If one thing could be said about Agalloch's return to the East Coast after seven years, would be the intention of atmosphere. Music aside, every band on the nameless tour attempted to change the slightly humid back room of the Sonar into another place. Whether or not that place was a forest, field or the ashes of a castle was entirely up to the band -- and whether or not each band succeeded in the transcendence depended on skill and craft. I noticed this creation of atmosphere walking into the show and immediately seeing Agalloch's table covered with animal furs, with a deer hoof carefully positioned in front of their vinyls. Not even Manowar had animal pelts for their merch tables.
The crowd for tonight's series of forward thinking metal acts differed than let's say a Rotting Christ show. While there were probably more than enough Rotting Christ fans, there was also another element. Most of the crowd consisted of bookish post grads in their late 20s. If I were to hazard a guess, I could assume over half of them have been hiking, have read Steinbeck and have at least four favorite varieties of craft beer. Agalloch seemed to appeal to a demographic which lay outside the traditional metal world. It could also be that the line-up of bands offered a different torrent in heavy metal. Nowhere was this more apparent than the shows opener, Aerial Ruin.
Aeriel Ruin is the stage name for Erik Moggridge, the one time guitarist for '80s thrash band Epidemic. Moggridge commented between songs on the difference in his various trips to Baltimore. Moggridge's past was filled with loud distortion, while Aerial Ruin's future offered clarity and consonance. Moggridge's time and creative energy has been spent crafting a dark neofolk acoustic project focusing on mortal ballads and deep sorrow. Aerial Ruin possess nothing left over from Epidemic's thrash days, except the bitter feelings of a time long gone. Moggridge's voice was made of aged oak and lacquered in centuries of sadness. The dark neofolk songs were heart wrenching, inspired, and most importantly captivating. While some of the audience talked over the set, there was a dedicated two-thirds of the crowd intently listening. This is pleasing only in that Aerial Ruin's set was nothing short of grief ridden brilliance.
Vindensang took no time setting up as the only thing Moggridge had to clean up was spilled beer and a pool of misery left behind. Vindensang is a Pennsylvania six piece apprenticed in the scholastic pursuit of post-metal. Their stage was illuminated by candlelight and short bursts of fog. These Isis disciples construct long songs with no real cohesion other than a twinkling guitar or keyboard drone. The heavy parts, while seldom, came with the feeling of alternative rock band recently turned metal convert. Vindensang's eagerness to settle into the black folk ambient genre speaks highly of ambition -- much like a squire following a seasoned knight. From name to logo to artwork, Vindensang does an impeccable job at mimicry but less than admirable at creation. Their premier opus _Atlantic_ spoke of great potential with flaws only fixed by more years at a drawing board.
Vindensang's set mired the evening, leading me to look at set times and plan the evening. I lingered outside, trying to come up with suitable medieval metaphors for the previous act. I was not excited for Worm Ouroboros, as the band was a mystery to me save a few YouTube videos of questionable quality. As I walked back into the show, I was greeted with the sound of ladies singing soft folk melodies from microphones wrapped in white Christmas lights. The harmonized vocals were almost whispered, as the music was like a fairy falling asleep on a flower. Leave it up to Agalloch and Profound Lore to assemble the weirdest show on the planet. The music, however, became progressively more apparent before both members broke into a crashing sludge drone. While the soft feminine vocals continued, the fairylike atmosphere was replaced with one which can only be created with a Sunn amplifier. The dichotomy between the soft vocals and amplified riffs shared nothing in common with shoegaze rather the slow burn of smoldering doom. The ebb and flow of the devastatingly beautiful "Winter" led to the most surprising performance of the night I almost missed.
Personally, I thought Agalloch would take the stage among a sea of incense dressed in deer skin costumes. This is what kept me from realizing the people tuning guitars were not Agalloch's servants, rather the band members themselves. I thought there would be an elk skull somewhere.
Many things have been said about Agalloch, specifically related to their 2010 record _Marrow of the Spirit_ -- which incidentally reached #1 on Chronicles Of Chaos' best albums of 2010. Agalloch's mixture of Norwegian second wave black metal, contemporary post-rock and pre-Christian imagery has brought them as much attention as accolade. Spirituality was an atmosphere created by the band, apparent by the ceremonial incense surrounding the band members.
Agalloch began their set with key tracks from _Marrow of the Spirit_ and _Ashes Against the Grain_. This is important, as these two albums established the band within the black metal landscape. Agalloch's renditions of "Limbs", Our Fortress Is Burning", "World Painted Grey" and "The Watcher's Monolith" were familiar highlights of the show. When the band pulled from earlier albums, it not only pleased longtime fans but showcased a versatile past. "Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor", taken from a 2001 EP of the same name, presented a more infantile version of the band. The track is perhaps as long as current Agalloch songs, but possessed the band's early doom roots as well as more prevalent neofolk.
John Haughm is a suitable front man, taking to vocals without incident or flair. Whether or not Agalloch wants to be known for their stage antics is another subject for a later time. The plumes of dry ice obscured the band, allowing the audience to concentrate on individual songs. But as a budding black metal flower, lead guitarist Don Anderson's presence refused to be an ancient statue. Chanting lyrics like they were anthems in a beer hall, Anderson's mild showboating and stage antics led to something to focus on between the blistering blast beats. If anyone were to don an elk skull, it would be this guy.
Agalloch's songs are as long as their set. The proposed performance was to be 90 minutes and end around one in the morning. Whether or not they finished at that time I do not know, as I left early to embark on a long drive home. Obviously my early departure angered the spirits of black metal, as my drive back was riddled with traffic jams and a speeding ticket. A rock also cracked my windshield and I ran out of gum for the ride home.
After getting back an hour late with a Tuesday morning of work only three hours away, I looked back on the night. While I would love to say Agalloch's set was worth the 173 dollars, plus any damage inflicted on my car, it was not. It was very close, but sadly not. Perhaps the band would be willing to help recoup the costs of a traffic citation for a night of spiritual transcendence. As I drove to work in the morning feeling like a deer kicked me in the face, I smiled knowing _Marrow of the Spirit_ in my CD player was perhaps the best part of this soon to be wretched day.