Agalloch - Grey Metal Rising

By Dr. Abner Mality

 Before we go any further, do yourselves a favor and watch the following video clip:

Though this is an edited version of a nine-minute track, this gives you some idea not only of Agalloch's haunting sound, but of the majestic natural setting that inspires much of their music. No, the images are not from Norway, but rather from the Pacific Northwest...arguably the most beautiful area of the continental United States.

This Seattle band has an uncanny ability to evoke mental images of nature and the mood of ancient times with their dreamy, austere music. Are they heavy metal? I would say yes. Band member JWW would perhaps disagree. The ultimate decision must be made by the listener. I will say this: Agalloch's latest record "Ashes Against the Grain" is their best yet and one that might make even the most bestial of metalheads more thoughtful and contemplative.

Join JWW and myself as we now travel through the mist-filled vales of Agalloch...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I've been curious about the band name. Is it a person, place or thing?

JWW: Agalloch is a type of wood. The name is actually taken from agallocum. It's a very fragrant wood that incense is made from. Some people have said that the first version of the Bible was written on agallocum wood.

WC: I thought it might be the name of a place.

JWW: A lot of people think it's a Tolkien reference of some sort, but it's not. It's a fragrant wood.

WC: I remember reading an old interview with you in an issue of "Metal Maniacs" magazine several years back. At that time, they asked you if you considered Agalloch a metal band and you said no, you really didn't think it was. Would you make the same answer now, in reference to "Ashes Against the Grain"?

JWW: That's a great question. For us, Agalloch is so hard to pin down. First of all, I hate the term "metal". I think it's way too broad. Most of what people call metal I don't like. When the average person on the street hears the term metal, they think of bands I have no affiliation with whatsoever. So it's hard to label my music as "metal" because there's so much metal I don't enjoy whatsoever. But I do think "Ashes..." has more metal elements. Really, I feel the way we approach metal as a music form is fairly unique. I think a lot of the things that make metal "metal" we don't do. A track like "Limbs" has much more to do with Godspeed You Black Emperor or post-rock than Iron Maiden or Venom or what have you. I think you can call it metal but we approach it from a non-metal standpoint. We all listen to metal and we all came from a metal background. The rest of the guys grew up on Iron Maiden and that kind of thing, but I can't stand that stuff. I grew up on death metal and punk, that's where my frame of reference comes from. So this is a real sticky subject. The term "grey metal" has been used to describe us, I like that. I prefer to call Agalloch a dark rock band.

WC: "Ashes Against the Grain" does seem to be quite a bit more metallic than "The Mantle", your last record.

JWW: Especially tracks like "Falling Snow" and "Not Unlike the Waves" have that metal element to them. I have a hard time with it because metal can mean anything from Poison and Sabbath to Gorgoroth or Dying Fetus.

WC: I consider metal a lot like jazz these days. There's many kinds of jazz and now there's many kinds of metal.

JWW: I think for some people metal is something they really take to heart. Like old school black metallers, who think black metal is about the ideology and the lyrics, not so much the music. I think people from the early days of metal would be offended by our style. It's just a term I'm very uncomfortable with and I try to stay away from as much as possible, although obviously, it comes back to that a lot. That's fine, but it's misleading. If I tell somebody on the street that I'm in a metal band, they certainly wouldn't think of something like Agalloch.

WC: They'd think of Slipknot.

JWW: Exactly. They'd think Slipknot. When I met my wife, I was in Agalloch and Sculptured and I told her I was a metal musician. The first thing she thought of was Warrant. (laughter) I think it's somewhat limiting to call yourself a metal band. For us, that's a point of departure and we go where we want from there.

WC: I often see the band's music described as melancholy and sad. I thought there were some parts of "Ashes Against the Grain" that were actually kind of uplifting. Do you think you're a sad band or do you consider that misleading as well?

JWW: I think it's misleading. I don't think it's as misleading as the term "metal" but I think up until now, we've primarily been a dark and depressing band. I don't think "Ashes..." is that different, really, but I definitely agree that there are glimmers of hope in "Ashes..." I don't think we really had that before. "Pale Folklore" and "The Mantle" were pretty much all depressing. But there are elements on the new album that give you that uplifting feeling, that moment of hope, especially the beginning of "Falling Snow". That's a very powerful passage. I think it makes the end of the album more effective. It's not just one end of the spectrum. I think "Ashes..." has hope and, front to back, it makes the album more emotionally devastating, for lack of a better term. It takes you up, it takes you down. If you're down the whole time, it doesn't have the same impact as when you have those moments of hope. By the end of the final trilogy, during "The Grain", all hope has been extinguished.

WC: Another feeling I get from your music is a feeling of ancientness, of olden times and elder days. Do you feel more connected to the ancient world than the modern one?

JWW: Uh, no. I think that a lot of the ancient world intrigues me. John, on the other hand, is really fascinated by that stuff. We all are, to a degree. I like a lot of it, but really, I feel a connection to Tolkien's Middle-Earth. I don't why, but it intrigues me. We all have an interest in that and like to read up on it, as well.

WC: I'm disenchanted with the way things are today, but I realize if you go back in time 500 or 600 years ago, most people had really brutal and grim lives. It wasn't all like dancing through the forest...

JWW: Yeah, I definitely agree. There are a lot of aspects of life long ago that appeal to me but I would like have a terribly short and brutal life. I'm 31 years old. I wouldn't likely live much longer, if I was living 600 years ago. I think the people who really pine for those days are misled. They read too many fantasy novels and think "oh, you're so free" and whatever. They have the wrong idea about the way things were. To get to the point, that ancient stuff appeals to us but I'd never say that we'd want to go back and live in those times.

WC: What actually does the term "Ashes Against the Grain" refer to?

JWW: It's got a couple of different meanings. The whole album is based around a story that John wrote that was meant to be a modern-day folk tale. If you read the lyrics, they're part of this long story that he wrote. "Ashes Against the Grain" is a line from the story, but it's also taken on another meaning. "Ashes" refers to decay and disintegration. "The Grain" is kind of our approach to music or to metal. It's a little bit of a rebellious statement.

WC: It took quite a while to get this record out. What was the creative process like for the album?

JWW: Well, it always takes us a long time.We want to make sure we do the best we can and put our all into it. It takes a while. After "The Mantle", we started to play live and that took up some time. Our outside lives took up some time, too. Don and I both got married, I had a kid, I've been working. Life outside the band gets in the way. But the actual process of the album takes a long time,too. John comes up with the framework, he demos it at home and then he gives the rest of us CD-Rs. Then we write out parts on those CD-Rs and send them back. We don't even really play together until we're in the studio. Once we get to the studio, we take all our different ideas, put them together and re-record things and do a lot of writing. And then we come back together and learn what we recorded as a band.

WC: Does improvisation takes some sort of a role in this?

JWW: No, actually I wouldn't. I wouldn't call it improvisation because we're so meticulous about everything that we do. I'd say experimentation is a better term. Everything you hear on an Agalloch record is planned out. Improvisation is the wrong word, but there's definitely a lot of writing and re-writing. We'll go home with a mix of the album and listen to it and listen to it again. We tweak's a long process. We really don't want to finish an album and a year later, go back and say "oh man, if we just would have done this..." I'm thankful we do it that way, because if we didn't, "Not Unlike the Waves" would be a completely different song and "Falling Snow" would be a completely different song. The rough versions of those songs were totally different than what's on the record.

WC: The album ends with a three-part trilogy. What was the inspiration for ending things this way?

JWW: Basically, the music tries to go along with the story that John wrote. So the end of the story reflect the album title. It's pretty much a product of decay and erosion. We wanted the second part of the trilogy to build up and crescendo and then decay into chaos. That's the best way we could represent the story.

WC: When you do an ambient track like "The Grain" that ends the album, how do you know when to pull the plug on it? Now we're getting a lot of "drone" groups and some of them bore the living hell out of me.

JWW: Me, too. I've been familiar with noise and ambient music for many years and I've done some of it myself. I didn't make this particular piece. The drummer Chris did. But we're all familiar enough with that type of music to know what feels right. The thing is, the response is ambiguous. Some people have said it's too long. I've heard others say they wish it was longer. It's one of those things that provokes people. I feel the length is appropriate and we cut it off at the right time.

WC: It's all up to the listener's individual taste. In the last couple of years, we've gotten some bands where tracks can last 25 minutes without a single beat and that's sort of what I'm talking about.

JWW: A lot of people like that kind of thing, too.

WC: I like some of it,too. Once in a while, I find something that's completely unlistenable...

JWW: The thing with Sunn 0))) and some of the newer drone bands is that they are blurring the lines between electronic ambience and doom metal, which I can really appreciate. A lot of it is something I wouldn't listen to, but a lot of people do it really well. I definitely appreciate the approach, but it's not necessarily for every one.

WC: I guess your mood has a lot to do with it.

JWW: Yeah, and I think experiencing it live helps, too. Watching a band like Sunn 0))) live is an experience. I can relate to that,too, being a noise musician myself. I like hearing live more than experiencing it on record.

WC: I've heard Sunn 0))) say "Warning! This music performed live has been known to cause headaches and bowel upset!" (laughter)

JWW: Yeah, yeah! I've heard that,too, like people saying they felt their ribcages vibrate during a show. I can appreciate that,too. It's like the early days of Godflesh, when they claimed they could make women orgasm with the right vibration...whether that's true or not, I don't know, but I can definitely appreciate experimenting on listeners.

WC: It's seems true to say that Agalloch is a band with not a lot of vocals. Are vocals incidental to the music or are they as important as everything else?

JWW: They're definitely as important as everything else. I guess we try to stay away do I say this? We approach vocals from the standpoint of "what does this song need?". A lot of bands approach it the other way around. They say "we need to have drums, bass, and guitar in every frickin' song". I don't think that's the right way to go about it. I think you should say, "what does this song need?" Not every song needs vocals or needs them all the time.

WC: Your stuff is definitely not "verse-chorus-verse"...

JWW: No and we don't really want to be doing that, either. We approach things differently than a lot of people do. A lot of tracks on "The Mantle" were more vocal oriented, but when we released "The Mantle", a lot of people said "oh, there's so many vocals on there, why'd you do that?" We never really even thought about it. There's places that don't need vocals and so we don't put them there.

WC: I don't know if I'd even describe John's vocals as harsh. I don't get the feeling of evil or destruction out of them.

JWW: Those vocals are an important part of our sound. A lot of bands are starting to get rid of the harsh vocals. I can appreciate that, but it's just another texture, another paint on our musical pallette. I don't see a reason to get rid of it. People claim it's "maturing" to get rid of harsh vocals, but that seems like a ridiculous statement to me. It's just another style.

WC: It's like saying you don't think you can use harsh vocals in a mature way.

JWW: Exactly, And I think it's ridiculous. I can understand people not liking harsh vocals...I know it's something a lot of people can't get behind...but getting rid of it and claiming the band is maturing because of it doesn't make any sense. We look at everything in terms of sound. Harsh vocals have just as much right to be used as a bass or a drum. We write songs and we use what the song calls for. "Not Unlike The Waves", which doesn't have a lot of harsh vocals, is different in feel from tracks like "Limbs" so we felt the clean vocals were appropriate for that one.

WC: Maybe this question is premature, but how do you see Agalloch evolving in the future?

JWW: That's really hard to say. Right now, we've been thinking about that a little bit but we've been pretty busy with the new album and the stuff that goes with it, like interviews and concerts and out lives. We're gearing up for a European tour . We have some ideas but it is a little premature to say exactly what we're going to be doing.

WC: As far as touring goes, will you be headlining?

JWW: No, actually we'll be opening up for November's Doom. They're great guys.

WC: That's a combination that makes sense.

JWW: Yeah, it will be nice. We've toured with them before, when we were both supporting The Gathering. It will be us, November's Doom and Thurisaz in Europe.

WC: Any plans for the States?

JWW: No. We had a few offers, but our lives are so hectic. Don's a professor at the University of Washington so it's really hard for him to get away. I've got a family, I've got a year-old daughter and another one on the way. We've got a really strict schedule to adhere to. It's basically a miracle when we get to play at all. All of our schedules have to align. We get offers all the time. But it has to be something that fits into our schedule and it also has to be worth it. We wish we could do more live stuff but we're really, really busy people. People should come to our shows when we play because most likely it won't happen again for a long time. We did a show here in Portland and another one in San Francisco. We'll be opening up for Katatonia and Moonspell here in Portland in November. After that, we have no plans for playing live and we might not for years.

WC: What was the last CD or record you picked up because you wanted to listen to it?

JWW: You know, it's funny, I was thinking about this the other day. This year there's been a lot of good records. The ones that really stand out for me are the new Estradasphere...I love those guys and their new album ("Palace of Mirrors") is completely amazing. The new Satyricon I feel is extremely strong. The new Daylight Dies blew me away. The new Mike Patton project Peeping Tom blew me away as well, it's one of my favorite records of the year. All this stuff is way better than anything that came out last year, I kind of feel last year was kind of a bummer for releases, but this year is really strong.

WC: That's a pretty wide listening range.

JWW: Well, I listen to a lot of stuff. People tell me I worship Mike Patton and that's true. He's the yardstick I measure myself by and I just adore everything that he's involved with. Peeping Tom was something I was looking forward to for years and it just completely blew me away. Katatonia has also been a big influence on me for many, many years and I'm really happy with the new Satyricon, too. They did better than they have on the last couple of records.

WC: What was the last live gig you caught because you wanted to check it out?

JWW: That's a good question. I usually don't have a lot of time for live shows, but for the last week, my wife has been out of town with the kids and I've had a little more freedom. I went and saw Ludicra twice this week. They've been friends of ours for a while. They put on a great show. Actually, I've seen them three times...once in San Francisco and twice up here in Portland.

WC: That's John Cobbett's band?

JWW: Yeah!

WC: I have yet to hear Ludricra but I got the new Harmmers of Misfortune (also featuring Cobbett) and I really love that band.

JWW: I haven't heard the new one ("The Locust Years") yet but yeah, that's another one I've got to check out. Ludrica is great. They're spectacular live and really, really great people and they're doing things for the right reasons. I love it because they have kind of a new take on black metal. You hear Ludrica and you don't mistake it for anybody else.

WC: In the history of Agalloch, has there ever been any Spinal Tap moment that you'd like to share with the readers?

JWW: (chuckles) Well, there's got to be a bunch. The one that pops into my mind may not necessarily be a Spinal Tap moment...well, I guess it was. We were playing one of our rare shows in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and we were doing the normal set that we've been doing. We came up for an encore and played "Desolation Song". We get a lot of requests for "Desolation Song", it's one of people's favorite songs. It will be John singing and playing acoustic guitar while the rest of us sit and have a beer or whatever. It would have been great except for the fact that the sound man was having issues all night. So all through this nice acoustic piece, we had terrible, terrible feedback and the sound man couldn't get rid of it. We had squealing and screeching feedback the whole time we were doing this acoustic piece and it really did ruin the whole thing. It's unfortunate because it really wasn't our doing. I kind of feel we left a turd with the audience.

WC: The perils of live rock and roll...

JWW: Yeah, that's the problem. We have other problems like that, but that really stood out because if you're playing with a full band, a little feedback here and there is no big thing. But one person singing with acoustic guitar and it's a different story!

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