The Winter of Our Content XVI: The Melancholy Spirit

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In February 2015 I wrote that the transcendental qualities of Agalloch’s The Mantle left ‘the squabbles of the world behind to stargaze’, concluding that its melancholic and enlightened character made it ideal winter listening. Given their mighty reputation, I’d be surprised if any of Agalloch’s other albums ever disappointed, or could be described as feel good hits for the summer, but I’d be more surprised to discover that any of them captured the complex ideas surrounding the relationship between man and nature more completely. But Agalloch’s reputation as genre combiners and breakers is not a result of writing the same album over and over, and I’m interested in discovering what differences may lay between the two.

The cover art of Pale Folklore, Agalloch’s first full length album, is of tree bark. The inner gatefold art is of a snow–covered boreal forest against a darkening sky. Viking king Ragnar Lothbrok is quoted upon desiring a hero’s death and drinking ale in Valhalla in semi–comprehensible ye olde English font. The pagan vibe is strong with this one.

The first of the three part She Painted Fire Across The Skyline enters with a winter wind rushing by and a pedalling guitar line. An audacious, clever opening; Agalloch are symbolically walking into the wild. This opening reflects the variety of ideas on this album, which although more successful in some instances than others, is ultimately to its strength. The repeated use of delay on the guitars (particularly in The Melancholy Spirit), the cryptic, macabre soundscape of at the end of Hallways of Enchanted Ebony, and the great ascending and descending melody played on church bells in the third part of She Painted Fire Across The Skyline are the some of the successful ones. The clanging piano outro of Dead Winter Days and the gothic pomp of the strings and monk choir in The Misshapen Steed, not so much. That said, the operatic female singing in the first part of She Painted Fire Across The Skyline and As Embers Dress The Sky came across as hammy at first, but in context began to make sense and grew on me.

Although there are aspects of black metal – the tremolo picking, the rasped vocals – Pale Folklore is too clean overall to think of as just black metal, with heavy sections flowing into a single glassy guitar playing a 3/4 line several times (The Misshapen Steed, She Painted Fire Across The Skyline), a favourite move of guitarists Don Anderson and John Haughm. Although the 62 minutes of Pale Folklore predominantly consists of songs, it is easy to come to think of it as being just as much a soundscape, sustaining musical detail and richness amongst the coldness and sparsity. Given all this, and the arboreal packaging, lyrically Pale Folklore is relatively light on the pantheism, referring instead to nihilism, unrequited love, the fall of man from paradise, suicide, you know, all the good stuff. As a first album it is also impressive in its own right; although not always totally cohesive, and the fast sections sometimes indistinctive, the ideas and bold songwriting hint at the greatness which would begin with The Mantle three years later and continue through to final full–length album The Serpent & The Sphere in 2014.

I have grimly stalked the world in these times of coldness,  Reaper at my back, both Pale Folklore and The Mantle reverberating, and I await the end of times (read: have been listening to my headphones outside and hoping it snows). Pale Folklore doesn’t capture the complex and melancholic ideas of man and nature as completely as The Mantle, but they each exist in their own place on the musical spectrum. Where The Mantle is defined by its acoustic guitars, expansiveness and recurring riffs, Pale Folklore is faster and heavier, not as melancholic and more of a linear journey, one in which we walk into the wild.