Review by Jonathan Smith; Photos by Adam Wills
“The world is pretty fucked up.”
This was Nathanaël Larochette‘s proclamation during his show-opening performance as Musk Ox in London, Ontario, last Friday night. He then proceeded to assure us that despite the world outside, we in the crowd, standing together in the London Music Hall on a chilly, snow-covered evening, were here together as good people to hear good music. Said Larochette, “We here are blessed.” It was as genuine an attempt at capturing the excitement building in the venue as any other, and I can only assume that there were many in the venue who shared his sentiments. Perhaps befitting Agalloch’s broadening appeal, looking around I saw a crowd that appeared to be a mixture of people ranging from extreme metal diehards, hipsters, neo-folk enthusiasts, those who were just curious, and presumably many combinations thereof.
Larochette’s enthusiasm continued throughout his performance. He stopped at several points to further whip up expectations for the soon-to-be-performing main act. His question “How many of you have never seen Agalloch before” was meet with cheers, re-affirming that the night’s concert was a rare treat for not only Londoners but for Ontario fans from many nearby cities. Agalloch was not the only thing on Larochette’s mind, however. He continued with his set, frequently pausing to chat with the crowd, once to dedicate a song to the late Adrian Bromley (a well-known name in both the Canadian metal scene and beyond), and again to introduce a song from his upcoming album. His final piece of the night, which gained the attention of even those who had been less than attentive before, was an instrumental duet with Agalloch’s Don Anderson. The two performed “The Isle of Summer” from Agalloch’s The White EP, and Larochette even managed to get the crowd performing the children’s chant that opens the song (and that is taken from Robin Hardy’s classic 1973 film The Wicker Man). As opening acts go, it was perhaps the one most connected with the main act I’ve seen in quite some time, and it served as a near-perfect indicator of the vibe that would be invoked throughout the evening.
Next up were Oakland/San Francisco’s Worm Ouroboros, a three-piece which included Agalloch’s drummer Aesop Dekker. Their place as the second band on the bill was appropriate given that their music, a cocktail of ambient, swirling guitars, slow, rhythmic base, and quiet-then-loud drums, acted as a stepping stone between Musk Ox’s acoustic minimalism and Agalloch’s guitar-driven metallic onslaught. Trading vocals were bassist Lorraine Rath and guitarist Jessica Way, and the resulting combination sounded something like Miranda Sex Garden filtered through sudden and intimidating dissonant power chords. Early in their performance I heard a single and condescending-sounding “Yeah baby!” from somewhere in the crowd, but any subsequent opinions of that nature were largely drowned out by the sheer volume of Worm Ouroboros’ performance. A much more accurate description of their music came towards the end, when a loud “fuckin’ yeah!” was shouted out.
It was then time for Agalloch to take to the stage. The stage set-up slowly began to take shape and the smell of woodsy incense filled the air. As the cello notes of a recorded “They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness” floated through the venue, the shapes of the men behind Agalloch could be seen readying their instruments through a smoky haze lit by pale lighting. Unsurprisingly, they opened with “Into The Painted Grey,” perhaps the most pummelling song in their catalogue. Next up was “Falling Snow,” a personal favorite. The show hardly let up from there, with the band playing cuts such as “Limbs,” “The Watcher’s Monolith,” “Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor,” and “Our Fortress is Burning.” One of the night’s highlights was definitely “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” While there were occasional moments when some of the nuance of the guitars were drowned out by lingering feedback, for the most part the notes rung clear (an achievement worth noting considering the multi-layered nature of Agalloch’s studio tracks). Their encore was an amped-up version of “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion,” an exhausting but simultaneously empowering epic with which to close the show. As the emotional dust settled, somber recorded vocals clashed with the palpable excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd. It was one of the best and most hard-hitting performances I’ve ever seen, and judging from the reaction of most people around me, the feeling was largely mutual.
Given Agalloch’s visual, musical, and thematic aesthetics, it’s hardly surprising that their performance carried with it an air of ritual. What was surprising was the way in which they mixed their mystique (and sheer gusto) with a generous amount of humbleness and approachability. Vocalist/guitarist John Haughm took the time to introduce the majority of songs, breaking up music talk with anecdotes such as how much the band “loves Canada very much.” He explained where the band obtained the incense that filled the air (from a lake near Portland). There was also a moment (much appreciated by those with cameras and those taking notes) in which he noted some “disturbing behaviour” in the more frenzied sections of the crowd, gently asking people to calm down and make sure everyone could enjoy the evening. In contrast, lead guitarist Don Anderson was constantly moving, frequently brandishing his guitar as though it were an object of sacred value and thrashing about as though lost in his own sound. He also climbed down into the crowd more than once, surrounding himself with the outstretched hands of his admirers. Bassist Jason Walton kept up the pace, though if he was as physically active as Anderson, I couldn’t see it from behind the wall of constantly banging heads and pumping fists. Aesop Dekker drummed as though he hadn’t already done one performance that evening, and by show’s end he looked both energized and exhausted. Even after a powerful performance, as most of the crowd filed out the door, the band came out to shake hands, chat, and sign merchandise. It was the proper end to an evening of performances that had managed to ride the line between ritualistic art and human interaction, a feat as memorable as the music itself.