On August 9, 2012, the legendary Iron Maiden were playing in Irvine, and as a rock journalist, I sort of had to go. I mean, it was Iron Maiden and this wasn’t just any ordinary tour; the band were dusting off a handful of rare gems, scattering them across a setlist of classics that inspired metal fans across the US to hail this tour as their best yet. Moreover, they were playing at a sprawling outdoor amphitheater in the belly button of Southern California on a warm summer evening—an ineffably inviting backdrop for live music.
And yet, I didn’t go. Agalloch, the mysterious psychedelic black metal outfit from Portland, Oregon, were playing The Casbah here in San Diego, and in the remote but statistically viable chance that I passed away on August 10, I wanted to ensure that my blink of an existence did not pass without experiencing this preponderant act in a rare and intimate live setting.
The Casbah is the crown jewel of live music in America’s Finest City (the city of San Diego’s breathtakingly narcissistic slogan). Tucked behind an overpass not far from the airport, The Casbah holds about two hundred punters within its storied walls and live band shots from venue are among music’s easiest to spot, as the wall behind the stage resembles the back of a black vinyl couch, circa 1978. Through the years, its stage has supported the weight of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, the Melvins and a diverse parade of both local and internationally-known bands either ascending the rungs of the music industry or reluctantly making their way back to the basement. Intimate rather than claustrophobic, according to the venue’s official capacity notice tacked above the stage, the city has restricted attendance to either 120 or 180 persons, depending on whether it was a fire marshal or a vandal who, with a slim stroke of a Sharpie, changed the “2” in “120” to an “8.”
This evening’s attendance is a mathematical middle finger towards either limit, as there appear to be upwards of 200 people clamoring in the outside alley or staking real estate inside the music room. Instantly remarkable is the crowd’s diversity, which more closely resembles a group of people waiting for a subway train than a metal show. Depending on the performer, concert goers are almost always unified in their appearance. A recent Stephen Stills concert I attended attracted a silver-haired army of men sporting a blinding array of Hawaiian jerseys, while the crowd at a Tyrone Wells show I saw in the spring favored females in bright, sporty tops, skinny jeans and hair that appeared to be washed several times throughout the course of any given day. Metal shows attract the denim-and-leather set, invariably sporting black t-shirts, wallet chains and long, straw-like hair. With few exceptions, metal audiences are also as white as a polar bear’s chest.
It was therefore quite remarkable that Agalloch’s audience stretched out in all cultural directions. Kids who almost certainly secured entry via fraudulent documentation stood next to fiftysomething men in professionally-laundered, button-down shirts. Perky Asian girls giggled alongside ghastly-looking black metal denizens in studded leather wristbands. Ethnically vast and encompassing at least three generations of music fans, the crowd mingled easily and peacefully as they waited for the music.
For the uninitiated, Agalloch’s sound is as elusive as the pronunciation of their name. Like their audience, the band’s music betrays a broad range of influences, with the two dominant ones being psychedelia and black metal, although ribbons of folk, doom, post-rock and neoclassical all weave through their sprawling sonic tapestries. Black metal, a sub-genre of heavy metal marked by hissed vocals, buzz-saw guitars and thematic explorations of rebellion and the occult, is one of the most misunderstood, unjustly-maligned flavors of music. Too often associated with Norway’s church-burning murderers of the early-90s, pure black metal references the occult, but its over-arching themes are in fact closely aligned with the contrarian philosophies of punk rock: nothing is sacred and therefore, question everything.
Agalloch’s take on these themes however, is far more lyrical than punk’s snarling swagger or black metal’s defiant blasphemy. Take “Bloodbirds,” for example, the second song of the three-part suite of “Our Fortress is Burning,” where the failures of organized religion are thusly condemned:
The god of man is a failure
Our fortress is burning against the grain of the shattered sky
Charred birds escape from the ruins and return as cascading blood
Dying bloodbirds pooling,
feeding the flood
The god of man is a failure
And all of our shadows are ashes against the grain
To hear these lyrics delivered in singer John Haughm’s spectral rasp is unsettling for listeners unfamiliar with black metal vocals. Against a lush soundscape of swirling rhythmic textures and bright, resplendent melodies, Haughm’s venomous hiss cuts sharply through the sonic fabric, the contrast suggesting neither pure black metal nor classic rock, but something simultaneously urgent and wondrous.
I stake out a spot directly to the side of stage right, and as the opening band’s crew remove their gear from the stage, Agalloch’s tour manager moves next to me and we chat as a group of men begin plugging cables into amplifiers, tapping microphones and tuning instruments. It takes me a moment to realize that the crew setting up Agalloch’s equipment are, in fact, Agalloch. Notoriously reclusive, the four guys are as nondescript as musicians get; all but Haughm have short hair and sartorially, the entire four-piece shun spooky skull-and-bones fare in favor of jeans and t-shirts. Two of the musicians—bassist Jason Walton and lead guitarist Don Anderson—wear t-shirts of other metal bands; anathema to bands of lesser confidence.
Drummer Aesop leans over and asks the tour manager if she could show him where “the stump” is, at which point I realize that the band have laid a number of sturdy tree stumps across the small stage, spaced in between the monitors. I learn that the band open a creative space at their shows by bringing indicia of rustic Portland onstage with them to connect them to the land where their music is conceived. Atop these stumps, Haughm places smudge pots, which he mindfully packs and then ignites, filling the room with spicy, exotic scents that signal the onset of a ritual. The tour manager whispers that Haughm made the incense himself, and when a fan, overhearing our conversation, asks what Haughm uses to make the incense, the manager demurs, “Let’s just say he makes a lot of trips into the woods.”*
Then Haughm, facing the back of the stage, releases his thick, dark ponytail, grips the neck of his guitar and turns toward the audience as the band slowly congeal, instrument-by-instrument, into the sparse opening melody of “Limbs,” the first song from 2006’s Ashes Against the Grain. The two guitars tangle, merge and release into an ascending harmony as Walton rocks in front of me, eyes closed and fingers lightly dancing across the strings of his bass in unbreakable rhythm with Aesop. The song is scarcely at the halfway point when I realize that something transcendent is unfolding; the world outside The Casbah gradually fades as the audience meets the band in rhythmic communion, swaying, dancing and for many, joyously banging their heads. This is unlike anything I have ever experienced in not just heavy metal, but music.
By the second song, “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires,” the venue has achieved oneness. I feel the hair of the guy behind me whipping against my back as he rocks his head back and forth, and I am entirely unbothered, because I am doing the same thing. Two girls in the front row gyrate ethereally with the vapors swirling around them as the band move through some older songs before transitioning into material from their new EP.
Haughm, the only musician with a mic stand, finally addresses the crowd, announcing that this is the band’s first-ever San Diego show and remarking what an honor it is to play “the legendary Casbah.” Predictably, this elicits unchecked enthusiasm in the form of screams and heavy metal salutes. After a cover of the Sol Invictus song, “Kneel to the Cross,” Agalloch move into the final turn of the evening: the magnificent three-part journey of “Our Fortress is Burning,” its lilting intro ceding to Aesop’s driving cadence, pushing thick sets of aural waves to the back wall. This spacious trio of songs, which conclude Ashes Against the Grain, move from honey-soaked leads drizzled over gentle acoustic strains into a hushed Gilmour-inspired interlude that suggests Dark Side of the Moon far more vividly than anything to ever flow out of Norway.
As the introductory notes of “Bloodbirds” glide like red-tailed hawks dancing against the sunset, both the fans and musicians appear to be joined in the throes of something profound. The musicians gather momentum and the crowd push forward, meeting in the swirling, explosive crescendo; and then, like a stone kicked from a ledge, silence falls before the rhythms gradually ebb into the final notes. It is majestic.
After a pause to collectively gather ourselves, there is the eruption of approval that persists for a very long time. The faces of the band reflect more than gratitude; they understand what has just transpired. It will take the rest of us a few days to fully digest.
*On their Facebook page, the band lists their influences as “Woodsmoke, snow, fire, wrought iron, fog, rain, stone, moss…”