I only ever heard a couple songs off Agalloch's second album, The Mantle, so when I bought their newest CD (this) for an unbelievably cheap price from their label, I didn't "get" their new direction right away. Or, where they *were* along the line of their old direction. The band is clearly still working with their original elements, but as with any career, these have now been subjected to a more individuated creativity: most obviously, the "black metal" stylings have completely disappeared from the first album. On the other hand, the band has become MORE diffuse--instead of a concentrated blast of this "individuated creativity," what one gets is a sprawling, hour-long, meditative, slightly indulgent expression of whatever place this band is now at.
In other words, the more Agalloch become themselves, the slower and more expansive they become. Is this a good thing? It is hard to call this "metal" anymore, really--and so our criteria need to be dynamic. Stylistically, this *could* be dismissed as "metal for bro-crusters," and it IS that... but as music it is too purposive to be dismissed that way. It can be very plodding and boring--just the Agalloch "sound" stretched out, as it were--but also insanely catchy, as on "Falling Snow," which will remind careful listeners of Fripp's leads on the David Bowie song "Heroes." The lead melody just unfolds and get stuck in your head in all its different versions. Success in music is extremely hard to gauge when the piece in front of you is just ten minutes of slow chords--but when Agalloch are actively, engagingly catchy, it is easy to say, "This is working."
Not all of the album DOES work. The band is too interested in their moodiness. All the songs are 10 minutes long, which seems arbitrary and not a natural result of their creativity. They end up playing the same riff a LOT. On "Falling Snow," you are waiting around for a new musical idea for a bit too long, and when it arrives, it is only serviceable.
Note to artists: I don't need "ambient" tracks to break up the excitement. Pull a Darkthrone and put in 15 second silences in between songs, I don't care. But I can handle your profundity perfectly fine without these thought-pieces... The same thing goes for the 9 minutes of the last song, which is just intermittent guitar noise. It doesn't go anywhere, it doesn't take me anywhere. I'm not a teenager and I don't have time for this.
"Note Unlike the Winds" is very reminiscent of Bathory on the Hammerheart album, especially the clean vocals--which absolutely are effective here (not so much on "Fire Above, So Below"). A stunner.
The last 20 minutes of the album is a 3 part suite called "Our Fortress is Burning I-III" and it is unbearably pretentious. As mentioned, part III is just 7 minutes of guitar noise... part I is very quiet and mostly uneventful (no vocals)... so there is 20 minutes of music of which only about 6 is a "song."
So, there is 60 minutes of music here, of which only 45 are songs. Those are mostly successful... if a bit same-y. You get worn down a bit by the "epic" and pensive vibe crashing over you with predictable grandiose crescendos. I was disappointed by this album--the band has retreated into itself too far, and though this may appeal to "shoegaze" fans of metal, it is really just navel-gazing. A few cool parts.
Score: 2.5/5 (** 1/2) stars
Best songs: "Note unlike the Wind," "Falling Snow"