Agalloch was one of the most popular bands in the world that no one has ever heard of. In fact, they were the paragon of underground success, building an extremely loyal fanbase over the years through a mix of touring and word of mouth yet never compromising their artistry in the process. Ironically, despite the fact that they were generally considered a black metal band by most, in reality they were really more of a post-rock outfit who employed black metal as one of many sonic veneers that included doom and neofolk as well. It was a big part of their charm; they were heavy but not overtly so, always exuding a certain level of gravitas in their music yet never coming off cliche. In many respects, Agalloch bridged the gap between the melodic and bombastic perfectly, transcending typical genre boundary lines as well as providing a platform for fans to explore more extreme forms of metal proper. Put simply, they weren’t just a black metal band, they were Agalloch.

Yet despite all of their success, only lead vocalist/founding member John Haughm had made Agalloch into a full time job, as the other band members considered their participation more of a passionate hobby than anything else. This disconnect between Haughm and the rest of the band ultimately came to a head, with Haughm deciding to part ways with the band in order to concentrate on a project where all of his co-conspirators were fully committed. On the other side of the aisle, lead guitarist and co-founder Don Anderson is working with the rest of the group to also form a new band. But neither his or Haughm’s project will fall under the Agalloch moniker. In essence, Agalloch is no more.

Strangely, just as the band was coming apart at the seams, they announced that they were re-releasing their first three records on both vinyl and CD with new artwork and updated masters done by none other than Colin Marston of The Thousand Caves studio.

Now if you’re regular around these parts then you know that when a band and/or label decides to remaster their back catalog out of the blue, it’s almost always results in a product that sounds louder but not necessarily better. But obviously since Colin was involved, I knew these remasters might have a real shot of turning into something special, and man, oh man, I was right. But before I dive into Colin’s incredible mastering job, I’d just like to point out that if you take Agalloch’s first three records in context, it shows a band beginning to loose their battle with the Loudness War.

In 1999, Agalloch was an unknown quantity, and as such, their debut, Pale Folklore, clocked in at a healthy DR11. No one cared how “competitive” it sounded so it was mastered with dynamics in mind, not volume. Their follow-up, and arguably magnum opus, 2002’s The Mantle, was a bit more compressed but tastefully so, clocking in at DR8. The Mantle ultimately became a landmark album for the band and catapulted them into underground stardom almost overnight. So by the time Ashes Against the Grain arrived in 2006, it should come to you as no surprise that it clocked in at DR7 with some tracks dipping into DR5 territory as well!

Truth be told, none of these records are really bricked though, so the lack of dynamics, perhaps outside of Ashes, is not the main issue here, which is why the new remasters didn’t really add a lot of DR points either way. The fact is most of their production woes are due to mistakes made at the time of the mix more so than at the time of the master.

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In my conversations with Colin, I learned that he worked on these remasters for over a year and half before ultimately getting the sign off from both Haughm and End. Part of the problem was that the original mixes had a lot of compression applied to them already, with Ashes in particular being the most troublesome since End requested it to be recorded louder from the get go in order for it to stay competitive (For shame! -Dave).

Colin’s first order of business of the day was getting rid of a lot of the pops and bad edits, including fixing some of the strange gaps between tracks to make each album sound more fluid. Sure, you can listen to a random track on any one of these records and get your Agalloch on, but to get the full Portlandia experience one should listen to them from front to back as they were intended. Colin’s remasters makes that even more apparent, with some of the multi-sectional songs like “Our Fortress Is Burning” off of Ashes having a better sense of continuity between parts.

Secondly, Colin went to town on each of these records to bring back some of the intra-sectional dynamics within each track as well. Take for example the song “I Am the Wooden Doors” off of The Mantle, it’s intro is now booming compared to the original. Same is true for “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” where the small cymbal crashes in the beginning build-up have now really been brought to the fore.

Finally, Colin also wound up re-EQ’ing a lot of areas for both clarity and imaging, with all three records seeing benefits across the board. Bass is now particularly meaty, sounding more robust throughout. I also hear a bit of tape saturation here and there as well that gives songs some much needed analog warmth. This is particularly apparent on “Fire Above, Ice Below” as well as “…the Great Cold Death of the Earth”, where both songs now sound incredible spacious and almost vinyl like. It’s a pretty amazing transformation given the source material Colin had to work with.

Please note that both the vinyl and CD share the same new master. So if you are debating on whether to go with the vinyl or CD, I can offer very little guidance here since that answer ultimately comes down to a matter of personal taste rather than fidelity. But either way, you can’t go wrong.

The bottom line is that these records are the best sounding digital masters of any Agalloch release to date, and you would be a fool not to pick them up. In fact, I’d argue that Haughm should go back and have Colin remaster the rest of their back catalog, since they too could probably use his magic touch as well. Agalloch maybe be done, but at least they go out celebrating dynamics in the process. A bittersweet gift for sure, but one I will gladly take.