Reluctant Kings

BY Natalie Zina WalschotsPublished May 23, 2014

Agalloch are quick to deflect any suggestion that they are in any way responsible for Cascadian black metal. "We don't really consider ourselves directly responsible," vocalist John Haughm claims. "Windham Hell and Corvus Corax [Port Townsend, WA] were the torchbearers for the Cascadian atmosphere and identity in the early/mid-'90s. Agalloch were merely part of the early approach that evolved from the metal underground." Over time, however, Agalloch have become the band most firmly associated with this subgenre of American black metal, known for its incorporation of doom and folk elements into the traditional blast-beat-and-tremolo-picking of the Scandinavian incarnation, as well as a deep investment in natural landscapes. Records like their 1999 debut, Pale Folklore, and 2006's Ashes Against The Grain are consistently held up as efforts that helped establish and define the genre.

Not only are they hesitant to accept credit for founding the genre, Agalloch are also careful to draw distinctions between themselves and current acts emerging from the Cascadian black metal scene in places like Portland, OR and Olympia, WA. "The current crop of bands come from more of a crust/punk background, which isn't our foundation at all; we've always been a metal band first and foremost," Haughm proudly states.

The performative aspects and theatricality Agalloch share with the new generation of American black metal bands emerged from very different sensibilities, according to Haughm. "Aesthetically, we were very influenced by the neo-folk and post-industrial scenes. I was highly inspired by the use of banners and totems at Death In June, Laibach and Blood Axis gigs. Bands like Corvus Corax and Waldteufel were completely over-the-top, as they would begin their gigs with a procession of drums, fire, horns, bones, totems, wooden masks — like a serious Alpine ritual was about to begin. I love that stuff and appreciate it when bands make their shows into performance art, which of course some of the current Cascadian bands, like Fauna, certainly do. We added the burning of wood smoke at our first gig to create a multi-sensory experience and we've been doing it ever since — that was part of our identity. Nowadays, it everyone is doing that shit, but that doesn't really change our approach; we progress on our terms exclusively."

While Agalloch continue to walk their own path, it's the landscape around them that has bent and conformed to their will. As black and folk metal, ambient black metal, and blackgaze projects, such as Woods of Desolation and Wolves in the Throne Room, have continued to thrive, the aesthetic gravity that Agalloch exude has only increased. As such, their most recent release, The Serpent and the Sphere — a huge, celestial meditation on the nature of creation and the substance of the universe — will eventually be acknowledged as a landmark record that will ultimately define the genre in the future.

However, it was never Agalloch's intention to create a genre-defining record; instead, Haughm states humbly that "we record our albums when we feel we have a fair amount of strong material to release." Still, Haughm does acknowledge that there was some awareness that The Serpent and the Sphere would be a larger and more ambitious undertaking than their previous work. "[We] felt that it was a good moment for us to step away from earthly themes and dive into something greater. Greater than mankind and his gods. Greater than the ego. Greater than everything in this speck of dust we call existence." That sense of personal insignificance in the face of cosmic vastness permeates every aspect of the record and makes it the album the Cascadian black metal scene has unknowingly been waiting for: a distillation of the ecological and the mystical.

Haughm describes the mood evoked in The Serpent and the Sphere as a deeply personal experience. "If you were to look at this album from a human perspective, it would be that of someone standing in a forest, gazing at the stars, and pondering in awe the mysteries of space, time, and our tiny role within all of that."

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