With his new band Pillorian, former Agalloch vocalist/guitarist John Haughm dives more heavily into his former group’s black and dark metal roots. Their furious first album is slightly underwhelming.
“A Stygian Pyre”—
Agalloch’s dissolution last year was a huge loss to bear, and only half of that has to do with how beloved the groundbreaking black metal group were. Vocalist/guitarist John Haughm was at the root of the breakup, something he’ll own up to: he wanted to tour more than the rest of the band, especially guitarist Don Anderson, who chose to focus on his academic career. Haughm irked fans by referring to himself as a “visionary,” not only committing the sin of Having an Ego (see: any time Kanye West makes headlines), but also marginalizing the contributions of his bandmates. Anderson was a key songwriter and brought much of the folk element to Agalloch. And Aesop Dekker, a powerhouse drummer who also plays key roles in VHÖL and Worm Ouroboros, crucially filled out their live sound.
To his credit, Haughm realized he had to break away from the Agalloch name and start anew. His latest group, Pillorian, strips away some of Agalloch’s neofolk influence and dives heavier into their black and dark metal roots. That he’s rebuilding is obvious throughout their debut Obsidian Arc. For a less experienced band, the album would be a promising starting point. For someone of Haughm’s caliber, it’s slightly underwhelming.
Pillorian’s strengths come from Agalloch’s familiar comforts—layered, sonorous riffs and tonal shifts as smooth as the guitars are heavy—delivered with more immediacy. “By the Light of a Black Sun” opens with the contrast of bright acoustic guitar and rolling metal waves that was a staple of 1999’s Pale Folklore and 2002’sThe Mantle. The allure reigns brief, before succumbing to Haughm’s torrents of fury, assisted by drummer Trevor Matthews and guitarist Stephen Parker. While there is another acoustic break towards the end of “Sun,” the song sets the tone for the rest of the album, specifically its reliance on more metallic drivers and moods. Like Agalloch, Pillorian still finds a balance between soft and loud closer to their more progressive rock influences—King Crimson and Genesis’ artier takes and Rush’s more hard-rock based brand—than post-rock. It’s a little more evident here, since Arc is Haughm’s most “metal” record thus far. Arc is far from breezy—no interludes, no folky passages—which clashes with Haughm’s evident urgency to get it out there. “The Sentient Arcanum” is the exception, drawing up on Haughm’s solo guitar ambient works, more Fennesz than Fleurety.
The rest of Arc is more furious, but no less majestic. “A Stygian Pyre” feels angrier than anything he’s ever done, an example of spark and quickness working in his favor. Haughm has a knack for elevating black metal’s fast-picked tremolos, revealing their symphonic potential. They are the fuel for Arc’s momentum, especially in “Sun” and “Pyre.” “Archanian Divinity” shows an affinity for Swedish black metal—especially Watain’s slower breaks and Dissection’s frosty, florlorn atmosphere and blackening of classic metal melodies. Haughm is a living Jon Nödtveidt without an accessory to murder charge, one who saw towering might in pushing the melodic pillars of Priest and Maiden to new heights.
While Agalloch existed in black metal’s progressive wing, they were still a metal band, and thus understood the magic of a rapturous solo. Those moments are rare in Arc, which is its main problem. Haughm knows how to give his songs heft, but he’s missing that lighter fluidity that complimented Agalloch’s nature themes. One exception is “Dark is the River of Man,” the closer, where those leads cut through the brooding atmosphere. It resembles Katatonia if they’d honed in on their death/doom sound, instead of turning into goth AOR. “Forged Iron Crucible” also features choral vocals that gleam at what made Agalloch great. Some more bursts of beauty like that would help.
Arc showcases Haughm’s singular metal voice and commanding presence, but it also reveals what a group effort Agalloch was. Haughm is floundering without the right partners; it proves why his “visionary” claim felt dubious. For any creative endeavor, a little self-assurance is necessary for survival. But no matter your skill, with a band, you can’t go it alone.