Agalloch – The White EP

The White EP

In society, nature has always been associated with calmness and reflection. Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge loved long walks through the woods. It promotes a tranquil mindset in which to create art. Obviously, there was never a soundtrack to go along with this setting…until Agalloch. Classified as a metal band, this trio from Portland has earned high regard for their ability to convey a wide array of emotion through relatively simple acoustic guitar work, eerie keyboard tension and organic percussion. The White EP (perhaps the second part to 2004’s The Grey) does not disappoint as another classic release by this subtle, yet powerful, act.

In 1995, vocalist/guitarist John Haughm and ex-member Shane Breyer formed the band. The group has released three LPs and several EPs prior to The White EP. The current line-up includes Haughm, as well as Don Anderson, Jason Walton, and Aesop Dekker. The truly unique element of Agalloch is how they use natural sounds in combination with their instruments. This has included walking in snow (The Mantle) and a passing train and its warning horn (Ashes Against The Grain). With The White EP, Agalloch use a waterfall and various movie sound clips (for example, The Wicker Man) to once again give listeners an amazing experience of spirituality and feeling without exhibiting amazing technical skill. It is also essentially an instrumental album.

The White EP begins with “The Isle of Summer,” a four minute piece that shows that Agalloch are still in top form. The opening voices of girls chanting while dancing in a circle fades into their standard progression of a few acoustic guitar chords over another acoustic guitar line. It’s a beautiful melody is like looking at a sunset on top of a creek. Next is “Birch Black,” and it brings to mind “Requiem” from Opeth’s debut Orchid with its first dual guitar line. It is a heavier track than the opener, with electric guitar over the acoustic. The percussion is sparse, consisting manly of cymbals bring tapped lightly. A final cymbal shake leads into “Hollow Stone,” which contains their trademark use of extending keyboard notes over other ominous sounds to convey isolation (a common theme of Agalloch). This is another track in their discography that is akin to walking through a deserted house in the middle of the night, with fear and loss surrounding you. The closing sound of a waterfall fades into “Pantheist.” A Pantheist is someone who thinks that God and Nature are of the same essence and power. An abstract God equals Nature. Musically, it’s another acoustic guitar chord progression, but with more soloing than in “The Isle of Summer.” Around the half-way point, an electric guitar chimes in and signals the first vocals of the EP. Haughm overdubs himself singing “ahhhhh” in various keys, resulting in a rather monotone, yet still harmonious, ambient painting over the other instruments. The track fades out with a bass drum idly being struck. In contrast to its darker side, “Birch White” is the only song with vocals as a major element. Again Haughm chooses to simply speak instead of using his standard black metal growls. A beautiful change comes with about a minute left in the piece, when Haughm and his chords cease and an arpeggio melody begins. It is sorrowful and nostalgic, and the birds chirping as it fades into the next track is great. The most beautiful and impressive piece is “Sowilo Rune.” A piano plays predominantly over guitar strumming while a voice whispers and the keyboards once again cascade it all in a strange mist. The piano work again relates The White EP back to Opeth, this time to producer Steven Wilson’s piano outro of “The Leper Affinity” from Blackwater Park. Following this is an electric guitar line with a timbre reminiscent of Wilson’s own band, Porcupine Tree. As it fades, a male voice sample is played over the keyboard line, which is the only instrument still playing. Finally, “Summerisle Reprise” begins. The main melody from the first track is played on a piano this time, and it eventually switches back and forth between itself and another sad melody. Again, the same male voice speaks while bird chirp.

The White EP, as with all of Agalloch’s work, has only one flaw, and it’s completely subjective. As I’ve said, they use a clear formula for their song construction. An acoustic guitar chord progression is almost always at the foundation, and they like to use the same chords. Essentially, some may find that The White EP doesn’t contain enough variation or distinctiveness. The same sounds and instrument tones are used throughout. Surprisingly, the only other complaint that can be made with their previous work doesn’t appear on this disc. Haughm’s vocals are nothing to write home about. He is either fairly bland when speaking and humming, or, when doing a growl, is sounds like he has a hairball in his throat. They aren’t bad vocals; they just aren’t very exciting or melodic. At first this may seem like they are only decent musicians and do the best with limited skill. However, this is not the case. Agalloch have never tried to be wizards of their tools. They have never aimed for complexity. Their strength and purpose is to make the listener feel something, as if they were alone in Agalloch woods reflecting on death, love and loss. Their melodies are simple but effective and beautiful. Either you get them or you don’t.

In the world of metal, noise is almost always guaranteed. Very few acts know how to tone it down and stop trying to invoke a satanic level of force and rage. It is rare to find a group of guys who know that softness is just as powerful as harshness, that the human experience of everyday life is an involving and unifying thing. Agalloch doesn’t want to scare their audience with loud riffing and a double bass drum. They want us to light some candles in the dead of winter by an abandoned cabin and just experience nature and all we’ve been through thus far in our existence. The White EP, like all of their work, is the perfect soundtrack for this.