The End Records, 1999
This is an original and very interesting album. If I had only one word to describe Agalloch it would be: class. The first song on this album, 'She Painted Fire Across the Skyline', their introduction to the world and a great opener, is a model of restraint, power, dignity, and thematic skill. Agalloch are masters at blending together different subgenres of metal into a cohesive vision. At first listen I sensed a lot of influences coming through the music, and I might as well get the references out of the way at the beginning: Katatonia, Iron Maiden, The Cure, Fields of the Nephilim, and above all Sisters of Mercy (the guitar music in the third song ' Hallways of Enchanted Ebony' could have been taken from a 'Vision Thing'-era B-side). The lead/clean guitar work throughout this third song (and indeed on the whole album) is never less than excellent, and there is a lead break at exactly 3:06 that starts out as pure Katatonia but soon slides into a little melody that is so beautiful in its simple evocativeness that it brings tears to my eyes. 'Ah,' you say, 'gothic metal'. Agalloch are that, but they are also so much more. I could only wish that gothic metal bands would receive inspiration from this and follow where they are leading, especially since Paradise Lost, the former originators and giants of the field, have seemingly lost their way (sorry, I couldn't resist that).
The theme of this album seems to be emotions and/or memories from an imagined winter landscape (the CD booklet is filled with monochrome images of winter in the black metal style), but to be honest this music never makes me think of the winter - perhaps because as a Texan I don't really understand what winter is. Fine. Instead of that, the melodies riding through this work take me back to hot and humid summer nights in the '80s when the world was full of possibilities and every song on the radio was my favorite. Sound like a tired cliche? It's that evocative, trust me.
The vocals are equally original, or atypical for this type of music. They are of the harsh and cold Norwegian variety, but at times slip into soft chants or whispers or even shouted ranting. There are operatic female vocals as well. 'Of course,' you say, but they are done excellently and are never overstated. To use another one-word definition of Agalloch: balanced. Balance of musical prowess and balance in the production values of an album are two qualities that are very rare. To all the bands that are looking for a guide: buy Opeth's 'Morningrise' and listen to it 100 times. Then go back to writing your music. Too often bands concentrate on one style or the music of one instrument to the detriment of the rest of their band or their own flexibility. I can't imagine Agalloch doing that. This album shows the kind of maturity and thoughtful writing that most bands don't reach until their third or fourth album, if ever. I will take the space here to say that I would love to be in this band, as I can imagine few bands at the start of their careers that had this much potential and writing ability. This is another great release from The End records and I wish Agalloch luck in their future endeavors and hope that this album will bring them the kind of success that they no doubt deserve. Superb in all respects.