I have waited nine years to see Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch in concert, since I first purchased their second full-length The Mantle, so Agalloch’s Tuesday night show at Le Poisson Rouge was a greatly anticipated event for me and the other Agalloch fans who finally got the chance to see the famously reclusive group. It was no surprise that the show at Le Poisson Rouge, Agalloch’s first ever New York City gig in their fifteen-year existence, was sold out. I like to joke that the band plays Romania more frequently than they do the US and, while this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it is not much of one; Agalloch singer and mastermind John Haughm quipped after the band’s first song that, “We’ve played a tiny village in Belgium three times, but we’ve never played the grandest city in America until now.”
With so much hype surrounding the show, the pressure was on Agalloch to deliver on a grand scale. I arrived after Portland-based dark ambient drone/noise artist Daniel Menche had delivered what was by all accounts an incredibly surreal performance, blasting Le Poisson Rouge’s back music room with a twenty minute noise loop supplemented with screeches, howls, and the vibrations from his voice manipulated through some strange sort of microphone. Before lead support Worm Ouroboros took the stage, the excitement of the crowd was tangible. Conversation centered on the upcoming Agalloch set and fans flocked to Agalloch’s merch table to get their hands on the band’s much sought after limited edition merchandise (I purchased a double LP of the WhiteDivisionGrey album for $30, copies of which are already on eBay for nearly $200—as for the incredible tour poster designed by Aaron Horkey, they had sold out the previous night in Baltimore, barely halfway through the tour). I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show with more buzz.
Worm Ouroboros, Agalloch’s Profound Lore label mates and also fellow Portlanders, were perhaps the ideal band to open for Agalloch. The three-piece features core members Jessica Way on guitar and vocals, Lorraine Rath on bass and backing vocals, and Agalloch drummer Aesop Dekker filling in on drums, taking on an impressive work load for the tour. The band plays a haunting blend of delicate melodies with Way and Rath harmonizing sweetly and sadly over gloomily plucked tunes, and moments of crushing, thick grooves. At Tuesday’s show Way and Rath, with unkempt hair, pale faces, and soft voices, vaguely conjured notions of witches, sirens lulling you to sleep with their beautiful songs before launching into their devastating doom-laden heavier moments. It was nice to see women in a metal band as the driving creative force on stage and not an afterthought put into a sultry outfit and relegated to a keyboard.
Though Worm Ouroboros had greatly impressed, the crowd was clearly there for Agalloch. Chants of “Agalloch! Agalloch!” welcomed the band to the stage, which featured a backdrop of the Agalloch logo and was flanked by black flags emblazoned with the silver elk from their latest album Marrow of the Spirit’s CD art. The instrumental “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness,” the cello-centric (performed by Jackie Perez-Gratz of Grayceon) opener from Marrow, came through the speakers as the band prepared onstage, Haughm not visible behind the crowd as he kneeled to inspect his effects. The song “Weight of Darkness” is a lead-in to “Into the Painted Grey,” Agalloch’s most furious, blast beat-laden song to date, and an obvious song with which to open the concert. I was surprised that the band featured a period of a few minutes of controlled feedback in between “Weight of Darkness” and “Painted Grey” and the crowd was kept waiting, anticipating the inevitable kick that would announce “Painted Grey.” Musically on “Painted Grey,” the band was very tight and successfully replicated the aggressiveness of the exceedingly complex song, but Haughm’s vocals were often lost amidst the raging guitars and drums. Whether this was simply because of the nature of “Painted Grey,” or because the vocals needed to be adjusted, it was not a problem on subsequent songs.
The audience roared when Haughm announced that the next song would be from Ashes Against the Grain and roared again when the first few notes of “Falling Snow” were heard. The fan favorite is infectiously catchy and was tight live, with its picked groove and frequent and awesome breakdowns that had the crowd rhythmically chanting “Hey! Hey!” “Falling Snow” also offered the first glimpse of Haughm’s clean, haunting, and droning vocals, which, much to my relief, were crisp and clear in a live setting. Other favorites followed, including “The Watcher’s Monolith” off of Marrow and the throwback “Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor” from their debut LP of the same name. I was somewhat surprised to hear Haughm refer to “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” as one of his favorite songs he’s ever written—not because I have anything against the song, which I find incredible, but rather because I always assumed that he would prefer songs of the ilk of “Black Lake Nidstång.”
Closing the show with “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” seems fitting in retrospect, though I had held out hope to hear “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms.” Both are epics from The Mantle and either would work as a closer, though perhaps the slower, more contemplative nature of “Shadow” is what Agalloch was going for on Tuesday night. They had delivered an epic show and I do not think a soul left the venue feeling let down or cheated.
Agalloch’s show was not just monumental in the sense that it was their first show in New York—it also was the first black metal concert to be sponsored by NPR, who included Marrow of the Spirit on their Top 50 of 2010 list. Marrow was by no means their breakthrough album, though it did bring the band to a much wider audience than ever before. This is probably thanks to the coverage of media outlets such as NPR and Stereogum, whose rightly celebrated Haunting the Chapel writer Brandon Stosuy named the album his best of the year, as did I. The new popularity had the added benefit of bringing greater media coverage to this concert in particular and I am happy to provide a link to NPR’s recording of the entirety of the concert audio here, available for download (as is Worm Ouroboros’ set). Video of Agalloch performing “Falling Snow” and other songs from the show is available on Youtube and “Into the Painted Grey” and “Shadow of our Pale Companion” are available on Vimeo courtesy of Unartig.
The wait to see Agalloch live, though long, was worth it. They were everything I had hoped for: epic, polished, atmospheric, and artistic. Though I usually photograph the bands I cover, I chose not to for this show, instead wanting to take in the music and soak up the experience. The next time Agalloch comes anywhere near New York I will be there.
They Escaped the Weight of Darkness
Into the Painted Grey
The Watcher’s Monolith
Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor
Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires (Excellent live Youtube footage)
Our Fortress is Burning…II: Bloodbirds
Dead Winter Days
In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion
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