AGALLOCH: PALE FOLKLORE (1999)
1) She Painted Fire Across The Skyline, Pt. 1; 2) She Painted Fire Across The Skyline, Pt. 2; 3) She Painted Fire Across The Skyline, Pt. 3; 4) The Misshapen Steed; 5) Hallways Of Enchanted Ebony; 6) Dead Winter Days; 7) As Embers Dress The Sky; 8) The Melancholy Spirit.
Since The United States Of Jazz, Blues, and Country had never been a major player on the «extreme fantasy metal» scene — one area almost totally monopolized by Scandinavian countries — it is not difficult to understand the sometimes too heavy aura of promotion that surrounds Agalloch, a band hailing from Portland, Oregon. These guys have dared to challenge none other than Finland's Amorphis, Norway's Ulver, and Sweden's mighty Opeth — and the very fact that they can do it without thoroughly embarrassing themselves almost automatically makes them critical darlings (for the metal press, at least).
There still may be a big difference, though. Pale Folklore, Agalloch's full-length debut (preceded only by some demo tapes that are said to be far more derivative), is unquestionably influenced by and constantly evokes Scandinavian metal schools, but if most of those bands perform dark metal with elements of folk, Pale Folklore is dark folk with elements of metal. Or, rather, it is what a black minstrel with laryngeal cancer would sound like if someone tuned down his lute and ran it through a distortion pedal.
For one thing, the guitarists, John Haughm and Don Anderson, almost never solo. This may be due to technical limitations (must be hard to get a proper Swedish guitar teacher in Oregon), or may be a conscious, self-restraining decision, but the fact is that Agalloch's music is riff-based something like 95% of the time (and the rest of it mainly consists of howling winds or tolling bells, or, sometimes, brief piano interludes). This can get tiresome, since the riffage is usually of the «drone» variety, and unless you pay lots and lots of attention, all of these drones tend to merge together in one huge mega-drone. In this respect, Agalloch may have more in common with noise rock bands like ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead than with their Viking brothers-in-arms.
But if it doesn't exactly pay off in terms of memorability and even «discernibility», it works fine in the atmosphere department. Carefully avoiding most of the cheesy aspects of Nordic music (militant paganism, church-burning, horned helmets, Valhalla awaits us, all that nonsense that keeps Wagner permanently rotating in his grave), they concentrate on themes of world-weariness and round-the-corner death, the ones that go down so well with a bit of grey cloudy skies, snow-covered pine forests, and icy wind blasts. Obviously, an icy wind blast opens the record as such — what else? And the strange bagpipe-imitating drone that eventually morphs into an even stranger «scratchy» pattern immediately sets the right atmosphere.
Except for a relatively brief, equally winterish, instrumental 'The Misshapen Steed', a rapidly shifting palette of sorrowful piano melodies, weeping woodwinds, mystical harps, and funebral orchestration, all of the songs are heavy riff-fests, usually with one guitar providing the thick, stern drone and another laying a more distinctive, note-based melody. They are all extremely similar, but different enough to leave a folk metal fan further interested in sorting them out and ascribing tiny mood swings to each successive track. Tempos range from mid- to moderately fast, and the rhythm section cooks well: stuff like 'Hallways Of Enchanted Ebony' has serious headbanging potential. Of course, we are occasionally sidetracked into acoustic interludes (many of them combining sharp precision with sincere loveliness), and there are a few completely unexpected surprises — U2-ish scratch-delay-patterns on 'The Melancholy Spirit', for instance — but diversity was hardly a major goal here.
Unfortunately, adopting various superficial trappings of their predecessors also means that most of the lyrics are delivered in a generic black metal growl; on one hand, this may be an advantage since we do not get to discern the spoken words (the album opens with "Oh dismal mourning, I open my weary eyes once again, my life has been left hollow and ashes have filled the gorge of my within" and the rest never strays too far away from that tragic realization), but, on the other hand, this is the major obstacle that can prevent one from taking this whole stuff seriously. It is one thing if the entire work of art transparently adopts Dungeons & Dragons as its ideal, but Agalloch seem serious about creating a darkly beautiful musical landscape, so why should it be spoilt rotten with this «Cookie Monster caught a rhinovirus» sonic idiocy? (The other vocal trapping — little bits of female opera vocals on climactic bits of some of the tracks — works perfectly fine, in comparison).
Apart from that, and the fact that, from each new outburst of US critic adoration you have to subtract the unseen, but suspected bit of national pride bias, Pale Folklore is a pretty damn good record to play. Especially if all of your relatives have died (preferably, in horrible accidents or after long and painful struggles with incurable illnesses), if life has no meaning whatsoever, and if you are financially fit to go on an Alpine vacation. Don't forget to bring Pale Folklore along. The line "From which of this oak shall I hang myself?" sounds especially delicious in such a context, provided you can make it out from the growls. Thumbs up.
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