originally written by Chris McDonald
The EP is an interesting format. For most bands it’s either a way to get rid of old material that‘s been sitting around for awhile, or a quick cash-grab (usually both). For others, the EP is their bread-and-butter method for releasing great new material, even more so than their full-lengths–see Jesu. Since their inception, Agalloch have used their EP releases as a way of supplementing their full-lengths with music somewhat more esoteric and experimental than what is found on the albums. I’m a big fan of all three of Agalloch’s full-lengths, but confess to only having ever heard one of their experimental EP’s, that being 2001’s Of Stone, Wind and Pillor. I enjoyed most of the material on that release, so my ears perked up when I heard that Agalloch were releasing an EP follow-up to the masterful Ashes Against The Grain. The White features seven acoustic folk/ambient tracks recorded at various points in the last several years, and I’m pleased to report that it does an admirable job of standing up to the rest of the group‘s esteemed catalog. I consider it a testament to a band’s talent when they can succeed in making music outside their established recognized style; The White offers a different musical take on Agalloch’s themes of nature and death that is no less compelling (and even more so in some ways) to me than their more metal-oriented material.
I admit that as a huge sucker for emotional acoustic and ambient music, Agalloch is scratching me right where I itch here. These songs simply drip with the kind of melancholic beauty that has come to symbolize the band since Pale Folklore. Despite the shorter length and instrumental minimalism (often just an acoustic guitar and/or keyboards), this EP left me with that same emotionally-drained feeling I get after finishing one of their full-lengths simply because of the power and conviction with which these guys deliver these tunes. The emotive “The Isle Of Summer” really tugs at the heartstrings with its moody and simple acoustic melodies, while “Birch Black” gives off a warmer, more folk-influenced vibe that is relaxing after the depressing opener. “Hollow Stone” is an incredibly powerful ambient piece, blanketing the listener with layers of beautiful synth-passages that sound even better than the ambient experiments heard on Ashes Against the Grain. Many people complain about ambient music being “unrewarding;” not so here.
The epic “Pantheist” follows with subdued, wordless vocalizations from John Haughm and a majestic blend of depressive acoustics and synth that create a full, richly detailed sonic picture. Agalloch aptly displays their talent here for layering the various aspects of their music into rich and detailed compositions, which is especially important when playing music without the immediacy of loud guitars or harsh vocals. “Birch White” features a poem recitation by Haughm laid over more uplifting strumming, while “Sowilo Rue” adds some beautiful piano tinkling to back the guitars. This song and sweeping closer “Summerisle Reprise” both feature effective sampling from the classic film The Wicker Man, and its use at the end of the latter makes for an especially haunting and memorable end to the work.
With excellent production and packed with about as much sincere feeling as one can ask for in this type of music, The White is (surprise) yet another strong success for Agalloch. While I can’t say for sure that everyone that’s a fan of Agalloch will be able to appreciate this work due to its deviation from their more recognized style, the musical strength of this material is undeniable. It’s got all the atmosphere and emotional impact of the outfit’s flagship releases in a sound that is both grand in scope and subdued in context. From start to finish, a fine example of this band’s tremendous abilities.