by James Zalucky
When it comes to creativity, few bands can match the power and brilliance of AGALLOCH. Over the course of their career they've taken folk, black metal, doom metal, and several other elements to craft a truly unique sound. When you hear one of their songs, you know who you're listening to. Therefore, it was with much excitement that I agreed to review their latest album, Marrow of the Spirit.
With water flowing and birds chirping in the background, the album opens with the cello tune, They Escaped the Weight of Darkness. AGALLOCH has always had something of the melancholy to their music, but this opener is nothing short of pure distilled despair, a theme that runs through the entire album. Guest musician Jackie Perez Gratz plays a melody so somber that it could easily fit the soundtrack to a funeral. I’d be surprised if you can get through the song without a frown on your face.
Rather than a slow transition from one mood to another, the band startles the listener with Into the Painted Grey. More aggressive than I’d expect from AGALLOCH, the song has a powerful tone that alternates between tremolo picking riffs layered over blast-beating drums, and slower, more depressive sections. Several portions of the song contain a haunting acoustic guitar in the background and plenty of melodic guitar riffs in-between.
An acoustic guitar opens the next song, The Watcher’s Monolith, which is undoubtedly my favorite on the record. After a short build-up, the song launches into an energetic driving beat with a heavy groove. Suddenly, at about 3:17 John Haughm’s clean voice breaks through and envelops the entire atmosphere in a way reminiscent to the band’s work on The Mantle. In fact, this is the only moment of the entire album where he uses his clean voice, perhaps to the detriment of the listener. Through the rest of the album he relies on his whispering rasp and growls to carry the songs. Perhaps they did this on purpose, to avoid overdoing their own style. After this interlude, the band goes back into a hard-rock groove and stays there for the remainder of the song.
Epic, soaring, and unbelievably sad, Black Lake Nidstång was clearly meant to be the centerpiece of the album. With an airy, slow build at the beginning, the song sets the mood with a high-pitched guitar riff seemingly screaming for help in the background. At about 7:20, Haughm shrieks in despair through the song’s midsection in a way similar to depressive and suicidal black metal. After this moment of intensity, the song breaks off into a gloomy sound-scape before roaring back in one last time before the end. Perhaps longer than it needs to be, the song could have been trimmed down to make room for other songs. With that said, I’ve rarely heard a band take a feeling and extend it across and epic composition as well as AGALLOCH has here.
Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires shows a compelling balance between blast-beating black metal and heroic sounding folk metal. Drummer Aesop Dekker shines brightest here through the tempo changes and with seemingly unstoppable energy. The song ends with a hauntingly dark riff and fades away into the album’s closing track, To Drown. With this closer, the cello returns, joined by the plucking of an acoustic guitar. Unlike the opening track however, the song goes beyond the somber melody and progresses into a dramatic, almost apocalyptic sounding dirge with what sounds like a mandolin playing in the foreground. Once again, AGALLOCH may have made the song a bit too long, but it certainly serves its purpose.
One review I read for this album literally gushed with emotional praise and admiration. Others seem ready to call it “The Album of the Year”. As much as I enjoyed this album, it does have a few weaknesses. First of all, more songs would have been nice. I think a couple songs could have been weaned down to make room for one more. Second, I would have liked to hear more clean singing out of John Haughm. One of the most unique elements of their sound, his unique and haunting voice is one of the main factors that drew me to AGALLOCH in the first place. I’ve heard some people nitpick over the song structures as some of the songs seem to meander a bit. While usually sympathetic to this critique, I actually think this loose approach worked in the album’s favor. Some people have also complained about the production. I fail to see what they mean, but perhaps I’ll notice it on the next listen. Though I wouldn’t call the album “life-changing”, it does succeed in capturing the your attention and it can leave you in a very reflective mood indeed. More than simple entertainment, the album is at once stunning and thought-provoking, which is more than many bands can say for their entire catalog. With winter approaching here in the Northeast, I can’t think of a better way to set the tone than Marrow of the Spirit.
Favorite tracks: Into the Painted Grey, The Watcher’s Monolith, and Black Lake Nidstång
8.5 out of 10
(PS- Great album name too)