Black metal is an enigma to me. Don't get me wrong; there are bands that I do enjoy a great deal spanning every major genre inside of the general "heavy metal" category, but black metal has always been the one that I could never really get behind. In fact, the only kinds of black metal that I've ever been able to get down with have been those bands who would not be considered tr00, which is to say bands that take elements of black metal and integrate it into other styles (blackened death metal, blackened grind, blackened tech-klezmer, et al). Agalloch, therefore, seemed to me one of the most monumental overstatements of heavy metal greatness; they are a black metal band, but everyone seems to be getting gay over their newest album, 2010's Marrow of the Spirit. The album also captured the #1 spot on Decibel Magazine's Top 40 of the Year list for this year, which is a fantastic achievement indeed, but made me suspicious that this was another cosmic trick played upon us all by the Universe or God or whatever, like Jersey Shore's popularity, or the fact that my wife gets angry at me when I'm feeling depressed, because it "makes [her] angry" when I feel bad.
I decided to give Agalloch a shot, however, since even my closer homebros were touting it to be the heaviest hitter of the year. And I'm here to tell you, I disagree.
Agalloch are a band that I categorize in my head as "fancy black metal," which is generally marvelously pretentious and pretty irritating. "Fancy black metal" bands are constantly comparing themselves to winter frost and streams of water, and are constantly using words like "soundscape" and "cascadian" in interviews. The scourge of the underground, "fancy black metal" usually sounds like a bunch of dudes in puffy shirts standing around in the forest arguing about who knows how to hate people the most effectively. In my mind, these arguments last until their mothers call them home for dinner, which they manage to eat in the most resentful possible way. They tend to have customer service jobs at an arcade or Blockbuster Video or something.
With all that said, Agalloch actually are reasonably enjoyable for a "fancy black metal" band. They have some interesting quasi-minimalist interludes/intros/whatever that are reminicent of Steve Reich or Philip Glass (oww, my pretention!), as well as some pretty sweet guitar solos that tickle my wank-bone in a gloriously acceptable way. While there are some really triumphant moments in Marrow, the album suffers from some compositional missteps as well, including the opening track ("They Escaped the Weight of Darkness"), which utilizes a lone viola (or violin? I don't feel like listening to it again...) coupled with the sounds of a flowing stream (!!! So Fancy !!!) to create a banal attempt at Ligeti-style solo string pieces that just kind of falls flat. Another big problem I had comes at about the 7:30 mark on "Black Lake Nidstang" (holy shit that's fancy), where Agalloch start utilizing some truly unfortunate vocals that sound like they were recorded by a dude who has been chained up in the back of a cave for several years. Also, the dude has a terrible voice.
And one more thing, this album has way too much whispering on it. There's just something about whispering that drives me out of my tree, and Agalloch not only throw way to much of it into the mix (particularly on "To Drown"), but then they drown it in reverb and stretch it out for ten agonizing minutes. Lame.
The fact that black metal has been getting so much lip service in the last couple of years is unsettling to me. I prefer that whatever high-minded, pretentious thing I'm listening to not feature a grimacing people who are trying their best to look menacing in a cape (that's not possible anymore, I'm sorry). Maybe if it was just some jerk sitting next to a piano looking smart, like this:
So fucking smart
but black metal makes a caricature out of itself far too effectively. The practitioners and listeners alike tend to look more like this:
The default name for this picture is "turd_nugget" and I didn't make that up
My verdict, as such, is that Agalloch aren't as bad as I expected them to be, but that they aren't deserving of #1 status on anybody's list. The relative fanciness of their music makes the listening a journey, but not an easy one since four of the six songs are longer than ten minutes (and a fifth song only misses the ten minute mark by 20 seconds). If you consider yourself grim and kvlt and own one or more puffy shirts you'll doubtless enjoy Agalloch. Otherwise, you might just want to continue skirting the black metal genre the way I do, picking at the musical structure the way you would pick at your oozing genital sores, leaving what's good and discarding the unfavorable bits.