John Haughm may consider this his least favorite Agalloch album, but Ashes Against the Grain is the album where I fell in love with the band. Sonically more expansive, with an icy sheen that removes most of what could be recognized as black metal in favor of something more post/neofolk/progressive…call if whatever you want, but the album drips with a somber beauty that captures the essence of what Agalloch brought to the genre.
“But Chris!” you exclaim. “You’re completely glossing over The Mantle and how much it did!” That’s right I am, mainly because 1) I don’t own a physical copy of The Mantle (an album I love and will be rectifying at some point) and 2) back then I also skipped it for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Anyway, Just starting with the guitar tone on “Limbs” – this is what I want the guitars on Pale Folklore to sound like. When the rhythm guitars kick in with that Jesu shoegaze vibe it’s as if the band are throwing off the shackles of any expectations and just diving into a winter landscape where the sun is shining and that beauty hides a freeze so deep it kills you before you realize it.
Both opener “Limbs” and “Falling Snow” move with a hard rock grace that’s more confident and assured than anything from the debut. And I remember pretty much forgetting Pale Folklore when I picked this up. That confidence is evident everywhere – particularly in Anderson’s guitars work. “Falling Snow” has some great licks and solos that rise up out of the riff work. About the only thing I get a little tired of is the suite – wisely moved to the end of the album this time. “Our Fortress is Burning” is perfectly fine, although even now I can do without the seven minute noise/guitar segment that closes out the album. It’s a little self indulgent, and coming at the end of an album that – compared to its predecessor (for me, anyways¹) really worked to be more concise and confident in its execution it doesn’t quite stick its landing.
None of that stops me from loving everything else on the album, from the vocals to the drums to those incredible guitar passages. I don’t know if at this point the band was getting lumped in with all the Pacific Northwest “Cascadian” metal like Wolves in the Throne Room; if so it must have grated on them. There’s little here I would classify as black metal, and what there is is almost wholly subsumed by a band stretching the wings of its identity. That’s something I’m able to connect both back then and today.
¹ It should be noted that although I don’t own a physical copy, The Mantle may in fact be my favorite Agalloch album. I came to it much later for some reason – even after Marrow of the Spirit. I really have to pick up a physical copy…