Originally written by Jason Jordan.
Following Pale Folklore and The Mantle is not an easy task – much less improving on them – but Agalloch have done both. Ashes Against the Grain is the band’s finest full-length: a classy, pristine offering of atmospheric, apocalyptic folk/black-influenced avantgarde grey metal that no amount of adjectives can describe adequately.
A misconception, however unwarranted, is that Agalloch are pretentious and elitist when their cult followers are the ones guilty of stigma-spawning behavior. I admit that it’s difficult not to smirk when leafing through the liner notes of Ashes Against the Grain only to find JWW holding a glass of wine while facing away from the camera, or not to scoff at the group photo in which Haughm is taken aback by the size of his favorite gardening tool, murder weapon, or whatever else he uses that thing for. At the same time, the Oregonians have always been – and will most likely continue to be – a collector’s dream, considering their discography contains several pieces that are limited to 500 or 1000 copies. Their latest limited item is a logo-bearing, wooden box that houses three postcards, one sticker, one bone or bag of ashes, and the album, which brings us to the music itself.
Though all the material is strong, the highlights stand out almost on command. The melodies found in “Falling Snow,” the whole of “Not Unlike the Waves,” and the three-part epic “Our Fortress Is Burning” elevate Ashes Against the Grain to legendary status, perhaps too quickly. Still, it’s tough to argue when AAtG is polished, emotional, and most importantly, well-written music. Agalloch have never been impervious to criticism, however, and many of the same complaints will arise once the overly picky become acquainted with the group’s third LP: the production is too clean, the songs are drawn-out, the experiments with noise are ill-fitting, and Haughm’s vocals aren’t exceptional. Fair enough. But listen to “Our Fortress Is Burning: II – Bloodbirds” and tell me that the build-up isn’t spectacular, and that the world isn’t ending, and that it’s not a tragedy.
Simply put, Ashes Against the Grain may just be the best album of 2006, if not also of the past few years. I’ll be surprised if Agalloch remain relatively obscure after such a monumental accomplishment, which trumps heavyhitters such as Pale Folklore, The Mantle, and the stopgap asides. This is a brilliant, and above all, enrapturing piece of work from premiere metal artists.