Sunday, January 24, 2016

Looking Back 10 Years: 2006

In 2006 I was too busy gorging myself on Iron Maiden and Metallica to appreciate the material coming out at present.  I was that kid acting like the disgruntled old man, saying shit like, “all the good shit came out twenty years ago.”  While there’s not a thing wrong with loving some Iron Maiden and Metallica, it’s a shame I didn’t realize at the time that 2006 was one of the best years for music ever, and now that the decade has passed and we’re halfway through the next, I can say with conviction it was the best year for music post-turn of the century. 
I got to thinking about this because Metal Injection posted a list of albums celebrating their 10 year anniversary in 2016, which can be seen here.

Needless to say, the author left out a lot of albums that should’ve been on there, including: 

Giant Squid’s Metridium Fields
Wolves in the Throne Room’s Diadem of 12 Stars
Ahab’s Call of the Wretched Sea
OM’s Conference of the Birds

…Just to name some of my favorites from that year.  But he did mention the best two of 2006: Agalloch’s Ashes Against the Grain and Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, not just the two best albums of that year but two of the best albums – metal or non-metal – of all time.


While Celtic Frost went out in dramatic fashion by throwing down the gauntlet on just about every other extreme metal album ever written (which I touched on in my last blog), Agalloch carried on and has since grown from a place of well-regarded semi-obscurity to become one of the most beloved and influential metal acts of the new millennium. And they themselves picked up some influences along the way (Godspeed You! Black Emperor on Marrow of the Spirit), and have done what any metal band needs to do to be great: they have evolved.

Agalloch's guitarist and pianist, Don Anderson, touched on some of Agalloch's influences when asked in an interview about Agalloch attempting to expose listeners to a variety of types of music: 

"We really do want to expose our fans to different kinds of music, because we ourselves are very eclectic listeners. We’ve always been eclectic with our listening. In fact, when we wrote The Mantle, we weren’t listening to metal at all. We were very disenchanted with it. At that time, it was a very difficult time for metal. The only metal record I remember John and I listening to was Bathory‘s Hammerheart — that was a big influence. Otherwise, we were getting into singer/songwriters like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and other things like that. Of course, then there’s the neofolk scene: Death in June, Current 93, Sol Invictus, etc. That’s when we really started trying to adapt neofolk into our music. One of the other weird records was by a band called Sand — a record called The Dynamic Curve. John was getting into a lot of electronica like Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada. We were trying to bring all of those different influences in, because we were trying to expose our fans to all of those sorts of different music. It’s rewarding, but of course, we like to provoke!"

- Don Anderson, PhD
Heathen Harvest interview, July 19, 2015

Yes, Anderson has PhD in English and teaches at the University of Washington. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn he assists the typically credited lyricist, John Haughm, in the lyric writing process. The band's lyrics have always been very mystical and enchanting, often describing natural landscapes and old world emblems, without sacrificing devotion to even heavier subjects, like divinity.

I never heard any Autechre, Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada in Agalloch's music, but the folk influences are obviously there. The band used folk to establish its signature sound, and they did it right, in my opinion, without going completely over the top as some Finnish bands I'll refrain from naming have.  And we heard more Bathory influence later on, notably in Faustian Echoes, than perhaps anywhere else in Agalloch's catalog.    

Celtic Frost never wrote two albums that sounded the same, and neither has Agalloch.   But while Celtic Frost's change-ups tended to be more sporadic and unpredictable, Agalloch has taken a more linear evolution that feels more natural, kind of like Metallica did between Kill 'Em All and And Justice....  Each album is distinct in its sound but the artist is never in question.  And, importantly, (up to The Serpent & the Sphere) the evolution felt right

When Marrow of the Spirit came out in 2010 I felt a twinge of disappointment because it was so dramatically different than what's still Agalloch's best, Ashes Against the Grain, and this is even despite the fact that Marrow of the Spirit had the obvious influence of my favorite band throughout, especially on the album's standout track, "Black Lake Nidstång," and was thus stylistically at an advantage. But something about the heavy, polished emotion on Ashes Against the Grain, at a time when black metal and doom metal coincided less frequently, gives it standing above all Agalloch's other albums. I really think it might be the greatest metal album ever written. 
So what years were as good as 2006? It's a hard question. 

1970 - Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Deep Purple’s Deep Purple In Rock
1971 - Led Zeppelin’s IV, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, The Who's Who's Next
1973 - Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy
It goes without saying that Black Sabbath released one great album after another between 1970 and 1975. 

1975 - Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Black Sabbath’s Sabotage, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run
Then there was 1986, which raked in a ton of classic albums.

1999 was a great year too, with Immortal's At The Heart of Winter, Sigur Rós' Ágætis byrjun, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, etc.   

But I don't know if any of those years were as strong as 2006 was.  

Okay... maybe 1973 and 1975 were.