Agalloch’s history of rare, limited, and / or special releases is well noted, and the quality and style of these records range greatly. Some were similar to their albums (Of Stone, Wind and Pillor), others largely experimental (The Grey), and others added a special layer to the band’s enthralling career (The White). The common thread is that they are rare, obsessed over by fans, and often cost a small fortune to buy on the internet. So when word of Faustian Echoes surfaced, the natural course of action was to prep a crisp Jackson and then speculate on the EP’s sound.
Faust was, of course, a major character in German legend, famous for selling his soul to the Devil to receive magic, knowledge, and “the true essence of life.” “Faustian Echoes” is based on that story, or more specifically the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe play in which Faust receives heavenly redemption at the end. The song tells the tale over 21 and a half harrowing, emotionally complex, and utterly moving minutes, helped along at key moments by wonderfully spoken / acted lines from the story.
And that is the difference between Faustian Echoes and Agalloch’s other limited releases. Where those were always companion pieces that never quite achieved the heights of the full-lengths, this is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional things the band has ever put to tape. Surprising as well, with some parts being the purest black metal music John Haughm and company have penned, eschewing the voluminous textures of Marrow of the Spirit for a simplified, band-oriented delivery. The song is a fully conceived and complex epic, ranging from the periods of pure chill to moments of bliss and release, made even more alive by the largely live-in-the-studio recording.
A quote from Goethe’s play introduces the song before blackened riffing is joined by blazing blasts. The music soon breaks for a simple, quiet acoustic line that will have fans thinking they’ve heard these methods from Agalloch before, but the vocals quickly hammer the truth down: Haughm has rarely sounded so rattled and harsh, and the band has possibly never delivered riffs with such unbridled menace. The song twists from the demonic to the introspective and almost peaceful while tremolo lines and leads convey the exact emotion that is required of them when they appear. One particular section even resembles the expansive emotional planes that Dissection achieved during the depressive moments of “Unhallowed.” The first half brings such an utterly captivating and vast wealth of music that nine minutes pass without a blink, but when the song drops for an intermission, one knows that the story has much more to tell.
The second half begins similarly, with a bit of dialogue and then furious black metal. While the tempo is similar to previous passages, there is a reflective tone in the underlying chords, one that is echoed as the song moves along. (Aesop Dekker gets some serious time to shine on the skins during this stretch, too). Another drop is followed by another build before the song slowly brings back themes from the first half, but only partially. Agalloch is too smart to simply repeat melodies and motifs, and choose instead to explore within their previous statements, adding key variations and layers of development. This exploration and enhancement is the musical equivalent to Faust receiving his gifts from Mephistopheles. But like his own destiny, the song must end, and the final threads are woven with foreshadowing and redemption, haunting but blessing the listener with the grace that Faust ultimately received. (Or didn’t receive, depending on the version of the legend; either way the song and its many sections are beautiful.)
It’s only fitting that a band who has never once sacrificed an ounce of their integrity would write such a moving piece of music about the ultimate soul-seller. Perhaps Haughm was once tempted to cut Agalloch down into something more streamlined, and in his refusal was inspired to write this epic. Perhaps he just loves the legend. Whatever the source, his band sounds as alive and inspired here as ever, giving promise that Agalloch’s future may yet be even brighter than their hallowed past, all with a song that will likely never receive a wide release.