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We're legit black metal guys, honest - 17%

lord_ghengis, December 13th, 2013

One of my more arrogant music listening traits is that I don't like bands bastardizing or watering down genres. As such, it may come to a surprise to many that I actually am I pretty big Agalloch fan. Sure I think they've got some issues with being crazy overrated at times, such as the disturbing amount of praise they get for slapping a couple of layers over the end of "Hallways of Enchanted Ebony" for their split with Nest, or how Ashes Against the Grain has managed to gain a reputation beyond being "pretty catchy and enjoyable", but as a rule the band works for me. My justification for this is that eventually, if you blaspheme against the basic tenets of a style hard enough you become something entirely different. For instance, Obscura (the band, not the album) pull off shameful modern tech “death” by wanking so hard and so effeminately they cease to be a shameful failed attempt at death metal, and become super pretty melodic technical prog metal or with growls or some shit, and suddenly I don't feel so angry at it. Agalloch are in this boat with black metal, and metal in general really. At their best they were such a broad mash up of post-rock, black metal, goth rock, neofolk, doom metal, alternative rock and god knows what else that they never really felt like they were half-assing any particular style; they were simply whole-assing whatever the fuck they happened to be.

As such I never got that "what is this embarrassingly underdeveloped shit" response which comes from listening to well, almost any Cascadian BM band. In fact my problems with that style are less that they don't have enough black metal for me, and more that they have too much; these bands tend to stick in great big heapings of blast beats and derivative tremolo chord progressions, and no matter how much I like the post rock parts or the ambient textures I'm always distracted by how subpar these parts are. Sure, what Agalloch does is weak and fluffy, but it's not a weak and fluffy version of a full on genre, it's its own thing in its natural form. The band always had a nice attitude of not caring about actually living up to any sort of genre conventions, and while they presented it in the much lamer and less respectful "I'm glad you hate it, it means we're doing something right, we don't want your types as fans" on their DVD, the concept of "we're just doing our own thing" is a respectable enough goal. They may have borrowed elements of black metal for their sound, but they never really had anything which you could call a black metal part in their music, at least outside of the Ulver-by-way-of-Katatonia debut, they just plain didn't care about actually living up to any sort of black metal ideals. Marrow of the Spirit is Agalloch changing their mind and deciding they actually need to get some BM cred, and they're fucking terrible at it.

Agalloch may actually be just about the shittiest quasi-BM band ever. They've decided to add in blast beats and the absolute nadir of tremolos-doing-absolutely-fucking-nothing riffs, beyond what the already shitty Cascadian scene has ever made. They decided they don't need a nice professional production job to make their music work, and then removed all the autotune which made Haughm's already shitty rasp-whispers sound even remotely acceptable. It's a shitty clusterfuck of ideas that don't work and sound like total ass.

The band's primary appeal remains their sense of softer, melodic and easy on the ears yet quite emotive and melancholic folked/gothed/blacked up post-rock thing, so why the hell did they think adding in stretches of blast beats and black metal riffing would actually improve this? It certainly can't be because they thought they were a quality black metal band, because they're legitimately as bad as any I've ever heard. I mean, they've clearly committed to trying to be black metal since they brought in a new drummer who likes to play fast and they've opted to trade out their super clean and dynamic productions for something a bit nastier and organic, but surely they have an idea how bad they are at it right? I mean the MA page alone lists twelve different people involved in creation, surely one of those twenty four ears heard what they were making right? Right?

The riffs offered up here are embarrassingly bad. They're all meaningless predictable chord progressions that have no energy or life, they just go dadadadadadabababababababa in a slightly melodic fashion in line with a gutless blast with absolutely nothing to give them any sort of identity. The band runs these barely-classifiable-as-a-riff riffs into the ground by repeating each utterly interchangable one for what feels like an eternity, even if somehow they only actually take up a minute or two of your time. It's like they found split in the space time continuum but it was filled with nothing but all of humanities greatest feats of mediocrity. The guitar production is thin and flat in a very unsatisfying way, failing to illicit any sort of atmosphere or edginess in the trade off for precision and dynamics, this leaves the riffs even less exciting and snooze worthy than they already are. The drums sound like cardboard boxes and carry little to no percussive energy, so the "rawness" doesn't actually make the album feel any harsher or energetic. All things considered these sections have absolutely no worth and seemingly run on forever, they don't make up the bulk of the album by any means, but their presence is anything but welcome. And just for kicks they pop up on every single song so they're never far away from ruining your day... Well maybe there isn't one one Black Lake Nidstang actually as I think back on it, but that's just because I always fall asleep for 15 minutes of that song's seemingly three month runtime. I know there's a bit where Haughm tries to sound epic with some cleaner shouts somewhere in there, and I know it sounds almost as lame as the "I CRIED THE TEARS OF A THOUSAND RAVENS" thing on the debut, but isn't as cheesily entertaining or interesting, but otherwise that song is just boring and I can't recall a thing.

The added levels of violence fail to increase the overall aggression due to the flat production and terrible riff writing skills, but they actually do enough to stand out in one way. They really make you pay attention to how shitty Haughm is as a black metal singer. When they were just picking out little parts of black metal create their unique sound, his shitty little whisper rasps kinda made sense, in the context of genuine black metal however I can't look past the fact I've heard more intimidating ducks, and small ducks at that. What's more he's decided to go without the aid of any studio help with all of the vocals on the album, and all I can say is "for the love of God, be fake". My three month old daughter has made better rasps than him when she's trying to poop, and she's been an underachieving disappointment since the day she was conceived. There is really no excuse for how bad he sounds here, he's utterly subpar in every musical sense. He definitely needs layering or just computer help to make him at least bearable because he's completely awful without it.

Just so I can wail on Haughm's unfathomably shitty vocals in two different paragraphs, he's fucked up his clean vocals too. Again, he's backed himself to go au naturale and not use the autotune he so desperately needs. His entire clean vocal style hinged completely on making his drab, bored vocals appear quite ethereal and haunting by giving him layered, drawn out notes which never wavered in pitch, on his own he doesn't have that sort of control. He's about half as strong as usual, warbley and generally an unpleasant pain in the arse, so any moment the clean vocals show up fails to achieve any musical or emotional worth.

This general concept of the added harshness doing nothing but point out flaws is reflected in the actual music itself too; playing parts with more violence this poorly just draws more attention to how wussy it is. Think of it as if Jesse Eisenburg decided to star in a remake of Schwarzenegger’s classic action flick, Commando. He's a good actor, he does what he does well, he's good enough at it to stand out beyond his scrawny geeky physique and somehow appear like he belongs in a leading man sort of role. But make him puff out his chest and have him killing men with his bare hands and all those physical insufficiency come to the surface and ruin his whole facade. Agalloch trying to be tough does the same thing. It really draws your attention as to how badly the album works in the context of metal. They were always wussy, but they were doing their own thing which never really felt like a watered down version of something else, adding some genuine extreme metal to the mix makes the wussiness stand out more.

What's more, the album feels more separated in its parts. Now that the black metal has been removed from their overall creation and given its own segments, the whole sound they present seems a lot less interesting and nuanced. Before they combined all their elements in a satisfying and fresh way, it was truly a melding of many different styles into a single entity, but now it's all split apart. You've got black metal parts, you've got post rock parts, you've got folk parts, but there aren't many moments where it all comes together at once. This is a bad thing twofold, firstly the actual music they present is much less inventive and unique than before which leaves it without any real personality, and having it all separate leaves the music inconsistent in mood and flow. The changes in genre are no longer a careful and effective melding but a careless genre swapping dynamic, and like 99% of genre hopping albums the dynamic shifts from jumping styles mostly function to hide how mediocre or downright poor the actual segments are. Credit where credit is due, I couldn't say these style changes are handled poorly, the band clearly took the full four years making sure the music navigates its wild turns in a more natural way than most bands doing this sort of thing, but since the actual music and general sound is so unappealing I can't say it helps much.

The post-rock/neofolk/soft whatever music which makes up the bands other side is thankfully better than the metal, well below their usual standards for sure, but better than the bands new idea of trying out black metal. Sadly the shitty sound renders it all effectively worthless. Agalloch's music, like most prettier post rock styled things actually needs quite a lot of studio care or at least excessive effects to carry it properly. This isn't an insult to the genre at all, it's almost certainly my favourite non-metal genre out there, it's just a simple fact it needs a lot of touches outside of the actual musical composition to give it the magnitude and scale that the rather minimal instrumentation fails to live up to in the most basic sense. "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" needed a lot of post production work to make the acoustic licks sound bolder and more majestic than the distorted metal undercurrent, just like "Limbs" needed a clean, massively enhanced sound to carry what would have been a rather minor sounding intro riff into being something glorious. Opting for a flat, low key, natural and largely lifeless production really neuters the better elements of the album.

Take "Ghosts of Midwinter Fires" for instance, it's the album's most familiar sounding number, spending most of its existence doing things in line with what the band has been doing for a while, and as such it is the best track here. Outside of a couple of 30 second black metal parts, the only thing really separating it from the more morose songs on Ashes Against the Grain, like "Limbs" or "Fire Above, Ice Below", is the production, and as such it's nice and easy to pin point exact moments where it all falls down. The post rock lead guitar is actually somewhat dynamic and lively, so the song's aquatic introduction lick actually works alright, but when they move into the meat of the song the thin, flat sound completely mangles anything else they're going for. Most notably the tremolo riff at around 3:40, just before the first black metal burst, is laughably meek and featureless. The riff doesn't necessarily have anything wrong with it compositionally, it works as a transition between total post rock and the following "onslaught", and it should be capable of building the music towards some kind of cathartic release, but it doesn't. The guitar tone is too restrained and the mix isn't bold and colourful enough, and the whole development remains stillborn and drab. Really anything which isn't an outright lead melody is neutered pathetically by the sound, and given this is Agalloch we're talking about here, that's a lot of ineffective, flat material over the course of the album.

Even if the production was good enough to give the music something resembling magnitude and range, I still don't think the album would work. As I said, the album separates the black from the folk from the post from the gothic from the doom, so the things offered up are quite "normal" sounding for each of their respective genres. As such, I feel like I can actually compare what they do to other post rock bands or neofolk bands pretty fairly now, and they're rather substandard. This is partially due to the sound, partially because the melding of ideas is what made them different in the first place is missing, and partially because they just didn't actually write very interesting material. There are a couple of exceptions, such the lead melodies 6 minutes into the opener or the one midway through "The Watcher's Monolith", but by and large the mellower stuff is a long, long way behind real post rock bands. Obviously the lead parts consistently stand out as the closest to being competitive due to them getting through the production largely unscathed, but even then, other than those two they're still a fair bit behind. Outside of those moments, there's nothing here that could compete with This Will Destroy You's “The World is Our ___” , or Gift's From Enola's "Aves", or anything else by any dedicated quality post rock band. Without the folky, gothic or blackened touches deeply entwined with the post stuff, the band just doesn't have all that much appeal to their music.

I wish I could say I hoped this was just a one off dud, but based of their Faustian Echoes EP, it seems like they're pretty committed to this idea of roughing up the edges of their sound. At least that release has a better sound and better post rock stuff, but on the other hand the terrible black metal plays for even longer uninterrupted stretches. As for Marrow of the Spirit however, there isn't even that little silver lining to speak about. This a shitty sounding album full of worthless music with an utterly painful vocal performance which keeps reminding you every four minutes how goddamned wussy and weak it is, it's utterly irredeemable and a failure on every level... just like my baby.