AGALLOCH: ASHES AGAINST THE GRAIN (2006)
1) Limbs; 2) Falling Snow; 3) This White Mountain On Which You Will Die; 4) Fire Above, Ice Below; 5) Not Unlike The Waves; 6) Our Fortress Is Burning... I; 7) Our Fortress Is Burning... II. Bloodbirds; 8) Our Fortress Is Burning... III. The Grain; 9*) Scars Of The Shattered Sky (Our Fortress Has Burned To The Ground).
Somewhat of a step down here; four years of studio non-presence, apart from a handful of not very diagnostic EPs, do not seem to have done much good for the proud Oregon disciples of Scandinavian thunder and ice wizards. Not only has there been very little progress in their musical education, but Ashes even seems to trade back some of the achievements of The Mantle, and for what? Essentially, for a return to a much more hardcore-metallic sound — almost as if they were afraid listening to The Mantle might make some of us forget the band's true pedigree.
The results of their cutting down on acoustic compositions and interludes, as well as clean vocals, are obvious: most of the songs sound totally alike. The basic range now is not from dark folk to heavy folk-metal, but rather from heavy folk-metal to songs that dangerously border on «old school metal»: the main riff of 'Not Unlike The Waves', for instance, is near-genuine Metallica. Haughm, in an interview, called that number "the perfect representation of Agalloch in 2006"; if that is truly so, I am not overjoyed. As for the first four tracks, I simply cannot find any new words to describe them — it suffices to conclude, from what I have just stated, that this is generally the same Agalloch as before, but rendered slightly less atmospheric due to more emphasis on the heaviness and less on the subtlety.
For me, the album does not even begin properly until the final suite, the three-part 'Our Fortress Is Burning' — where 'Our Fortress' is, of course, the predictable medieval allegory for 'Our Homeworld' the burning of which we are invited to contemplate through folk-metallic eyeglasses. Most of the atmospheric highlights are concentrated in these three parts, from the gently minimalistic piano intro to the weeping drone of the first guitar-based part to the epic-romantic solo of 'Bloodbirds' to the avantgarde representation of the world's collapse in 'The Grain', where Haughm's guitar strives to achieve an effect comparable to that of Hendrix's on 'Star Spangled Banner' — saddle the capacities of the electric sound to make them represent man's (or, in this case, nature's) eternal suffering. Unlike the preceding tracks, this suite strives for something more grandiose, and with Agalloch's overall qualifications, it's quite successful. It might also be useful to check out the limited expanded edition of the album, which adds a twenty-minute long coda that sounds like one of those chilly soundtracks to action games that take place in post-nuclear environments: a demolished, lonesome world whose only sounds are the ones left to us by shards of human civilization swaying in the cold wind.
In short, strange as it may seem, it is the non-melodic parts of this album that seem to constitute its biggest attraction, speaking out louder, more overtly, and with more meaning than the straightforwardly metallic parts. Hardly a thrilling realisation for the typical metal fans (Haughm said that many of them considered 'The Grain' part of 'Fortress' as filler, whereas in reality the whole suite had been built around that part), but a saving grace for those who prefer the art side of the band. On 'Fortress', Agalloch really press forward, switching from a mostly «white and gray» panorama of The Mantle to a «gray and black» one — charred, crackling, and smoking. In the process, they retain their crown as America's kings of impending doom, but only barely. Altogether, the presence of 'Fortress' still guarantees a thumbs up, yet, in my opinion, the often-heard victorious wails of «another Agalloch masterpiece!» are exaggerated all the same.
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