Saturday, May 15, 2010

Agalloch - Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor

Agalloch - Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor
2001, The End Records

Agalloch continues to impress me. This time it is in the form of this collection of old and new material, and a gathering of their output which stretches through their entire ouevre, their flexible repertoire of sounds, influences, styles, motivations, and artistic ambitions. Beginning with the more 'traditional' (meaning close to their debut album) title track, running through the ambient piano/choral/keyboard soundscape 'Folorium Viridium', contributed by exiled member Breyer, falling into the embrace of ringing, chiming acoustic guitars in band leader Haughm's 'Haunting Birds', stretching upwards into the excellent rendition of Sol Invictus's 'Kneel to the Cross', which serves to highlight their influences and pays homage to an inspiration, and then finishing with the morose, fallen angel diatribes of Breyer's 'A Poem by Yeats' - an illustration and homage in itself - this album is a bridge, I am thinking, as it was probably designed to be, between the past and present for Agalloch, between what has come before (the first three tracks, from '97 and '98) to what will be appearing in the future (the last two songs) if the band continues on the path of evolution hinted at on 'Pale Folklore'.

'Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor', the song proper, is a perfect introduction to this record, not only because it is in the vein of Agalloch's earlier album (the actual recording of this track is three years old, going by the liner notes) and, as such, serves to dispel one's fears early on (and this is a nice trick) that the band may have changed completely in the space of two years, but it also displays almost all of the elements that makes this band unique. I know that Haughm says (or at least said, the last time I talked to him) that Agalloch are not original, and most of this record, especially 'Kneel to the Cross' strives to both picture these separate segments of their sound (or what I think is new in their presentation, their entire style) as they have come together during their history and expand upon their initial growth, but I also know he probably has to say this in order to deflect the inevitable criticisms that come when one claims one's music is new, invigorating, or emotionally viable...I guess, in the end, that you just have to judge for yourself, but I still maintain that there isn't really another band out there quite like this one. This first song is a reminder of this for me, among other things. Within the greater transition state of this album, this song serves in it's rightful place as a microcosm of the whole, as a link between the past and the future...and so while I know it may have been placed as a shrouded doorway from 'Pale Folklore' into this other world, I also can't help but think of it as a memorial, an epitaph spelling out what this band has transcended or hopes to transcend.

'Foliorum Viridium', (Latin for, essentially, a new, blooming or blossoming leaf of a plant - viridium is also the name of a drug that cures urinary infections, by the way), is very close in feel to Breyer's earlier piece 'The Misshapen Steed' - which completely took 'Pale Folklore' to a new level, musically - combining a serene, lyrical piano introduction with harmonious levels of descending angelic choirs, the spirits of solitude, before slipping deftly into the skin of a ritualistic celebration, a pagan dance on the edge of a forest...moonlit, eerie, almost in slow motion, like a mirage or vision glimpsed from afar...and somehow just out of reach, no matter how hard one tries to grasp it or bring it completely into view. This then falters, collapses all at once, and one is transported again beneath the waves of a black lake, washed bodily back and forth beneath the night tides - dead, perhaps, but dreaming in a lost world, on the trembling edge of a resurrection...

As always with Daniel's music, I wish this work could have lasted a little while longer...and this may just be a coincidence, but I can't help but notice certain affinities between the emotions summoned by this short tone poem and my recent re-reading of Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King', which is based on the Arthurian legends and the gnostic/mystical traditions of England's ancestry - a connection, once again, to the finishing track on this record, the eloquent, Swans-influenced 'A Poem by Yeats' - Yeats being, as everyone knows, a great proponent and archivist of Albion's folklore.

It would be highly satisfying to see Breyer release even more material, on his own, in this range and style, but this song pinpoints Agalloch's entire sound and evocative power accurately: the blending of a stoic, mannered tranquility with a melancholy view of the Earth, its past, and its present proceedings. 'Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor', maybe even more than 'Pale Folklore', is a set of variations based on the essential theme of the true nature of reality - the dark heart that slows and pauses, brooding, at the center of all life.

'Haunting Birds', arising out the ashes of 'Foliorum Viridium', is an interesting composition, all strident acoustic guitars, blending various folk-influenced melodies into a melancholy whole, referencing, at times, something of an Eastern influence, almost a hint of Native American melody. The war marches, tribal or totem myths, and lamentations of the dispossessed here speak out in a loud declamatory voice, ending in a slow wash of crackling flames. A road to ruin? Or a road from ruin? Throughout its brief three and a half minutes it is the construction, mainly, of a lead guitar, running through connected melodies and variations (telling a tale), and a backing accompaniment of linking chord progressions and pulsing, understated percussion. It serves to remind that Agalloch, while their roots may lay in extreme metal (early Ulver especially, but Haughm has taken so much more away from his Ulver listenings/screenings than just 'metal' - this is obvious) and while, also, they may be marketed or forced upon the metal audiences, who are split into heterogenous splinter groups, their aspirations are much deeper, and ultimately much more ambitious. One feels, as usual when listening to this band, that they have fully imbibed not only the viciousness or darkest threads of despair latent in black metal, they have also been infected with the Scandinavians' yearning for a return to nature and, ultimately, the desire for a new world, a new music, or a novel mode of expression that refreshes one's links to the harmony of the earth - or, rather, not influenced blindly by the European penchant for including these extracurricular/spiritual motivations in music, but finding their own aspirations and profundity echoed there, as if by displacement and return. Destruction, cataclysm, and rebirth. This notion...the entire 'homecoming' feel of Agalloch, is something that must be understood if one is to approach their music along the most prosperous angles...and while I believe that most of the time this group is trying to paint a picture of isolation or anomie - the bitter sadness of feeling out of step, socially or spiritually lost, wandering back and forth (and they succeed at it beautifully, mind you) - there is also the undercurrent in their melodies of an emotional centering, of having found something special which they are loathe to reveal to the light completely, but which they treasure away, each on his own independently. Agalloch only hints at this in order to insure that you - the external, the audience, the other - know that while they may be cast out, they are following their own left hand path...and they are reaping the rewards. Again and again, this band is saying 'there is more to music, there is more to explore'.

I can't really say that much about their cover of Sol Invictus's 'Kneel to the Cross', other than it is a remarkable version of the song, and serves to show, once again, that their influences stand bold, completely outside the typical 'metal' framework of compositional tradition and, also, that Agalloch is inspiring to meet models other than the boring rote, rank and file, of the hackneyed metal 'pioneers'. Agalloch, I feel, must continue to explore and expand their style - their power to draw on disparate/separate musical genres - as I believe it is their destiny to do so, if only in order to reach their full potential and strength as a band. I also know that they included this song for various/conflicting reasons...but let's just say that when one listens to this, it becomes fairly clear just where this band's (especially Anderson and Haughm) ears are pointed when it comes to following musical sources of inspiration and novel veins of darkness...and while there have may have been other bands operating in the metal scene, in the past, who have taken ideas from World Serpent cults (I'm using this term very loosely - basically the nexus/space where Wakeford, Stapleton, etc. meet and then diverge), I don't think there has been another group that have ever shown, in the space of one song, not only how this music reflects on what has come before with their own compositions ('Pale Folklore' and the first song on this record, the title track, opened up for me even more when I heard 'Kneel to the Cross'), but how Wakeford's 'apocalyptic' acoustic/folk style can be mixed with the shadowed floods of metal music very easily, and retain both its own internal integrity/reserve of emotional import and its ability to mesmerize. And so we get another clue as to Agalloch's motivations...

In any case, I could write much more about this collection of songs...but I really don't want to spoil it for you. Rest easy that this is another excellent, well-planned, skillfully conceived recording from this group, who are one of the few truly bright lights in the American metal scene, and as it serves, as I have said above, to connect their reserves of potential with their past, their newer material can only be anticipated with excitement...

Highly recommended.