A non-exhaustive list of band t-shirts spotted in line outside of Irving Plaza: Drudkh, Gorgoroth, Animals as Leaders, Winterfylleth, Eluveitie, Darkthrone, Burzum, Bathory, Pallbearer, Junius (mine), Death in June (Jon Haughm’s), various completely inscrutable logos.
These are the people gathered to see Agalloch. A guy in a patch jacket with a pony tail hammocks himself on the metal supports of a construction platform and smokes. Despite the heat and humidity, an impressive amount of the crowd is dressed in the requisite all-black, from long-sleeve shirts to jeans to leather ensembles. I’m wearing shorts. I feel a little like a quitter.
Jex Thoth goes on first, and already the 1000-plus capacity Irving Plaza is packed, or at least feels like it. The band plays a smoky, old school doom, Sabbath riffs and thick organ and methodical pounding on the drums. There is a lot of denim. I imagine the guy in the Candlemass shirt approves. It’s nothing new, but delivered with conviction.
And conviction makes all the difference. Frontwoman Thoth (I was a little confused on discovering this too) comes onto the stage cradling a piece of incense she torches all evening, and howls and throws her voice to the rafters. She wears a cape and accentuates each word with a hand motion as she stalks the stage, part James Brown and many parts Halford. On the last song, she walks behind each player for their moment of glory, performing a sort of hype-man variant on Lorde’s scratchy-cat dance from the Grammys. Her performance is totally mesmerizing. It’s shtick, but good shtick.
Agalloch delivers something very different. Since the relative success of 2010’s Marrow of the Spirit the idea of this black metal institution as an actual touring band has become more real by degrees, with this being its second or third (depending how you count) national tour, and Irving Plaza its largest NYC show to date. Where once each show it played was specially curated and arranged, now the band blasts through 21 shows in as many dates. How do you prevent the show from becoming rote? I’m not sure if this is even a contradiction, but Agalloch toes it all night.
First Haughm emerges with a steaming cauldron of incense, from which he draws smaller pots, placed on stumps (one photographer got a lot of mileage from wood puns) lined around the stage. It reminds me of church. This being the Serpent and the Sphere support tour, the band focuses on that record for five of its eleven songs. In many ways this is a positive, as Serpent is a pretty ‘live’ record. This makes sense; never before has Agalloch had not just the knowledge but perhaps the expectation that it would tour. “Vales Beyond Dimension” and “Dark Matter Gods” validate this belief, as both possess the thickest guitar tones and most raucous structures of the show.
Though cliché might dictate I call this concert a ‘religious experience,’ nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it feels like a workshop, the actualization of four top-flight musicians in front of our eyes. I’m particularly impressed by Aesop Dekker, who injects bits of syncopation and levity into his drum beats, often employing a one-and two-and on hi-hat or the ride symbol reminiscent of a disco beat. With his help the band brings out a slightly groovy element live. It feels like four humans, not professionals, having a blast.
Still, when the band busts out its older material it can be hard to deny that Serpent is probably the weakest of the bunch. “…And the Great Cold Death of the Earth” feels huge when compared to the cheaply-recorded original, and the two songs from Marrow, “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” and “Into the Painted Grey” are the most vicious and most complex performances of the night. Even the Ashes Against the Grain songs, particularly “Limbs,” are a blast, more forceful than I pictured they could be.
It is not that the Serpent songs are poorly played or badly arranged. On the contrary, they may be the band’s most alive material, with smooth shifts and very controlled melodies, particularly from guitarist Don Anderson. But as the band kicks into the instrumental “Plateau of the Ages” and so the end of the night, I can’t stop thinking about this. An ineffable something powers Agalloch’s best material, whether the density and orchestration on personal favorite Marrow or the lo-fi moments of Pale Folklore, and Serpent lacks it. As the band generates a massive and terrifying squall of feedback to end the show, it becomes quite clear these songs mean something to it. If only I could say the same thing.