By Avinash Mittur
August 11th 2012, The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco CA: Black metal has always been a style of metal music that I haven’t been able to completely appreciate. While there are a great number of bands that I love in this genre, I find myself in disagreement with some of black metal’s ideals- the big ones being the significance of the bands’ religious and political affiliations and the preference for lo-fi production. Agalloch’s 2006 album, “Ashes Against the Grain,” was the black metal album that I had wanted for the longest time. This album sounded glorious, contained amazing songs, and I didn’t have to worry about whether the band would sport white power paraphernalia at their shows. Despite faltering slightly with 2010′s “Marrow of the Spirit,” Agalloch have returned in prime form with their latest studio creation, the “Faustian Echoes” EP. This summer Agalloch has been touring across the country to support this release, and I managed to catch them at the last date of this tour at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Despite my reservations about their ability to translate their studio material to the live setting, Agalloch put on a fantastic set, and I absolutely intend on seeing the band once more as soon as I can.
This was my first time at the Great American Music Hall, one of the few all ages venues in the Bay Area free from the clutches of Live Nation or Goldenvoice. This was the first time in ages that I actually bought a ticket for a concert online- after all was said and done, I paid $21 for a ticket with a $19 face value. This venue already won my favor by refusing to adhere to the ridiculous service fee standard set by the rest of the live music industry, but the place itself was great on top of that. GAMH featured a large wood floor, multiple bathrooms, some seating on both the floor and the upper level and very friendly staff. All in all, I would be more than happy to patronize this venue once again if given the chance.
I entered the show in the middle of the opening set by Taurus, a drone/doom band hailing from Portland, OR. Their music was intricately timed to a series of images and video projected behind them, and the band, made up of guitarist Stevie Floyd and drummer Ashley Spungin, occasionally became completely engulfed in a huge cloud of fog. It was quite an amazing visual experience, even if I didn’t really enjoy the music all that much. I love doom metal with a passion, but the riffs are what pleases my ears, not the droning chords. Regardless of my own personal opinion, the rest of the audience seemed to love the set, and Taurus were greeted with a large amount of cheers when they concluded their part of the show.
At 10 P.M. sharp, Agalloch’s mainman, John Haughm, began a guitar drone and started lighting candles and incense to go with the banners onstage. Within a minute the entire floor smelt of the woods. Guitarist Don Anderson, bassist Jason William Walton and drummer Aesop Dekker slowly joined John onstage, and the band went into “Limbs” after showing off a new extended intro to the song. As with Taurus, the visual component of Agalloch’s set was spectacular. The band was frequently awash in a multitude of heavy lights, and at times were completely engulfed by fog. When the effects weren’t in use, Don was an absolute joy to watch. He would constantly bang his whole body in time with the music, and always made sure to lift his Les Paul high in the air for solos and fills. His playing was incredible to be blunt, and his rich tone was downright beautiful. The other standout was Aesop, whose titanic fills thundered throughout the Great American Music Hall like cannon fire.
The band’s set was very evenly balanced when it came to their full albums, but a couple of their EPs managed to be represented as well. The title track to their “Of Stone, Wind and Pillor” EP was given a run through, and the band even pulled out their cover of Sol Invictus’ “Kneel to the Cross” from that same EP to end the main set. In addition, Agalloch opted to play “Faustian Echoes” in its entirety. This was the highlight of the set for me, not only because I see the track as a bit of a return to form for the band, but also seeing the twenty one minute behemoth executed to perfection was simply mindblowing. As for the rest of the crowd, “Falling Snow” gained the largest roar of approval when John and Don played its opening notes- much to my surprise, the band played the song far faster than its studio counterpart. This newfound speed, along with some added double bass parts courtesy of Aesop, made the song far different, but perhaps somewhat less affecting, than its studio version. For the most part, Agalloch did a phenomenal job of bringing their songs to the stage, but John’s clean vocals came off as more nasal and higher pitched than he did on the studio albums. It was only because the other elements of the show were nailed so well that this imperfection was so prominent. His growls were spot on though, and he managed to headbang frequently during the many instrumental passages. I was also a bit surprised to hear only one song from the band’s last full length album, “Marrow of the Spirit,” played. Even though it isn’t among my favorite Agalloch albums, I’m sure that many fans would have loved to have heard “Into the Painted Grey” or “The Watcher’s Monolith.”
The sound for this show was impeccable, and certainly jacked in volume. Luckily the venue provided free earplugs at the bar and even with them in, the sound during both Taurus and Agalloch’s sets were top notch. During Agalloch’s set the separation between John and Don’s guitars was absolutely perfect- it’s only fitting that this great work was done by the legendary audio engineer Billy Anderson, who could be found manning the board in the back of the house. Another special appearance was made by Musk Ox’s Nathanaël Larochette, who joined the band to play acoustic guitar on “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion.”
Agalloch ended their superb two hour set with a complete reading of their “Our Fortress is Burning…” trilogy, and left the audience with a long guitar drone, just as the show began. After a quick goodbye from John, the houselights came up and the show was over. Within minutes however, all the members of Agalloch and Taurus came out to sign autographs and hang out with fans. A concert isn’t simply about the performance, but also about little details like interaction between the audience and band- for dozens of fans I’m sure that getting to talk with these guys made a great show even better.
Overall, this show was an amazingly fun way to spend a Saturday night in San Francisco without blowing hundreds of dollars to attend Outside Lands. For only twenty bucks, I was treated to a long set by one of the best black metal bands around, and there was nothing that really significantly hampered the show in any way. It wasn’t the kind of transcendent concert that really takes the experience to a higher level (Iron Maiden and Judas Priest come to mind for that), but it was easily a fantastic show by an amazingly talented band.