Agalloch were a Folk Metal band that grew a lot of commercial and critical acclaim with their 2002 album The Mantle. Although that is a great album, Ashes Against The Grain has always been my favorite, and I’ve always felt it is criminally underrated. Agalloch’s sound is more melodic and progressive than other Metal bands, utilizing slow build ups to create grand and epic music. The vocals did take a bit for me to get used to, but now I love them. The singer and front man John Haughm has a low guttural yell that i initially felt was too much, but now see that it aims to build on the other themes of their music – making it feel ancient and epic.
Limbs is a great start to the album introducing the slow buildups without any lyrics – 5 minutes with just instrumentation. Lyrically, this album is very elemental – pictures are painted by using ice, wind, fire, ash, etc as descriptors. Limbs and Falling Snow have some of the best headbanging riffs in the album, with the latter having some killer drum-work on it. Agalloch are fond of having songs take on different forms throughout the playback – they’ll suddenly shift tempo and mood then back again. The speed of playing can get fast but it never reaches the level of Speed Metal, and that’s very much on purpose. It’s more about creating an atmosphere for the song, mostly in an apocalyptic setting. I find it very hard to listen to a favorite track on this album and go do something else, I almost always end up just starting the album over and listening to it again in full. This White Mountain On Which You Will Die is an instrumental break, and the title echos the ending lyric from Falling Snow. It’s a short interlude, very ghostly and ethereal, featuring no guitar or drums at all.
Fire Above, Ice Below picks up after the interlude and sounds much like what Limbs aimed to do – a long and slow build up that leads to a big payoff. I think it’s a great idea to start the momentum over from scratch, and Fire Above, Ice Below does it brilliantly. Although front-loaded with lyrics, it’s about as lyrically dense as the other songs, and 10 minutes in length just like Limbs. This song is just epic and massive, with some of my favorite slow headbanging moments in any metal song, as well someone of my favorite lyrics:
“There has never been a silence like this before
There will never be an ode like this again”
Our Fortress Is Burning is the epic centerpiece of the album, split into 3 pieces. Parts I and III are instrumental, part I being the introduction, and III being the noise-filled aftermath of the cataclysm. This is without a doubt the greatest piece on the album, and any praise I can think of seems like an understatement. This is some of Agalloch’s most beautiful, poignant, brutal, heavy, destructive, merciless, and enchanting work to date. Lyrically it is apocalyptic and earth-shattering, and answers the mystery of the title with the lyric
“All of our shadows
Are ashes against the grain”
Part III is an instrumental track much like This White Mountain On Which You Will Die, only turned up to the maximum – it’s got more in common with Harsh Noise than Metal. I think it’s a great closer, only it feels a bit longer than it should be. Scars Of The Shattered Sky (Our Fortress Has Burned To The Ground) is a bonus track on special editions of the album which retreads Part III of Our Fortress is Burning, but this time with a much more uplifting tone to it. I wonder if after the release of the album they felt they wanted to add some bit of hope in there, or maybe planned on it all along and couldn’t fit it in. It’s a good track to listen to if you’re already a massive fan of the band, but it doesn’t really add anything new to the album.
Metal fans will enjoy this, but Post-Rock, Hard Rock and maybe even Progressive Rock fans will find a hidden gem in this album. I highly suggest checking this album out even if you’re not even into metal – it’s not too abrasive to be unpalatable to all ears.