Heart of Steel: Concert Reviews

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Agalloch / Nothing Concert Review
Portland Oregon, March 6, 2003
By Los Muertos
Pictures and Commentary by Ice Maiden

Note: there were two other bands on this bill, Witch Mountain and Yob. As we did not stay to see them, the review will focus only on the first two bands.

 

Agalloch has been around for years, but within the Portland metal scene they’re sort of like an urban legend: everyone knows of them and a lot of people have heard their stuff, but nobody’s really seen them with their own eyes. Portland is their hometown--the elk on the front cover of their album THE MANTLE is a statue located at 4th and Main Streets in downtown Portland--but for the several years of their existence they’ve denied us the pleasure of seeing them live. When I spoke to John Haughm informally at the Ash Street Saloon last fall he indicated they were thinking about doing some shows. It’s been a long wait, but Agalloch has finally surfaced on the live metal scene!

Berbati’s was a perfect place for their debut show. It’s a spacious club but still quite intimate, and I maintain there just aren’t enough metal shows that take place here. Our merry little crew of Portland metalheads, all of whom came specifically to see Agalloch, drifted in over the course of half an hour on this rainy Thursday night. As Ice Maiden and I enjoyed a few drinks and debated politics--always a bad idea before a metal show!--we saw several of the Agalloch guys milling about, preparing equipment and such, and I must say they appeared quite nervous. This was absolutely understandable, given this was their first show ever and, with the music itself so complex, that much more can go wrong.

(Ice Maiden’s Commentary: Berbati’s Pan has added some unique touches, making this an even more “metal” venue than was previously the case. They’ve added a sort of mock medieval den/torture chamber sitting area near the rear that ads much ambience.)

First, however, came the setup for the opening band, NOTHING. We all thought it a little odd when a member of this band (Don Anderson, also Agalloch’s bassist) set up a card table and two chairs onstage, and it looked for all the world like a chess match was about to begin. Soon the table was cluttered with electronic equipment and various cords snaked everywhere. Behind the table, draping Agalloch’s drum set, was a large white sheet on which images were to be projected, reminding me of Neurosis’s stage setup. Nothing got started late and at first we weren’t aware they had started at all. Two guys sat at the table and began pressing buttons, twisting knobs and doing various other things, causing beeps, screeching noises, eerie electronic wails and other sounds. After perhaps two or three minutes we realized we weren’t hearing the intro to a song--we were hearing Nothing’s substantive music. Both members of the band were clutching musical score sheets and (presumably) following them faithfully, so, however random it may have sounded, obviously it was carefully scripted. I confess, however, I totally missed the point of Nothing. For a little more than half an hour we listened to a lot of strange sounds. No guitars, no vocals, no drums. It was not melodic, had no rhythm or discernible structure, and was not pleasing to the ear. The images projected on the sheet behind them did not aid our comprehension of what was going on. Whatever was going on here, I confess I’m too stuck in the realm of literal, conservative musical reality to have perceived it. The Nothing set ended abruptly, and left us all scratching our heads. This easily qualifies as the strangest opening act I’ve ever seen at a metal show.

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(Ice Maiden’s Commentary: I was cracking up during the entire Nothing set. Having gone to a small liberal arts college where everyone was trying to out-do everyone else in being “alternative”, I’d seen many, many “performance pieces” that reminded me of Nothing. Think “Waiting for Godot”-meets-small children banging on posts. The best parts of the show were that: (i) they were evidently following sheet music; and (ii) at times one of the members was driven into a frenzy and had to stand as opposed to sit to jam his electronic equipment to make screechy sounds. Behold the picture of our friend Dave enjoying Nothing.)

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After a break, AGALLOCH finally took the stage--for the first time ever. The crowd response they received was quite enthusiastic even at first. Right away the band had us hooked with their intro, which involved some very ominous Japanese-style drums, amply communicating that what we were about to hear was much different than a usual metal band, but still very intense and heavy. Since this perfectly describes what Agalloch is, I have to say to start the show this way was a stroke of brilliance!

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(Ice Maiden’s Commentary: I did love the intro drumming. The front-man Haughm forcefully pounded-out what sounded like a war march, while leering at the crowd. Excellent showmanship, though one of my friends leaned over and made the comment that: “That dude obviously was in too much band in high school.” Like that’s a bad thing…)

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Thankfully the band delivered on the promise made by their ostentatious build-up. Everything they played was heavy, passionate and extremely well-done. The set list included “The Death of Man,” “In The Shadow of our Pale Companion,” and probably the best-played song of the evening, the closer “The Melancholy Spirit/Hawthorne 2.” I would have loved to have heard “The Lodge,” my favorite song from their recent triumph The Mantle, but I’m told this may be appearing on future set lists.

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For a new band (new to playing live, at least) and one that plays particularly complex music, Agalloch’s stage presence was pretty admirable. It’s obviously difficult with this kind of stuff to have an energetic frontman running around the stage shouting stuff like, “You guys wanna rock tonight!?” and obviously nothing like that happened! Guitarist/vocalist John Haughm is a much more soft-spoken guy than that, but he did very well largely because it was obvious that his main concentration was on playing the music as it should have been played, and I think the crowd appreciated it. For this reason I doubt Agalloch would play well to a large, diverse crowd who wasn’t already familiar with their style--but hey, I certainly wouldn’t argue if they got some bigger shows at bigger venues! Nonetheless, the low-key intimacy of Berbati’s suited the band perfectly, and they seemed to become much more comfortable as the show went on. After the finale there was a lot of applause, probably more than the band themselves expected. Everyone went away very satisfied, which is one of the best things that can happen at the end of a metal set. With Agalloch’s style of music it would be very easy to go away terribly depressed, but thankfully that was not the case. Unfortunately when our party departed what we found outside was depressing: cold, still raining heavily, and it was only a Thursday night, which meant still another day of work ahead of us.

 

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The crowd at Berbati’s was pretty diverse. There were some obvious old school metalheads, as well as others hailing from other regions of the musical spectrum; but at Berbati’s you’re often assured a generally well-behaved, broad-ranging audience. There was also a surprising amount of people in attendance considering the pitiful promotion that this show received. On the whole the experience was quite enjoyable. Getting to sit down and still see the band whilst enjoying a frothy cold Black Butte Porter is always a positive at a metal show.

(Ice Maiden’s Commentary: The cover for this show was $1! $1 to see a great metal band works for me every time.)

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For a debut performance, Agalloch did smashingly well, and everything seemed to go right from the crowd’s perspective. With a few more dates ahead of them in the near future, this band has a real chance to make an impression on the live Portland metal scene. And it’s about damn time!

(Ice Maiden’s Commentary: Muertos said it all. Impressive set from a band I look forward to hearing more of in the future.)

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