Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Agalloch—Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)

At this point in their existence, a new release from Portland’s Agalloch generates near-Neurosis levels of anticipation. They take their time between albums—it’s been four years since Ashes Against the Grain came out. We know the new album will be good, but we don’t know what kind of good: which of the band’s many strengths will be emphasized, what new elements will come into play, what will the production reveal (or conceal)?

The cover depicts a bleak, impressionistic winter scene with ravaged trees and mottled snowfall. The Agalloch logo is drizzled in varnish across it. It’s in keeping with the classy and subtle presentation of their previous releases. They’re a greyscale kind of band. The first track (after the cello-based intro “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”) is called “Into the Painted Grey,” so we know for sure that we’re not in a Technicolor world. As the song takes off with (relatively) new drummer Aesop Dekker’s punishing blasts, it’s apparent that Agalloch are exploring darker climes than the more gaze-y, spectral Ashes… did. The lead guitar work is much more pronounced as well. Instead of hanging back and providing polite texture, the solos cut through. Guitarist Don Anderson’s work with Sculptured proves he can shred, and he’s doing it with Agalloch as well.

“The Watcher’s Monolith” continues these themes in a sparser, mid-paced fashion, with a piano coda that eases us into the album’s centrepiece “Black Lake Niđstång.” This track has gained a lot of praise as the “must hear” song on Marrow of the Spirit, and justifiably so. It’s the longest (I believe, at 18 minutes), most startling song Agalloch have tackled so far. It begins as a dirge, slowly piling on the drama with additional tympani and classical guitar. This is the album’s most post-rock passage, which is a sound they’ve steered successfully away from, on the whole, with Marrow of the Spirit. The track goes some remarkable places that I won’t describe here. I want music to surprise me, and I trust you do as well.

To close the album, there’s the more familiar folk metal feel of “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” “To Drown” smoulders on the embers of the fire that came before, acoustic guitars and cello to the fore, giving way to a chilling and forlorn squall of guitars. Marrow of the Spirit ends a triumphant year for Profound Lore and establishes Agalloch as one of the titans of modern metal. I bought this too late in 2010 to honestly claim this as my album of the year, but it’ll be the album of the rest of the winter anyway.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kylesa with Baptists and Haggatha, Dec. 2 at the Media Club

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show that was less than well attended. Maybe it’s the gigs I pick, or maybe the overall live scene’s really healthy right now. From reading bands’ tour blogs, those bad nights of playing to a few old alcoholics and the bartender’s dog still happen, but bands hitting Vancouver must do fairly well out of it. The word definitely got out about Kylesa prior to Thursday night’s gig at the Media Club. Last time I saw them was opening for Mastodon at the Commodore, where they played to a typically distracted, trickling-in crowd. This time they were welcomed by a full house as bona fide saviours of rock, kicking ass with a borrowed backline to a crowd that roiled and surged with every song.

Local four piece Haggatha started the night with some astringent sludge/doom savagery. Their low-frequency vibrations really helped work free the gunk in my cold-wracked chest. Everyone around me was probably feeling the same somewhere in the sweetbreads as Haggatha pounded their guitars in dogged pursuit of the fabled “brown note.” Praising a band for being loud is kinda like those stupid Coors ads that claim their beer is the coldest beer, like we're supposed to be impressed by that. Are we touting the quality of the beer or the refrigeration? Am I reviewing the band, or their amplification? Anyway, Haggatha's amps were working a treat and I'm sorry that I had to mention Coors here. If Haggatha were a beer they’d be the most tar-like, gut-punishing stout imaginable. Eight per cent at a minimum. Yes, they were loud and yes, they were damn good.

Baptists were spazzy and hyperkinetic, starting with a Converge-like flurry of songs before settling into Jesus Lizard territory mid-set, then launching into more chaotic material by the end. Those enervated by Haggatha’s attack shook themselves off and got slamming. To finish, the singer flung himself into the crowd, while I made a note to look up their drummer to see if he played in any other bands. The kid was a monster.

With the local bands showing so strongly, this was Kylesa’s crowd to lose. Thankfully they built on what had come so far, adding their double-drumming attack and catchy material to drive the room into an even deeper frenzy. They played for about an hour, touching on the best tracks from Static Tensions (I was glad to hear “Running Red” in particular) while working the new album, Spiral Shadow, which I picked up at the show. Kylesa are simultaneously lean and fat (phat?). They have two of everything: two drummers, two guitarist/vocalists. Although the bassist has no partner, he also plays keyboards, so he’s on double duty. They make an imposing sound, but it’s all in service of some tidy material—three and a half, four-minute bruisers in the main, with the occasional spacey interlude that reminds me that this was a band who were on that Syd Barrett tribute from a couple years ago. If using the opening bands’ backline was a problem, it certainly didn’t show. Guitarist/singer/producer Philip Cope had an interesting habit of glancing sideways in the middle of songs, as though he was keeping tabs on his bandmates, making sure everyone was still with him. No worries; they were killing it, powering through their set plus an encore, sending everyone home happy and setting the stage for an even bigger show next time they make it up here.