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Agalloch - Ashes Against The Grain CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

3.90 | 227 ratings

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4 stars It was 4 years after Agalloch released their masterpiece 'The Mantle' that they would release their follow up. The band had been performing songs from 'The Mantle' and learned that they had to either bring along a lot more instruments and support, or revise their songs so they could be recreated in a concert setting without so much equipment and musicians tagging along. This led to the decision to make this album, 'Ashes Against the Grain' a more stripped down affair. Stripped down did not necessarily mean a more acoustic album, or a softer album at all, it meant less equipment to make the required sound the band was reaching for. Thus, this album is decidedly more electric and heavy but only requiring a minimal amount of equipment to recreate it in concert.

However, this stripped down album, ended up sounding to polished, according to the band. They also consider it the worst album they have ever made. They preferred the rawness of their previous album and EPs over this too perfect sound. And, honestly, they do have a point. But considering this their worst album might be a stretch, and they have definitely set a high enough bar, that their worst album could be considered a best if it was put out by any of their Folk Metal/Black Metal peers.

Personally, I am not a big fan of the dirty, growly vocals. There are only a few exceptions and that is when the instrumentation is still interesting enough to make up for the 'same-ness' that you can get with those type of vocals. Dirty vocals tend to lack emotion, except for the extreme emotion that never changes. Too much of something tends to wash out the overall result. For 'The Mantle', the overall music is so amazing that they growling doesn't bother me so much. On this album, the dirty vocals are there, intermixed with some clean singing, and there are some breaks in the instrumentation so that the wall of noise isn't always there. But, overall, is it enough to save this album?

We start off with 'Limbs' which is over 9 minutes, of mostly loud, hard music, with a few short breaks of quieter passages, and a lot of dirty vocals with a few passages of clean singing. The guitar and percussion work is all excellent, with a lot of changing meters and a minimal use of dynamics. It's not bad, but it doesn't quite reach the pinnacle of 'The Mantle'. This flows almost seamlessly into another minute epic called 'Falling Snow', which follows the same pattern, but at least allows for more instrumental sections. Not a lot of difference between the tracks however. There is a sudden moment of quietness with the short, atmospheric instrumental 'This White Mountain on Which You Will Die'. These three tracks are the weakest part of the album, yet they are not terrible tracks, there just isn't a lot of real stand out sections in them. But, at least they are interesting and progressive enough to not be completely written off.

After the cooling off bridge that is 'This White Mountain'', the next track, 'Ice Above, Fire Below' follows with a more acoustic beginning, and cleaner vocals, but more in a soft, whispered vocalization, but still sounding dark and evil. There is a building momentum as the track continues, and we have a nice example of the effective use of dynamics here. This is a much better track, without that chopped up feeling, but more of a flowing feeling between loud and soft passages. Out of one of the soft sections, a beautiful guitar melody begins at the 5:30 mark. This builds again, with more layers added in, but keeping the same slow pace, and wordless vocals come in. The vocals become growly again, but they are short as the instrumental sections actually drive this track quite effectively. The 10 minutes go by quickly as this track keeps your interest throughout, and could have easily been at home on the previous album. This is an excellent track, all the way through, with a lot of changes and nothing static about it.

The long epics continue with 'Not Unlike the Waves', another 9 minute track. The first 2 minutes feature a repeating guitar hook, and it begins to give credence to the complaint the band had about being too polished. At least, the repeating pattern is broken finally by a quiet passage which quickly builds to a new and more interesting section. Vocals finally come in and are a nice mix of clean and dirty, with a lot more emotion. There is a long instrumental section which is amazing, and when the vocals come in again, they are layered creating a choral effect which if perfect for the setting of the track. The repeating hook does return at the last moments of the track, but it becomes a nice bookend to the overall song. This is probably their most accessible and commercial track ever, but it's not a complete throw away by any means.

Next is a 3 part suite called 'Our Fortress is Burning' and it is divided over the next 3 tracks. The first part is a 5 minute instrumental, mostly on the quiet side, but nice and freely flowing. This overall vibe continues into the next part called 'Bloodbirds', this part acts as a bridge which builds from the quietness of the first part and over the course of 6 minutes, to the more aggressive 3rd part. Along the way, there are a lot of nice guitar solos. The vocals don't even start until the pinnacle of the crescendo is reached 3 minutes in to the 2nd part. By the end of this part, things are quite dramatic and cinematic, and it all fades quickly into some interesting effects, that lead into the 3rd part, called 'The Grain'. The effects, starting off quiet, build and build into a very chaotic and loud experimental section. This becomes very drone like in sound, very loud and continues for over 7 minutes. Things to soften by the time you reach the end, but it's good to see that the band is not afraid to experiment with other styles, namely post rock in this instance. In total, this suite nears the 19 minute mark.

The deluxe edition of the album also contains the track 'Scars of the Shattered Sky (Our Fortress Has Burned to the Ground)'. This is a 19 minute bonus track, which in itself is a anomaly for a bonus track to be that long. It is completely instrumental. The sound is very ambient with mostly a metallic feel. Acoustic guitar starts at about 3:45 with a nice melody and arpeggiated chords while the ambient effects continue. At 7 minutes, what sounds like a synthesizer plays sustained notes, and a few minutes after that, there are some meandering guitar notes that come in and some expansive sound effects, almost wind- like. The intensity increases, but remains quite pensive. Guitars and keyboards take turns passing the lead to each other. At 14 minutes, a fast beat finally comes in, and this soon turns into a heavier track with an exciting guitar solo. Then at 16:30, the rhythm breaks down and you get sharp, sustained notes with effects going on around them and this carries on until the end. Definitely a track worth seeking out, but for the most part, entirely different from the rest of the album.

Even with the overly polished feel, mainly with the first few tracks, this is still a decent album. There is plenty of variety in the music itself, and a good balance of dirty and clean vocals, with plenty of dynamics in the instrumental sections. The band called it their worst album, but most bands would be quite proud of this achievement. Yes it has it's flaws, especially in the first 3 tracks, but these should not be enough to discourage you from searching this album out, especially if you are a fan of the dark Folk Metal or Black Metal sounds. But even if you aren't, there is plenty here to keep you interested. I'm not a big fan of dirty vocals, but there is good balance here, and the album, in my opinion, does come close to their masterpiece 'The Mantle'.

TCat | 4/5 |


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