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One of the most interesting American metal bands of this decade, Agalloch combines elements of European neofolk, doom and depressive black metal and fuses them with the burgeoning American post-metal sound of bands such as Isis. All this genre name-dropping may be a bit confusing and off-putting, but it combines to give Agalloch a refreshingly unique and inimitable sound that still has solid foundations in bleak transatlantic music.
Each of the bands major releases has been wide enough apart to properly demonstrate its transition, and focus on quality over quantity. To satiate fans craving for more from the increasingly acclaimed Portland group, Agalloch have mercifully released several intermittent E.P.s between the major releases, of which 2001s Of Stone, Wind and Pillor is the most significant and eagerly anticipated. Released over a year before the second album The Mantle, this five song E.P. provides a greater insight into the bands evolution with songs from as early as the 1997 demo, a few later songs that can essentially be seen as B-sides to the full-length Pale Folklore, and a brand new song to demonstrate Agallochs new softer sound, which balances their influences more evenly than the black metal-oriented debut and is also highlighted by the interesting choice of an English neofolk cover song of Sol Invictus.
1. Of Stone, Wind and Pillor
2. Foliorum Viridium
3. Haunting Birds
4. Kneel to the Cross
5. A Poem By Yeats
The album cover, band photos and song titles give a clear indication that this is to an extent woodland-based music, and indeed that is the mental image conjured by the sweeping orchestration, folk guitars and crackling fire effects. Its a less threatening wilderness than that conjured by the earlier Pale Folklore and the ambient black metal bands it drew its inspiration from, particularly Ulvers first album Bergtatt, but its still a far cry from a cheerful hand-clapping rendition of Kum Ba Ya. The mood of the dual acoustic song Haunting Birds is one of deep contemplation, and the fire that creeps in at the end would be one absently stared into by all present as they contemplate their lives, rather than toast marshmallows. This song is a perfect showcase of the bands unplugged side to contrast with the heavy presence of keyboard and distortion elsewhere, with crashing drums heard far away as a menacing but distant threat in a technique pretty much lifted from Ulvers Een Stemme Locker and later re-used on the final song of The Mantle.
The other instrumental is an older song, which is unsurprising considering its similarity to the beautiful The Misshapen Steed from Agallochs debut. Foliorum Viridium evokes a similar atmosphere to its acoustic neighbour, but this time in full daylight in a panoramic sweep of forest landscapes depicted by a soft keyboard lead over soaring violins and a lead cello section. Its understated enough to avoid approaching the realm of film soundtrack, and is simply a peaceful ambient piece that opts to leave all thoughts of metal behind it, although it pales in comparison to similar songs on more substantial releases. The final song, A Poem By Yeats, aims to be more majestic with a prominent rising violin repeated over John Haughms spoken word rendition of Yeats The Sorrow of Love, and this time thoughts of a film score arent so far away. Yeats lyrics can hardly be heard as Haughm chants them in the first section before taking a more standard monotone, but it still works excellently and at no points feels like a cheap, gimmicky B-side tagged on to increase the track length, though the final four minutes of complete silence are an irritating addition. The violin swells are hardly original, but cant help but move me, reminding me of the final song from My Dying Brides Like Gods of the Sun.
With the shorter and perhaps more forgettable pieces dealt with, the two main pillars of Of Stone, Wind and Pillor are the excellent title track and the cover of Sol Invictus neofolk song Kneel to the Cross. The first is a fair preview of the sound to come on The Mantle, based on alternating acoustic and electric guitars at a fairly slow but steady pace, with a great balance between being gloomy and vicious, and melodic and catchy. After the acoustic guitar introduces the song and sets the tone, the metal comes in for the only real time on this release, and again still reminds me mostly of Ulver at this point in the bands development. Haughm screeches his lyrics in a mostly indecipherable black metal growl (apart from a shockingly vulgar final pronouncement), and ties in excellently to the restless and constantly changing melodic lead guitar and riffs. Those unaccustomed to growling vocals would most likely approach this song with a degree of confusion, as the inhuman screams contrast starkly with the generally pleasant-sounding instruments, and in this case I tend to agree that clean singing vocals would have been more appropriate, even if Haughms singing voice (as demonstrated on Kneel to the Cross) takes an equal amount of getting used to. The second half of this ever-changing song is where the aforementioned catchiness comes in, with a gothic-sounding guitar and drum rhythm reminiscent of Katatonias influential Brave Murder Day album providing a bouncing point for some great, slow guitar solos that lead the song out.
As Ive never heard the original version of Kneel to the Cross Im unable to make a comparison, though its certainly intrigued me about Sol Invictus and that whole school of home-grown neofolk, but this was an excellent and unusual choice of cover song. I could do without the opening, in which Haughm repeats the same line over and over in his nasal clean voice over a backdrop of keyboard and organ melodies, and if this wasnt a cover Id once again link it right back to Ulver, this time their experimental and rather dodgy Themes From William Blakes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell release. A sudden pause makes way for much better things, and the more familiar acoustic guitar and drums return, the latter resonating nicely in what proves to be easily the most upbeat sounding cut of the E.P. The electric guitar can still be heard filling in the spaces in the background along with the reliable but ultimately unremarkable bass, but this is really a demonstration of the bands folk roots to follow on from Haunting Birds. Its probably the most enjoyable part of the E.P. For being so different, but of equal value to the first and third tracks. Its also the only song that can be easily found elsewhere, on a later compilation of Sol Invictus cover material.
Of Stone, Wind and Pillor is primarily a piece of fan merchandise, generously provided to ease the wait for Agallochs second full-length album and providing some nice rarities and effective B-side instrumentals to go with it. At twenty-five minutes (excluding the pointless pause at the end of the final song), theres not really enough room to explore the intricacies of Agallochs sound, especially as two of their currently three albums are dominated by multi-part epic compositions, and also because the bands sound continues to change substantially every few years. Nevertheless, anyone who enjoys The Mantle or even Pale Folklore or perhaps the more recent Ashes Against the Grain should place this high on their list of releases to check out, as well as the albums I cant help but repeatedly cite as a direct influence.
Foliorum Viridium is taken from Agallochs first demo, which I would guess is extremely hard to come by and only worthwhile for the most hardcore fan of their early sound, and as mentioned earlier the Sol Invictus cover was later added to a compilation. Theres still enough enjoyable unique material here to keep this bizarrely titled release slipping into oblivion for many years to come, especially if Agallochs music continues to improve and achieve even greater acclaim. Of course, another release may take a few more years yet.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Of Stone, Wind, And Pillor
2 Foliorum Viridium
3 Haunting Birds
4 Kneel To The Cross
5 A Poem By Yeats