarists and the bass player sawing on their instruments with wooden sticks, rubbing the strings against poles supporting the ceiling of the club, holding them above the heads of the audience and shaking them. By that point, I’d already pretty much lost my mind in the music, and that ending left me in a quasi-zombified state of bliss.

Here’s a fan-filmed video of the song from the Portland show — the video and audio quality are about what you’d expect (mediocre), but it will give you a sense of how divergent Agalloch’s music is from where it all started. After that, I’m also including the penultimate song from the set, “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion”, with lyrics, just because.


[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/02-In-The-Shadow-Of-Our-Pale-Companion.mp3|titles=Agalloch – In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion]

Through vast valleys I wonder
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless. . .
This is where I choose to tread

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

Here is the landscape
Here is the sun
Here in the balance of the earth
Where is the god?
Has he fallen and abandoned us?

As I’m stalked by the shadow of death’s hand
The fire in my heart is forged across the land

Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God. . .
Then God is not dead

I walked down to a river and sat in reflection of what had to be done
An offering of crimson flowed into the water below
A wound of spirit from which it floated and faded away

. . .like every hope I’ve ever had. . .
. . .like every dream I’ve ever known. . .
It washed away in a tide of longing, a longing for a better world
From my will, my throat, to the river, and into the sea. . .
. . .wash away. . .
. . .fade away. . .

Here is the landscape
Here is the sun
Here at the edge of the earth
Where is the god?
Has he fallen to ruin?

As I’m stalked by the shadow of death’s hand
My heathen pride is scarred across the land







  1. SOOOO much rather listen to Agalloch than Mastodon or Wolves in the Throne Room.

  2. Great piece, however, WITTR are from Washington rather than Oregon

  3. There’s a ritualistic aspect to both, one more a frenzied, dervish approach to catharsis, the other more meditative (but still capable of extremes of expression).

    Hence my problem with the previous article (and modern-art crap like Liturgy as a whole); for all their pretensions to superiority they are really just applying the same “ironic” schtick as most scene-core bands – it’s a safety net in case they ever “shock, horror” actually get caught enjoying themselves and really committing to their music. It’s the same, to me at least, with all modern art – a fear of commitment and a fundamental dishonesty, paying lip-service to the emotive aspects of the music and focussing on sub-art school dramatisations.

    It’s actually slightly understandable, in an abstract sense – it IS quite scary to truly commit to something, particularly something as visceral and emotional as music. It just galls me when those who ARE too afraid to really lose themselves in musical expression try and find ways to legitimise themselves, often by denigrating those who do commit to their art, and thus making themselves feel/seem superior as a balm to their vulnerabilities.

    • Well said. I don’t think anyone could accuse either Agalloch or Ragnarok of lacking commitment to what they’re doing — they’re in it all the way — or of being dishonest or calculating in their approach to music. You can feel it when you listen to the music.

      Also, your observation about the ritualistic aspect of both bands’ music is right on. It’s certainly one thing that unites the bands despite the considerable difference in their styles. I guess it’s well known, but I saw once again some of the non-musical trappings of Agalloch’s ritualism as John Haughm lit incense pots around the stage before the band started playing, while an extremely cool intro track played over the PA system.

      • I found it really interesting that the New Yorker article criticized the “pageantry” of Scandinavian black metal while remarking on the ritualistic WITTR live setup with candles and fog. To me, that’s just as much pageantry as Satanism and corpsepaint. I wonder how the author would feel about a band like Watain, whose stage shows involve some of the same ritualistic elements, and who, to me, are the current band that most exemplifies the corpsepainted, “evil’ black metal that Frere-Jones seems to be marginalizing in his article. Also, Watain’s lyrics, which seem to center around Erik Danielsson’s personal relationship with Satan, seem pretty “transcendental” to me.

        Sorry, I think this comment is probably more appropriate for the other post about the article itself, but you guys’ discussion of ritualistic elements made me think of it. And I definitely agree that it holds true for both Ragnarok and Allagoch.

      • I’m curious to know what you mean by this sentence: “I don’t think anyone could accuse either Agalloch or Ragnarok of lacking commitment to what they’re doing — they’re in it all the way — or of being dishonest or calculating in their approach to music.”

        More specifically, the “calculating” remark. I mainly ask because some songwriters are very “calculative” in their writing process. I’m not so sure that makes those writers any less committed or dishonest. Just a different method of songwriting to express the same emotions.

        • Good question. I was picking up on Andy’s comment and thinking about bands who just try to match themselves up with some formula they think will win them attention. I agree with you that lots of extremely good songwriters employ a painstaking, very carefully thought out design for their music (I think Agalloch is one of those bands), and didn’t at all mean to suggest that’s inconsistent with being committed or honest.

  4. I’m honestly just jealous that you get to even see Agalloch live. The closest they’ve ever come to Minneapolis is Chicago. XD

    • Believe me, I FEEL lucky. Nothing but geographic proximity explains it. But hey, their next show is in Tel Aviv. Right around the corner from Minneapolis, right?

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