This first-round contest pits Portland-based black metal veterans Agalloch against Norwich-based thrash newcomers Shrapnel.
Agalloch enters the fray with a nearly sixty-minute platter of nine songs spanning the range from two towering ten-minute-plus electric epics to three brief acoustic guitar interludes written and performed by Nathanael Larochette of the folk band Musk Ox. Despite this diversity, Agalloch have created a cohesive whole that, while not a concept album in the sense of advancing a single narrative, varies narrowly between the paired themes of questioning the nature of the universe and identifying one's place in it. Packed with astronomical terms and metaphors, the album comes off as spacey and expansive lyrically as it does musically. However, it is the music that really distinguishes this work. The skilled blending of folk melodies with black metal and 1970s progressive rock elements recalls the recent work of Enslaved but maintains a safe distance from other contemporaries. The haunting lead guitar work continually creates phrases that stay with the listener long after the album is done. In an age where the individual track has become the basic unit of music, Agalloch have produced a work that demands to be consumed as an album.
While Agalloch look to the 1970s for some of their inspiration, Shrapnel are content to set the time machine controls for the 1980s and then engage the autopilot. The result is a technically competent and highly energetic salad bowl of Bay Area thrash that is immediately engaging for fans who remember or have come to know the bands of that era fondly. In addition, when Shrapnel borrow or emulate, with the exception of the ubiquitous Slayer-worship, they tend to avoid obvious references to the Big Four and instead take from lesser known but equally deserving acts such as Exodus (22), Testament (The Wake) and Death Angel (Poison the Mind). When striking out on their own, Shrapnel do well but not often. Pseudocommando is a stand out track in this vein, both for its hypnotic main riff and its controversial subject matter (a mass shooting told mainly from the perspective of the killer). However, nowhere is it ever in doubt that the dish being served here is anything but meat-and-potatoes thrash.
How can one choose fairly between two works from such different genres grounded in such different inspirations? This is a question I will no doubt return to in future contests. If we break down an album into production, lyrics, and music and then judge each on how well the artist achieves what they seem to be aiming for, both works get high marks in the first two categories. Where Agalloch soars above Shrapnel is in blending disparate musical elements into an original whole that may well be the best black metal album of the year. Agalloch advances, and will face the eventual winner of our next contest: Aenaon versus Soreption.