Agalloch are one of my favourites in the blackened folk tradition, so within five minutes of finding out about this gig the ticket was bought and paid for (Just as soon as I’d changed the underwear I’d spontaneously soiled at the thought of John Haughm showering me with his depressive introspection and folksy melodies, naturally). Add into the mix the likes of Fen and Velnias playing support and it was already promising to be more than worth the £15 ticket price.
Underworld is one of the UK’s best known metal venues, perhaps even legendary? Whether that is the case or not, the chances are you’ve been there if you’re reading this, and if not you’re certainly aware of its existence. For anyone uninitiated it’s situated under The World’s End pub, conveniently opposite Camden Town tube station. A reasonably small venue, it boasts excellent sound but ruinously expensive drinks – £4.10 for bottled corona; ouch.
Fen (3/5) began their set almost immediately after doors, kicking straight into set staple ‘Exile’s Journey’. Fen were on form for this gig, giving a tight, confident performance. The crystal clear sound threw their brand of post black metal into stark relief, denuded as it was of the layers of warm guitar and washes of keyboard texture present on their recorded output, making Fen sound an altogether harsher and colder beast than their recorded material would suggest. This wasn’t a necessarily unwelcome change however, as it only served to highlight the competence of the bandmembers. My only real criticism (and that’s probably too harsh a word) would be a suggestion that Fen’s bassist should get closer to his mic when he sings, it just wasn’t picking him up at such a distance and his vocal contributions were barely audible out front.
Velnias (4.5/5) were up next, commencing their set with a doom-laden dirge and some absolutely crushing guitar tone. Their sound dipped its toes into a lot of places, but always came back to being anchored around folky black metal and doom (that is to say, crushing depressive blackened doom as opposed to rock-out-in-your-pants-while-drunk doom). The most pleasing parts of their set were in my opinion the clean, folky picked patterns; many were the times I went to get a drink, only for Velnias to break into such a part and hold me transfixed, effortlessly evoking bleak, fog shrouded moorland and wild, medieval forests, teeming with the unknown. My sole complaint is that it would be nice to see the bassist play more with the drummer and less with the guitarists, but this is a minor niggle, and shouldn’t be allowed to prevent you from checking them out. With their excellently composed and played songs, Velnias are to my mind, something akin to De Profundis, but with better vocals and songwriting, or perhaps Morningrise-era Opeth, but more structurally focused. Definitely worth your time.
At last, it was time for Agalloch (4.5/5) to take the stage, the jubilant crowd practically baying for their presence. It was a nervous start; the bassist in particular looked like a man on his way to being executed, but a couple of numbers in and Haughm was like a firebrand preacher rousing an evangelical congregation: “It’s been far too long, my insane British friends”, quoth he to good natured cries of “too fucking right!” and other general assent from his audience.
John Haughm’s growls have improved over time, but sadly his clean singing still lacks in a live context. It’s not that he can’t pitch, but he seems to struggle to sustain notes that he initially hits and which then waver. It mattered little however; such was the enthusiasm of Agalloch and the crowd that they could have probably broken into a Bring Me The Horizon cover and still gone down well. In truth, for a band that, on record I would consider leaning to the side of depressive side of black metal, their performance was surprisingly uplifting. Agalloch themselves were jubilant, obviously pleased by their reception (always nice to see a band that don’t take such things for granted), and in the eyes of the crowd they could do no wrong, their whole set seeming one long whoop of adulation; a paganistic celebration of life and living.
They still struggled with their traditional live problems of Haughm’s clean vocals and a drummer with a very… flexible sense of tempo, but the band were obviously well rehearsed and used to his speed changes, managing to stay tight. The set was a list of crowd pleasers, mostly drawn from their widely praised Ashes Against The Grain album, with a smattering of tracks from The Mantle and Pale Folklore, and some newer material from Marrow of The Spirit. The piece de resistance and Agalloch’s crowning glory was the encore however, featuring not only my favourite song of theirs ‘In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion’, but their cover of Sol Invictus’ garrulous pagan call to arms ‘Kneel To The Cross’, for which they were joined on stage by Tony Wakeford himself to duet the song.
A fine evening featuring three excellent bands, all of whom complemented each other, excellent sound and an outstanding performance from Agalloch. Their slight performance issues, which might have defeated a lesser band, were overridden by the jubilant atmosphere and Agalloch’s own delight in their performance. The unexpected duet with Wakeford was the icing on the cake, and I think you would be hard pressed to find an attendee at that gig who didn’t leave uplifted and filled with a sense of satisfaction.