Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nature still breathes

Bands toss out EPs between albums for various reasons: to stay in the spotlight with a brand new song, usually paired with some poorly-recorded, studio-enhanced live tracks; a tantalizing prelude of the next platter; fragmented, discarded leftovers to placate the rabid completists, of which I'm stupidly proud to count myself as a member for many acts. With Portland, Oregon folk-metallers Agalloch, it's none of the above, certainly not with their 'brand new' EP, The White. Sort of a companion piece to 2004's The Grey and its noisecape reworkings of tracks off their beyond brilliant 2002 album, The Mantle, the band has released seven mellow, melancholy, (mostly) instrumental tracks recorded in the last few years that wouldn't have sounded out of place on said long player, fit comfortably within their oeuvre and rank among their finest compositions.

Opening with a clip from The Wicker Man, a movie making additional appearances in the final two tracks as well, The Isle of Summer begins proceedings with a haunting acoustic guitar that recalls nothing but verdant leaves fluttering like ribbons in a warm, lilting August breeze, with a short, single fuzzed-out electric enhancing this late exhalation of the season. Twilight begins to arrive with Birch Black, along with a rippling electric/acoustic mix and percussion buried underneath. A sad, gentle, nearly wordless solitary voice echoes in the soundscape of Hollow Stone, a vague hymn to the panorama before us. The murmurs of the flora and fauna and a crisp, rock-strewn stream calls forth the world of the Pantheist, the EPs physical and thematic centerpiece, intertwining lines of guitar, both metallic and unplugged, a veil of drums, the notes wandering as a body and mind purposely lost in the wonders of creation, soon joined, for a moment, by a defiantly sad voice. Now, the rays of dawn, and the uptempo, accordion-accented neo-folk of Birch White, layered below the verse of English poet A. S. J. Tessimond:

The birch tree in winter
Leaning over the secret pool
Is Narcissus in love
With the slight white branches,
The slim trunk,
In the dark glass;
Spring coming on,
Is afraid,
And scarfs the white limbs
In green.

The call of birds, swathed in that green, are the final notes heard before the plaintive guitar and piano of Sowilo Rune, whose whispered vocals and swirling synths conjure up the world of the ethereal, of the magical, all brought back home to the oncoming change with the piano of Summerisle - Reprise, whose notes are that inexplicable alchemy of the happy and the sad, of life and death, the ouroboros of existence that we're all fated to endure.

Sure, these guys take years between churning out full-lengths, but the wait is always worth it. And unsurprisingly, given the craftsmanship of the band, the same goes for 'stopgap' releases like The White, a wonderful collection of songs that explore yet one more shade of the band's deep-rooted interest in the stormy, yet fragile natural world that surrounds us. A request: don't take another four years until the next album, gents. Three will be just fine.


pissed off patricia said...

I believe that many songs are better without a singer. Often the singer's voice ruins the music. The purity of music is best left alone.

But that's just me. Sometimes I'm funky like that. So, when are we going to need the next cake? Maybe one tomorrow to celebrate spring? I'll decorate it with flowers and birds and all sorts of beautiful gifts of nature.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of this band and wondered while reading your post what genre the music was... without clicking on the band link I tried to deduce the 'sound' from the album photo and imagine with your words the tune of the melody. What does a "plaintive guitar and piano" sound like? Of course, my image of the sound from the description was wrong (which doesn't say I didn't like it). There are as many variations and interpretations of words as there are people.

Mary Ellen said...

You just keep broadening my mind, Randal. Thanks, that was really great. :-)

Randal Graves said...

POP, it depends on the piece. Now, no bastard better start singing over a Haydn symphony, for example. But that's probably why I generally prefer longer songs; there's more instrumentation. Oh, there will be a cake requirement on Friday, just a heads-up.

fot, well, the sample being played on their website is from their last full-length, which is more metal than this EP. So neither of us was wrong. Your perception is otherwordly, and I write the greatest reviews ever.

ME, I try, plus I figured there would be about 72 billion Iraq posts today. I'll read 'em, but I didn't want to be 72 billion and one. I've got nothing insightful and new to say on our Grand Clusterfuck. ;-)

okjimm said...

Grand Clusterfuck. You are too kind in verbiage.
Hey, I gotta song for you. Today may be appropriate.
Reference Pete Seegar, 'Waist Deep in Big Muddy'

'Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man'll be over his head, we're
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!'

You might like it.

Randal Graves said...

If that isn't a perfect lyric for the machinations of these assclowns.