[ART METAL] It's easy for someone who grew up on a steady diet of indie rock, folk and pop music to snicker at black metal. Usually the scorn from the uninitiated isn't because of the music's dark undertones, pummeling riffage, or high-pitched, squalling guitar tones—it's because they're scared to like the vocals. Shrieking, creepy and decidedly un-pop, the voices that dot black metal bands from Norway to the Pacific Northwest are intimidating for an outsider to hear without thinking of Isaac screaming from a cross in Children of the Corn. So it was a bit surprising when the advanced stream of Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit—an adventurous, wandering art-rock opus that also happens to feature growling/hissing vocals you won't hear on a Mogwai record—appeared on NPR's music blog, of all places. Is music this heavy and dark starting to cross over to the mainstream?
While local quartet Agalloch probably isn't black metal's equivalent of the Shins, Marrow of the Spirit might be the album that converts people who normally wouldn't go near this stuff. Though it's steeped in the lineage of metal, Marrow of the Spirit—Agalloch's fourth album in 15 years—is almost more atmospheric than bombastic, mixing passages of English folk, towering guitar solos and slow, glacial breakdowns. It's metal as art rock, with epic, winding arrangements, super-long songs (besides the short instrumental intro, the five tracks vary from nine to 17 minutes), introspective bits of piano and cello, and yes, the raspy voice of frontman John Haughm.
Still, it's almost three minutes into de-facto opener "Into the Painted Grey" before Haughm even sings one note. His vocals are just one part of the mix, lost in a stream of interlocking riffs and textural drones. The guitars are the real stars here, from the ringing 12-string acoustic floating through "The Watcher's Monolith" to the spectral, sky-bound leads and wall of noise that carry "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" past any recent shoegaze caricature.
Throughout Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch refuse to stay within any one genre or mood. The band uses extreme, full-throttle black metal as a stylistic jumping-off point to create a work of art that anyone with an open mind should inevitably dig. Maybe NPR gravitated toward this because of guest Jackie Perez Gratz (Grayceon, Giant Squid) and her excellent cello work, or the progressive nature of the band's compositions. But I love to think that people are coming for the thrill of listening to something foreign and staying because they realize that's it's actually a really great rock record. Just don't let the vocals keep you away.
Agalloch plays Friday, Dec. 17, at Berbati's Pan. 8 pm. $15 advance, $18 day of show. All ages.