Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Agalloch
- Album: Ashes Against The Grain
- Year of Release: 2006
- Country: USA
- Label: The End Records
- Format: Digipack CD
- Catalogue Number: TE719-2
Ashes Against The Grain is the only Agalloch album in my collection, and if Agalloch mastermind John Haughm were to be believed, I’ve chosen badly. Haughm believed it to be the band’s worst album, although his judgement could be said to have been impaired by a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the label that released it, The End. Indeed, the band’s next record was to be released on cult metal imprint Profound Lore, and evidently this relationship was more productive, at least until the eventual split of the band in 2016. Having no other point of reference, it’s impossible to confirm the veracity of Haughm’s statement, but what I can assert with certainty is that if this is indeed the band’s worst album, the rest of their discography must be magnificent, as Ashes Against The Grain is an imperfect, but largely enjoyable piece of work. It’s also pleasingly difficult to categorise, not quite sitting comfortably in any single sub-genre of metal, and while this makes it tough to get a handle on, it also imbues the music with an impermeable layer of mystery and intrigue that gives the album the kind of longevity that Haughm may not have envisaged.
The album is absolutely not a doom album, although at times it strays into the kind of despairing territory of the more overtly emotional end of the doom spectrum, but the kind of mental adjustment required to appreciate compositions that unfold almost in slow motion is similar to the mindset that one needs to adopt to really appreciate the likes of Thergothon or Evoken, where satisfaction is derived from allowing oneself to drift into the meditative space of repetition, savouring the gradual progression of small rhythmic changes, or additional layers of sound slowly building as a sun rises tentatively above a misty horizon on a winter morning. Agalloch’s music is considerably more accessible than the extremity of funeral doom, however, and the comparison that most frequently springs to mind is mid-period Katatonia. Like the downbeat Swedes, Agalloch’s brand of metal relies not on the thrill and excitement of the riff, but on the power of the fluid and insistent lead guitar melodies that sit atop surging, minor key chord progressions. Generally speaking, the most successful tracks are those in which these melodies are especially memorable, as the scarcity of the vocals provide little else for the listener to focus their attention on.
The opening track, ‘Limbs’ is not the best track on the album, nor the bearer of the most memorable melodies, but as it uncoils itself, piece by piece, it does become increasingly compelling, and works well as the entry point for the album, setting a clear template for the Agalloch sound. ‘Limbs’ emerges from the ambient static that returns as a continuous thread throughout Ashes Against The Grain, suggesting that it is permanently there, the sound of the ether, only momentarily interrupted by the intrusion of the songs themselves. ‘Limbs’ gradually builds itself from the outside in, a delicate spider’s web woven from the spectral silk of long sustained lead guitar notes, the extremely prolonged nature of which suggests the use of the e-bow listed in the liner notes. When the long-anticipated serrated guitar finally breaks the spell, the feel is unexpectedly grungy, both harmonically and sonically reminiscent of the kind of dense fuzz typified by Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Once the song transitions into more gloomy territory, however, a desolate, minor key piano line leads into the second section, which again adds layer upon layer of instrumentation, acoustic guitars and drums generating the sort of tension that one expects to be resolved by all-savagery. But, as on the rest of the album, the typical tremolo riffs and blastbeats of black metal never arrive. The harsh vocals do, but they are used as primarily as another texture to flesh out the stately onward trudge of the guitars, calling to mind Draconian Times-era Paradise Lost, stretched to breaking point, particularly when Agalloch punctuate the never-ending walls of churning chords with more staccato stabs of melody, introducing some much-needed rhythmic variety that just about prevents the nearly 10 minute opener from outstaying its bleak welcome.
Interludes, ambient or not, are a difficult thing to get right on a metal album, as the ongoing criticism of Pestilence’s landmark Testimony Of The Ancients album 30 years after its release shows. If the tone is marginally wrong, they can easily destroy the flow of an otherwise excellent album, taking the listener out of the immersive listening experience and deconstructing the suspension of disbelief that can be required to truly lose oneself in extreme sounds. Alternatively, they can feel too slight or incomplete, half-formed and poorly executed ideas used to pad out a record, or contribute the often superfluous impression of a concept or theme designed to give the album the illusion of intellectualism. It is to Agalloch’s credit that such interludes are perfectly judged here, never detracting from the atmosphere that they so assiduously construct, but acting as a pause for reflection and breath between the lengthier tracks that surround them, almost all of which run to virtually 10 minutes. ‘The White Mountain On Which You Will Die’ is one such example – a mostly ambient track incorporating the noise of a distant klaxon, which effectively evokes an image of searching aimlessly in the wilderness, an image which recurs repeatedly as we continue our journey through Ashes Against The Grain. This forms the perfect introduction to ‘Fire Above, Ice Below’, one of the twin highlights of the album, the other being the track that immediately follows it, ‘Not Unlike The Waves’. Lush, clean guitars are accompanied by a martial-sounding snare, with timpanies and chiming bells combining to briefly intimate a Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack, until the serenity is disturbed by the more conventional roiling chords, and crystalline lead guitar figures, again recalling Katatonia above anyone else. Even better are the mournful guitars of the mid-section of the track, which work wonderfully with the kind of neo-classical acoustic melodies lines that Metallica once deployed to open their classic thrash albums, and which are probably underused in modern metal, which frequently eschews the kind of light and shade that this sort of change of timbre can bring.
The aforementioned ‘Not Unlike The Waves’ is the undoubted highlight of the album though, a single track which seamlessly unites all of the disparate elements of Agalloch’s sound in a way that flows perfectly, and combines the result with superior songwriting to ensure that the result is by some distance the most memorable song on the record. A brilliantly addictive lead guitar figure is gently introduced via an lengthy introduction, as if a flurry of snow were steadily depositing layer upon layer of sound, until finally, the firmament clears, and the completed melody is now apparent, dovetailing superbly with the chugging rhythm guitars in an elite demonstration of utter metal majesty. The track moves effortlessly through a number of sections that all serve to enhance the song, fragile Opethian acoustic guitars initially picking up the thread, before the strongest clean vocals to be found on the album repurpose the kind of folk-metal harmonies that one might find on a Moonsorrow record for something approaching black metal, before concluding in a blaze of metal classicism, as a short burst of shredding lead work directly connects Agalloch to a lineage of more traditional heavy metal sounds for probably the only time on the album. As if emboldened by the sense of musical adventure on a wide-ranging composition, Haughm even lets rip with a wounded black metal scream that wouldn’t be out of place on Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, and this accentuates the extremity of a track that traverses peaks and troughs in a way that the rest of the album cannot match.
One senses that closing the album with a trilogy (‘Our Fortress Is Burning I, II and III’) was intended to be a bold and climactic statement, but as competent as this concluding trio of songs is, they cannot help but be overshadowed by the magnitude of what precedes them. In fact, strictly speaking, ‘Our Fortress Is Burning’ is really one truly substantial track, bookended at the start by a sparse guitar and piano soundscape, and at the end by an entirely ambient screed of static. In between, part two is an adequate return to the formula of ‘Limbs’ and ‘Falling Snow’, a particularly disconsolate lead guitar line lodging itself in the listener’s memory long after the conclusion of the album, but not matched for quality by the rest of the track, which at times suggests that we are going to ascend to some kind of summit, only to discover that the summit is but a plateau, a staging point on a never-ending journey.
Perhaps this is an appropriate emotional endpoint for a fundamentally despondent album though. More than anything, Ashes Against The Grain feels like a search for something that remains forever out of reach. The glacial lead guitar lines that do most of the heavy-lifting for the band, not unlike Alcest, for example, continually elicit images of searchlights, pointing uncertainly through the cold and unfathomable murk, the lack of anything solid to alight on forcing band and listener to plough on in the absence of any sanctuary to return to. Although Agalloch are successful in terms of the imagery that they are able to construct, the album is not without its flaws. The vocals, particularly the clean-singing, is diffident, and it appears that Haughm lacks belief in his own ability as a singer. Consequently, the vocals are frequently buried in the mix, and while the output is more than listenable, it means that Agalloch do not have a full palette to paint from, even if one suspects that they are perfectly happy with black and white alone. Additionally, the lengthy run time of the majority of the tracks, combined (‘Not Unlike The Waves’ apart) with fairly minimal harmonic variety and melodic development, means that there are periods during which the attention unavoidably wanders, even if unconsciously, the listener is in some ways still tuned into the meditative quality of the sometimes mesmeric guitar lines. Ashes Against The Grain is the result of a band with a grand vision aiming high and falling a little way short, but one can still discern and admire the vision, and appreciate the journey taken, even if the destination is not quite the idyll that it occasionally threatens to be.