Monday, May 30, 2011

Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit

Where to even begin with Marrow of the Spirit? The sweeping arrangements? The calms before, during, between, and after the storms? No, wait, I know, how about the completely over-reaching, poor execution of it all.


You want to be a black metal band (not Agalloch, specifically, but YOU. YOU want to be a black metal band), so what do you do? What is your approach? Let’s assess the situation; the situation being what kind of sounds you want to evoke, and how you want to identify yourselves. Yeah, yeah, you “want to carve your own path”. Whatever. 

So you want to be a black metal band, well alright then, blast away. Take out the low end and crank the treble of your Marshall. Have at it. Gargle screech your brains out. Have the most non-fun on the outside – fun on the inside you can possibly have while playing the sped-up-drumming-and-slowed-down-everything-else, weird brother of punk-rock. I can respect that as long as you understand that upping the ante comes with expectations that aren’t satisfied with mere ambition.
 Let’s change the subject.
 A shift began a bunch of years ago where a few bands known for bleaker sounds began expanding timbres by channeling psych and prog. Either vocally or instrumentally, there were definite nods to, for obvious instance, Pink Floyd. 
With Floyd being the best and obvious example, let’s expand:

An amazing aspect of a band like Pink Floyd is how the musicianship of its members (well, maybe not Nick Mason) reaches other musicians who appreciate the focused approach and commitment to doing more than simply making sounds with an instrument.


I read a guitar mag interview with David Gilmour in the 90’s where he attempted to explain his tone and vibrato. Naturally, tone isn’t something that can really be explained, it’s just something you develop, assuming you have an ear for it. His vibrato approach is taken from the vocal technique of sustaining the sound and adding the waved effect toward the end. Not all players use this ‘natural’ method but can have results that are just as effective, if not cremating (ex. Zakk Wylde, Dimebag, and Malmsteen all use exaggerated, freeway-wide shakes).

What’s interesting about things like tone and feel is that an average music listener may not understand these tools and how they’re used, but at a basic level their application creates a more pleasing sound, therefore a sound with broader appeal.

This isn’t to imply that Agalloch has any interest in developing tone and feel, let alone vibrato, in reference to their guitar work. Which is fine. Maybe they care, maybe they don’t. That said, when listening to Marrow of the Spirit there are melodic lines that sound so amateur it’s distracting. THOUGH, not distracting to the ‘average listener’, which of course is the catch. If the feel was improved, the sound would be improved, therefore piquing more ears.

People want to love music like this. They need it. But it’s too easy to be wooed by the limited everything about Agalloch. Rarely playing live, picking obscure cities when they actually do, providing no news about minor details like, you know, album releases. It’s all some pretty intriguing wrapping paper seemingly packaged by Ian Mackaye himself. Then you open the box and are presented with this guitar lead in the second song that’s like, TOTALLY UNNACEPTABLE. But then the 5th song has an acoustic lead that’s decent and I’m left pretty baffled by the whole thing.

On TOP of that you have this production that’s like, I mean, were you even trying? There are acoustic sections that transition into loud sections with no sense of dynamics at all. The acoustics were recorded completely up front but the shift to heavy has no punch because the engineering was distant, therefore disallowing any shift in volume despite being completely different tonal moods.

What’s so dumb about music and its genres and sub-genres is that a non-mainstream band like Opeth is considered mainstream metal yet completely off the radar to the average listener. As a result of this, metal listeners will delve deeper, searching for bands that are more obscure. And non-metal listeners who like Metal as long as it matches their dumb flipped up brimmed baseball hat will be ignorant to a band like Opeth but happily tow the line of your NPR hosts who latched onto this stuff because the jocks they hated in high school liked Pantera. This is of course no different than most other genres and what we’re left with is Marrow of the Spirit being named Decibel magazine’s Best record of 2010, an album Michael Akerfeldt could have written and recorded from a coffin.