Great music not only has the ability to render experiences never felt before by the listener but also to paint stark images through the sound and lyrics that it produces.
Agalloch masterfully does both on its debut Pale Folklore, as the despondent atmosphere set by the morose lyrics and passionate performance creates an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
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However, it is not fair to compare the band to other American black metal bands. Although its immensely harrowing passages and harsh production sound has a fair share of early-90s doom metal, the inspired musical ideas and exceptional musicianship mold an invigorating and powerful sound that has never been heard before in metal.
The three-piece suite “She Painted Fire Across The Skyline” opens the albums, with its first part exhibiting extremely melodic dirges mixed with moody time changes and clean parts, painting images of stormy winters and desolate forests, setting the tone for the tracks to come. The second part shows the band in mid-tempo mode, a distorted wall of rhythm laced with acoustic picking, just before throwing the listener off-course with its trance-y clean guitar part. The song climaxes with the third part, with the shrieks assuming a more upfront role and the dynamics of the harmonized guitar parts create compelling passages.
“The Misshapen Steed” is an instrumental classic. Clocking in at less than five minutes, the song assumes a lost soul wandering though the thick forests, narrated masterfully by grandiose instrumentations and well-crafted arrangements. Great progression and inspired melodies makes this instrumental one of the best of its kind, if not for the fact that it was clearly able to depict the image it was hoping for.
What probably takes away this album from greatness is the production. Not that the songs sound like they were recorded inside a comfort room, but the rich musical arrangements and musical flourishing are hampered by an underwhelming production quality. Simply put, the huffed and lame production simply cannot justify the quality of music the band is churning out.
But after listening to “As Embers Dress The Sky,” all doubt regarding the band’s sound is erased. From the introductory drum roll to the passionate riffing, this would seem like another Agalloch song (i.e. great.) It’s definitely more of the same, but with even more dynamic and complex passages. Listening to this song is like treading the bleak forest searching for the secret of desolation.
And the listener eventually stumbles to its beauty passing the four-minute mark. The song dynamics gently mounts into a warm, acoustic rhythm and its sweet, spine-tingling guitar solo, transcending every aspect of sound imaginable. Simply put, this is the highlight of the whole album. If desolation is what Agalloch truly aims for, then they have definitely achieved it through this ephemeral passage that the listener will want to hear again and again.
By the time album closer “The Melancholic Spirit” creeps in with the guitar’s clean and isolated tone amid blowing winds, one cannot help but write this album off as one of the best of 1999. Despite its metal-isms and eccentricities, the experience brought by the band’s excellent performance in Pale Folklore portrays solitude and devastation in the most glorious way possible.
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