Growing up in rural southern Ohio, especially during winter, usually meant two things for Teenage Metalhead Dustin®: Lots of snow days (road maintenance in the poorest counties of Ohio is basically non-existent) and lots of introspection bred from geographic isolation. Being surrounded by lots of hills and woods behind my house, I’d bundle up and go for walks often with my portable CD player (later a Zune, yay technology!). One album consistently repeated itself from one winter to the next and continues to do so, aging gracefully in the process – Agalloch‘s debut Pale Folklore is my album for every winter, both literal and figurative.
I can’t remember exactly when or how I heard of Agalloch; they were one of the bands that eased me into black metal, particularly as I was getting into more bands from the US on smaller labels. This was before the days of streaming, and I was on a dial-up connection (because I lived in the middle of NOWHERE), so the only impression I had of Agalloch’s music was from low-res 30-second snippets on a very primitive AllMusic page. But I was smitten with those clips and knew I had to have the album. It was in Autumn 2003 that this gem arrived in my mailbox, and shortly thereafter, the music and lyrics became ingrained into my mind and still informs most of my creative decisions thirteen years later.
Pale Folklore was one of the first metal albums I heard that emphasized atmosphere and emotional resonance over technical abilities or brutality. From the opening suite of “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline” to the closing piano figure of “The Melancholy Spirit,” Pale Folklore takes listeners into blistering winter nights with a vividness that few albums have touched since then. John Haughm’s abilities to match lyrical narrative to the instrumental songwriting arc, even with the band as young as they were here, only improved over time as they’ve honed their own brand of “grey metal.” The white-hot intensity on the third part of “She Painted Fire…” (while a little cliche, I’ll admit) is a feat of songwriting that is one of the best in Agalloch’s extensive catalog and segues beautifully into the cold fragility of “The Misshapen Seed.” From the start of their career, Agalloch proved themselves to be masters of enthralling, dynamic songs that reflect their abilities as not mere musicians but artists who present an experience.
While Agalloch have expanded their sound vastly over the past decade, Pale Folklore is a very focused effort that maintains consistent motifs and themes over its running time. Musically, Ulver’s Bergtatt and the first two Katatonia albums are clear influences, although the band’s roots in post-rock, neofolk, and ambient music are still present here. For a debut, Pale Folklore is incredibly mature on an artistic level and has aged much better than similar albums, sounding just as fresh now as it did in 1999. The tracks contained herein stand up well to repeated listens, and to think that Agalloch have only improved since this album is staggering.
Pale Folklore is one of the most important metal albums to come out in the past two decades, not just for establishing the force of Agalloch, but also for myself on a creative and personal level. Passionately written and played, and seemingly timeless, it is an album that fully immerses listeners in rich, majestic soundscapes of pure winter solitude. Essential listening for any fan of atmospheric metal.