It's been nearly four years since Agalloch released Marrow of the Spirit, an album almost universally hailed as a triumph among metal enthusiasts. This of course includes yours truly, as it was one of the earliest reviews I ever wrote here at Metal Injection. And though I still adore songs like Into the Painted Grey and The Watcher's Monolith, there was still something amiss on that album that separates it from the previous two. As the years have gone by, I've found myself drawn more to the crisp and immediate sounds of Ashes Against the Grain. Perhaps it's fitting then that Agalloch's triumphant return finds the band blending the best of each album into one cohesive artistic expression.
It feels strange, almost frightening to consider the passage of time since their last album. And I don't only mean it from a personal standpoint, but a musical one as well. With the way things are in metal now, four years could almost encompass several eras of time. When Marrow of the Spirit came out in 2010, the metal world was in the midst of several shifts. Metalcore had long since become a legacy genre as the deathcore wave seemed to have petered out, giving way to djent and a flurry of American black metal bands. Since then there's been a marked shift away from breakdown-based metal in favor of a variety of neo-classical sounds ("Vest Metal") and shoegaze/indie-influenced black metal (e.g. Alcest, Deafheaven). So where would Agalloch fit into this array of sounds and styles? And would they still be relevant to more than a few diehard fans?
In a way, their place in metal is analogous to that of Tool(*) in that they manage to transcend the landscape they occupy while representing various elements of it at the same time. After all, it's worth remembering that four years had passed between Ashes Against the Grain and Marrow of the Spirit, a time that saw Agalloch only grow in prominence. And when you think about it, the four years between The Mantle and Ashes was even more drastic (seriously, 2002 and 2006 barely belong in the same century together).
So here we are in the year 2014 with The Serpent and the Sphere. After a few listens, some words definitely come to mind: "Dense", "Cosmic", and "Spacey". Agalloch has always had a strong folk theme flowing through their music, a reflection of their heritage in the woods of the American Northwest. But on many of the songs here, the listeners eyes and ears are drawn away from the rivers and the trees and up towards the night sky.
For me, Agalloch's albums all work brilliantly as singular entities, and yet I cannot help but have two songs that resonate with me the most. Because of this songs like "I am the Wooden Doors", "…And the Great Cold Death of the Earth", "Falling Snow", "Not Unlike the Waves" and the aforementioned songs from Marrow all stand out the most (oh, and let's not forget "Dead Winter Days"!). To this list I would proudly add "Celestial Effigy" and especially "Astral Dialouge", which possibly holds the award for most epic riff so far of 2014. It's as if Amon Amarth and Agalloch met for an awesome jam session (now THAT would be an interesting tour, wouldn't it?). With such a glorious addition to their catalog, it shows the band has an amazing ability to retain their identity while still branching out.
Entrancing would be another good word for the album, especially when listening to the opening track "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" and the triumphant instrumental "Plateau of the Ages." And I have to applaud the band for using their interlude tracks wisely, as both "serpens" numbers actually fit the running theme of the album perfectly.
Now for those of you who scrolled down to see my final score for this album, you may be thinking, "Gee, up till now you've described what should be a perfect album, what gives?"
The only problem I really have with this record is the same one I had with Marrow of the Spirit, in that John Haughm's clean vocals are almost completely absent. At least on "The Watchers Monolith" we got one bridge of exclusively clean vocals. Here, we only hear his clean voice in the background on the first song, and I think it pops up somewhere on "Dark Matter Gods" as well. Alright sure, when taking their entire catalog into consideration, both The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain have plenty of these vocals. But it still would have been nice to hear John use his clean voice within the celestial theme of The The Serpent and the Sphere (though it is kind of funny to be writing a metal album review and asking for MORE clean vocals).
Anyway, The Serpent and the Sphere is a fantastic addition to the band's legacy and a brilliant set of work on it's own. For those metalheads concerned about the viability and dynamism of our beloved genre, let Agalloch be a beacon for your hopes. Then put on "Astral Dialouge" and fearlessly kiss the burning darkness!**
Favorite Songs: "Astral Dialouge", "Celestial Effigy", "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation", "Plateau of the Ages"