AGALLOCH’S FAUSTIAN ECHOES: CAPTAIN JEAN-LUC PICARD DEBATES Q ON THE STARSHIP DARK METAL
Dr. Faustus is a legend from German lore. As the tale goes, Faustus is an unhappy scholar who trades his soul to Satan for all the pleasure and knowledge of the universe. Satan takes his soul to hell for eternity, and Faust is all like, “Shit.”
Agalloch, on the other hand, is a forward thinking black metalish band from Portland, a place Teutonic only in its climate and beer consumption. Agalloch’s M.O. is to incorporate blasts and breaks with shoegaze textures, acoustic and orchestral flourishes, and epic riffage. They manage to do this without it sounding like a wood-nymph BDSM session (Wolves in the Throneroom) or a dramatic reading from a goth French teen’s dream-journal (Alcest). Agalloch are as rich and emotionally compelling as these other groups emerging from and expanding the black metal form, but somehow they never do anything that’s easy to make fun of, which is hard to do in metal generally, and which has something to do with why they’re one of the best.
On Faustian Echoes, Agalloch use one nearly twenty-two minute track to say something about the legend of Dr. Faustus. It’s not worth thinking too much about how the narrative maps onto or represents the song, although the two broad halves of the piece are dotted with samples from Jan Svankmajer’s film version of the tale. If you’re not paying attention closely, it can sound at times like Captain Jean-Luc Picard is debating Q on the Starship Dark Metal. Which is by no means a failure, but probably not the intended effect.
If the concept helped Agalloch formulate this track, more power to them, but it should be known this EP would be just as strong an example of Agalloch’s prowess if it were telling the story of the sleepiest kitten taking the cutest nap. (Agalloch: if you’re looking for help on what your next full length should be about, get at me!)
On their most recent LP, Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch did their best work, which had to do with a careful flow, linking sections of different intensity, combined with production live and warm enough to make sure those lulling dreamscape sections didn’t actually bring on REM.
The same balance is at play on Faustian Echoes. The first half proceeds seamlessly from a blast beat to an acoustic-y theme, and empties out into a rueful doom lament, which is singed and curled by the vocals of John Haughm. These elements circulate and an emotional mass accretes that effervesces into about ninety seconds of epic rapture (about ninety more seconds of epic rapture than most metal bands get to write ever), before the section ends in a wash of dissonance.
The second section begins after another interesting little covo between Q and Captain Picard, with a blast beat whose accompanying riff cycles through unresolved modes. The bass sticks out here like a bony knuckle, nearly as raw as bits of ‘90s rawnless, like Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal. The blast settles on a melody that can support a lead riff into the sunset, and as if realizing that they are still nine minutes away from writing the longest song they have ever recorded, Agalloch jumps into a three feel, and the song submerges into a variety of delayed noodles before hitting what is perhaps the third or fourth truly epic riff, near sixteen minutes in. This time drummer Aesop Decker judiciously applies an undercurrent of double bass, and Haughm’s vocals mingle with the lead. A melodic theme from the first few minutes is reapplied, to further feelings of grandeur and catharsis, an acoustic guitar strums, and Q and Picard talk us out with their thoughts on the nature of language and reality. Fair enough.
It’s hard to argue with this track. For its length it is remarkably consistent, and rewards repeat listens. As a model for their next album, Faustian Echoes betrays no hints. It’s most similar in style to Marrow of the Spirit, but doesn’t reach its heights of ferocity or tranquility. Although, for an EP, especially from a band who prove them selves in longer forms, that’s perhaps too much to ask for.
The Faustian legend is about the danger of compromise, and the preciousness of integrity. If anything, Faustian Echoes sounds a little rote, or shielded. With a higher profile than ever before, maybe they’re retrenching from an artistic formula that has yielded them a higher profile and more success. Let’s hope on their next release Agalloch doesn’t conflate growth with compromise.
(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)