By Laura Wiebe
The relationship between musicians and the music they play comes in varying kinds. Some artists are clearly intent on displaying their mastery of the musical tools they wield. Others are more willing to relinquish control, letting the music itself dictate the ways it’s conveyed. Agalloch’s latest visit to Toronto was of the latter type, a night of musical channelling and possession, with all three bands performing as conduits between primal source and receptive fans.
Musk Ox began the ceremony with a humble, intimate and passionate performance. The Ottawa band was clearly pleased to be on the Opera House stage (despite the steady buzz of conversation in the background) and they were met by a loud and appreciative contingent of supporters grouped around the front of the room. The classical guitar of Nathanaël Larochette was joined by cello and violin, the trio giving us a song off Musk Ox’s debut and selections from an upcoming one-track/full album release. From delicate fingerpicking to heavy bowing, Musk Ox is, as Larochette declares, “heavy mellow,” an acoustic interpretation of metal’s quietest moments that captures the genre’s potential for beauty and subtlety.
While Musk Ox have a conversational way of engaging their listeners, Taurus reject direct engagement for pure intimidation. Preceded onstage by a droning rumble and surreal video projection, Stevie Floyd and Ashley Spungin performed their two-part Life EP like they were channeling it straight from the bowels of the earth or the prehistoric depths of time. Their guitar/drum magic is noisy, incredibly doomy and loud, with minimal vocals (brief chants or primal roars) and lots of booming toms. Listening, watching, we became witness-participants more than audience members, tuning in, zoning out, or sinking into the immersive scariness of it all. As the final song sank into a throbbing miasma, Taurus left the stage for a moment and then returned – not for an encore, but to start lugging away their gear even before the last echoes of their performance died away.
Agalloch’s interaction with the people who come to see them falls somewhere in between the friendliness of Musk Ox and Taurus’s all-consuming detachment. Their blackish, folkish, progressive kind of metal tends to be more hypnotic and atmospheric than brutal, but they seemed particularly amped up for this tour, brimming with electrical energy and playing maybe a touch on the fast side. Frontman Jon Haughm took centre stage first, beginning the instrumental introduction to Agalloch’s set and as his band members joined him it produced a layering effect – an exponential increase in intensity.
Guitarist Don Anderson could be a rock show all on his own, leaping and thrashing around his small section of stage, yelling out song lyrics (only occasionally in front of the mic), and playing his guitar like he was drawing music into and through it from the far corners of the universe. In combination the four musicians came across as confident and accomplished, but in a way that allowed the songs themselves to lead. Each piece almost became a new entity in performance, like a series of self-emergent extended variations.
Near the end of their set, as they eased into “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” Agalloch generously brought Musk Ox’s Larochette back out to join them on acoustic guitar, gesturing him to the front of the stage and finishing with a group bow. After that they agreed to give us “one more,” a comparatively short rendition of their anthemic Sol Invictus cover, before finishing with an encore performance of “Dead Winter Days.” And then it was over. The house lights turned on, the elemental spirits withdrew, and a sweaty mass of metal fans was left with the lingering, intoxicating effects of musical possession.