The Devil is in the Details

Incisive Metal outfit Agalloch focuses on making the most of the little things



s the music recording business continues to shrink, the music merchandising business continues to grow. In the last few years, one of the most unusual burgeoning merch trends has been bands attaching themselves to alcoholic beverages. You can find wines, beers and liquors whose names and imagery are officially tied to AC/DC, Pink Floyd, The Police, Motörhead, The Hold Steady, GWAR, Iron Maiden and Clutch, among others.

Portland, Ore.-rooted Metal quartet Agalloch just joined this odd club. It happens to take its connection to booze quite seriously. HammerHeart Brewing Company, a Minnesota microbrewery, recently launched “Serpensblod,” a small-run, tap-only beer released mid-June. Created in collaboration with Agalloch, the brew commemorates the recent release of the band’s fifth album, The Serpent & the Sphere.

In a Facebook post regarding the beverage, the band’s announcement included the statement, “Please read for more information about the beer, which we all agree fits with our music and aesthetic.” Just how do you find a legitimate connection between the edible and the audible?

Based on the comments of Agalloch guitarist Don Anderson, the process is a lot easier and more intuitive than it sounds.

“We went back and forth and talked about recipes and things we’d look for in a beer,” Anderson says. “The first thing we wanted was a smoked beer because of our aesthetic of woodsmoke and burning incense live, and we thought it should be a dark beer. I suggested, ‘Why not (age) it in barrels to continue with the smoky wood feel?’ We wanted it to be relatively high alcohol — maybe 8 percent — so it’s a very rich beer.”

“(Serpensblod) is not too different from any other kind of merch, in a sense,” Anderson continues. “We have nothing to do with fashion, but we make T-shirts. Everything we work on, whether it’s a T-shirt design, a hoodie, a back patch, a sticker or a beer, it has to definitely be sincere and honest. We don’t want anything to come across gimmicky.”

“Sincere,” “honest” and “aesthetic” are all words Agalloch routinely employs in interviews, emphasizing the importance of treating its music and image with great care.

Nowadays, the band makes mysterious, nuanced, generally mid-tempo Folk Metal with elements of Progressive Metal and Black Metal, a style of music that’s all about meticulous movements and waiting for the payoff. On the whole, the 18-year-old Agalloch moves at what Anderson calls a “moderate pace,” issuing a new record every three or four years and touring sporadically.

“(Guitarist John Haughm and I) would never want anything with our name on (it) to not be 100 percent,” Anderson says. “We have very high standards for ourselves and our own lives and how we do things. Even my job as a teacher, I want everything to be perfect. You put so much money and time and effort into something that it would be foolish not to make it the best it can be.”

This means always keeping an eye on the particulars, including the gear the band uses, the album graphics and layouts orchestrated by Haughm and even the grammar that appears in materials associated with Agalloch. The image building has paid off as Agalloch has gradually amassed great credibility within Metal.

Natural imagery is also crucial to Agalloch: The band hits the stage to burning incense and fog to set the mood and create an otherworldly experience; the group’s name stems from a resinous heartwood that’s used for medicinal and beauty purposes; and on the 2002 record The Mantle, Haughm used a deer skull as a percussion instrument.

Even the “Influences” category on the band’s Facebook, a space usually reserved for shout-outs to other groups or genres, cites “woodsmoke, snow, fire, wrought iron, fog, rain, stone, moss …”

Agalloch isn’t the type to take a direct route when a more interesting alternative might be available. Anderson self-identifies Agalloch as a Heavy Metal band, above all, but mentions Nick Cave and Tom Waits as key inspirations and says the group has always used films to guide its sound.

“I think the images found in the films of (Ingmar) Bergman, (Alejandro) Jodorowsky, (Mario) Bava and (Jim) Jarmusch lend more to the work of Agalloch than any single band,” Anderson told in the early 2000s. Because Haughm doesn’t have any musical training and can’t speak in terms of chords or harmonies — and both Haughm and Anderson are fans of a lot of the same films — they resort to referencing visuals. For The Serpent, they mutually referenced Lars Von Trier’s 2011 drama Melancholia a great deal, which meant “thinking about long, panoramic shots that are very slow and very black and white,” Anderson says. Those themes do resonate in The Serpent’s final product — it’s a chilly, unflinching album.

In interviews, Agalloch has also repeatedly spoken of wiping the slate clean with every record so as to not directly link one album to the next. This effect is accomplished by spending time away from each other between records. Though the group’s official homebase is Portland, the band members are geographically scattered nowadays, regrouping often enough to not sink the project. Flexibility has created stability. As the band nears its 20th anniversary, Anderson is beginning to notice Agalloch’s age but still finds its perks.

“I’m seeing (our age) in reviews (with) people using words like ‘long-running,’ ‘influential,’ even ‘legendary,’ and it’s nice because with age comes respect,” he says. “You become a kind of elder. You can’t get that any other way besides time, so that’s a great feeling. It does feel weird to think that I would be this old and involved in a whole other career. I feel like I planted this seed back when I was 17 or 18, and then went off to graduate school and pursued being a professor, and I turn around and this thing’s bigger than I ever could have imagined.

“It is definitely surreal, but (Agalloch is) so much a part of my day I don’t know what my life would be like without it.” ©

AGALLOCH plays the Southgate House Revival Sunday with Obsidian Tongue and Beneath Oblivion. Tickets/details:

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