The first thing I remember thinking was, “This is black metal? It’s so slow!” I was still dipping a tentative toe into whatever “extreme” metal was, and after some hesitant purchases into the genre, starting with Cradle of Filth’s Dusk and Her Embrace and Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk I approached Agalloch expecting something similar. What I got in Pale Folklore was something completely different: metal that reaches into both post-rock and black metal to pull together a tapestry of ideas incorporating folk, doom, and everything in between.
Of course, I didn’t think that at the time. At the time I was trying to understand whether or this was black metal, and if I really liked it. Despite the double kick work, the music was slow without really being doom, although there were moments in my ears during “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline I” with the operatic vocals where I was getting an early Anathema vibe (probably due to my limited knowledge of the music at the time – but I had The Silent Enigma and Cradle’s Dusk… so I used those as my points of comparison). I would often get lost in trying to follow the constant repetition and subtle permutations in the music, to the point where I became really familiar with the three track that make up the suite of “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline” but would have little recollection of what came after.
And that’s a bit of a shame, because listening back now a few times (I started with the original CD, but moved to the remastered version last night and this morning just for comparison’s sake) it’s really those later tracks that hold me to Pale Folklore. Epic as the opening suite is, there are little things I hear now that take me out of the vistas and atmosphere solo writer John Haughm intended. My favorite part is the second section, with its almost hard rock cadence, although even there the guitar solo hits a few notes that feel out out of place. There’s a thinness to the guitars as well, and while the song as a whole does a great job of invoking this landscape of desolation with lyrics reflecting the anguish of loss and death both in ourselves and in nature, over the course of its 20 minutes it gets a bit lost, even as the musical themes in the beginning come back at the end.
When the rest of the band kicks in with the songwriting things becomes more cohesive and I can see the brilliance that drew me to their later albums. The quiet melancholy of “The Misshapen Seed” from Shane Breyer, and especially “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony” co-written with Don Anderson. It’s one of my favorite track on Pale Folklore, managing to do everything the opening suite does, but in less time and with more immediacy. Same goes for the progressive leaning closer “The Melancholy Spirit” which – also being a solo Haughm joint – does everything the first half of the album does in one propulsive, 12-minute track.
Back then I had little to no aware of the metal landscape. But something clicked with folks when Agalloch came into the picture, delivering a hybrid of styles that instantly clicked with people in a way that invited the kind of deep listening I remember as a kid, headphones on, booklet out and every picture, every lyric poured over. I feel that pull now, especially on their later albums. Back then, I only knew that Pale Folklore was something different than I was suspecting, and that I needed more.