(Close on the heels of the album’s streaming premiere, Andy Synn reviews the new work by Oregon’s AGALLOCH.)
The new Agalloch album is currently streaming in full over at NPR. In a sense this makes the idea of reviewing it somewhat redundant. After all, if you want to know what it’s like you can just head on over there and click ‘Play’.
But there’s something to be said for the idea that a review isn’t just about merely describing the songs – “That’s a good riff”, “this bit’s really good”, “wow, aren’t they really fast/technical/brutal” – but can also be a place to talk about the band and their music in wider terms, using the offering of a new album as a starting point for further discussion.
That, and the fact that several of you might not have time or space in your lives to access the NPR site, or might simply prefer to wait for the physical release, prompted me to put metaphorical pen to paper and actually review The Serpent and the Sphere… for myself as well as for you, our readers.
photo by Veleda-Thorsson
I know I wasn’t alone in being slightly disappointed in Agalloch’s last full-length album Marrow of the Spirit. In fact I know that despite the band’s steadily growing popularity and profile, and the generally laudatory critical reception they received for Marrow…, quite a few people didn’t like the album at all.
A common criticism of Marrow was/is that the production was/is somehow lacking. And while to an extent I agree – there’s certainly something about the way the album sounds that seems not quite right, to my ears at least – I also think there’s more to it than that. To my mind the album was missing something else, something I can’t quite put my finger on, a certain je ne sais quoi that reduces it from a potential masterpiece to a collection of interesting, occasionally profound, musical curiosities.
Yet as the magical strains of “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” slowly unfold, teasing melodies out of the ether, building to a conflagration of crashing chords shot through with touches of sublime melody and John Haughm’s wounded snarl, it becomes clear that something… something indefinable… has most definitely changed.
Almost as a counterpoint to its predecessor’s strange sense of distance and solemnity, The Serpent and the Sphere is brimming with life, possessed of a sorrowful strength and boundless creative passion.
From the acoustic caress of “(serpens caput)” to the gleaming metallic catharsis of “The Astral Dialogue”, there’s a warmth and a life to the album, infused with vigour and vitality, and an ethereal atmosphere which recalls the soaring sounds of Ashes Against The Grain, yet with a spacier, more dreamlike sense of grandeur.
A shining synthesis of mood and melody, “Dark Matter Gods” marries void-like post-metal ambience to an undercurrent of scintillating obsidian electricity, while “Celestial Effigy” is a beautiful post-doom elegy that soothes and shimmers with pulsing energy.
The sombre folk melodies of “Cor Serpentis (the sphere)” bridge the gap into the mournful “Vales Beyond Dimension”, a sweeping downpour of melancholy chords and rippling melodies, swelling and breaking in powerful waves of grief and sorrow.
The album concludes with the intricate acoustic strings of “(serpens cauda)”, but before that we are treated to the expansive tapestry of “Plateau of the Ages”, a series of intertwining movements combining mesmerising potency and captivating restraint, where glistening notes and majestic chords echo and shiver with beauty and splendour.
Post-doom, post-metal… ultimately this is an album that transcends labels and limitations. Epic in vision. Graceful in motion. Darkly beautiful in all its forms.
The Serpent and the Sphere will be released on May 13. Physical copies can be pre-ordered here, and you can pre-order the digital version directly from the band at this Bandcamp location.
As always, we welcome your thoughts about the music in the Comments.
I’m streaming the album now, but is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking: I don’t care if the album itself is 74 minutes of country rap, I’m totally fucking stoked for the tour?
I’m glad you mentioned the mix seeming “off.” To me, it seems like the drums are too low in the mix, especially during the gallop in “Dark Matter Gods” and that sort of blast beat that slips in on “Plateau of the Ages” (I might have the titles wrong, as I’ve been listening to the NPR stream as one whole track). I’ve been chalking it up to listening to it on crappy computer speakers, but maybe it’s not just me.
To clear things up, I was actually referring to Marrow’s mix, not this one. This one sounds fine to me!
Nevermind then. Marrow sounds fine to me, even through my less than great motorcycle speakers. In fact, “Into the Painted Grey” at about the 6:00 mark is perfect example of epic Agalloch/Aesop drumming. That section always reminded me of “Achilles Last Stand.”
That said though, it’s still a fantastic album. And if Nathanael from Musk Ox is still reading…your interludes are superb! They really bind the tracks together well.
Got it running as we speak through my Sennheisers, and it sounds great. I myself had no such complaints about Marrow either. It’s a harsh album after all.
I had the honour of composing and performing the acoustic interludes. As a long time Agalloch fan, I feel your review really captured the essence of this release perfectly!
Thank you for the kind words my friend. And many congratulations – as you can see I thought the acoustic interludes were fantastic!
I’ll add my congratulations as well for what you did on the album. I share Andy’s views about the music — really enjoying this.
Seriously, your interludes are awesome, as is your other music.
NPR never fails to surprise me with their metal music features, they’re a hundred times cooler than my local “metal” radio station.
You have a local metal radio station? Best I get is a spotty-at-best hard rock station, which is why my car is always stocked with CDs (my tape player won’t let me play tape-to-mp3 tapes, even though it plays normal ones just fine. And I’ve tried multiples types of the tape-to-mp3 thing).
I thank you for posting this. I have not heard a note and am sure I will enjoy it. It’s pre-ordered, so I have to deal with it either way. I never had an issue with the mix on “Marrow.” I highly enjoyed the album. It was actually my introduction to them, and I have to go back and get their previous catalog, which is similarly impressive. I cannot wait for next week!
I can’t help but disagree completely with every single opinion in this review. I’ve been a lover of Agalloch for some time and feel Marrow was their magnum opus, an impossible-to-top high for them. After listening to this release, I think that still holds true. Others are obviously open to disagree, stating that “The Mantle” or “Ashes” were “obviously” the best, but that just speaks to their great discography thus far.
This album is a total slump by Agalloch standards, which are pretty astronomical at this point. I will admit that the production is absolutely the best its ever been during the band’s long tenure, but the songwriting feels totally uninspired. Easily the most homogenous album they’ve released to date, both from a production and songwriting standpoint. I can barely tell one song from the next, save for the acoustic filler tracks. After 2 or 3 tracks, you’ve heard just about every sound the album has to offer. This is normally easy to look past if the songs are great (Ashes anyone?), but I never walked away from any song feeling “wow-ed”, save for maybe the enormous, doomy intro. There weren’t any melodies that grabbed me and stayed in my head afterwards. I finished the album and didn’t feel particularly compelled to relisten to any particular song.
It wasn’t a “bad” album by any means and is definitely one of the better metal albums of 2014. But in comparison to their legacy, this release falls short for me. :/ But hey, we’ve all got opinions which don’t really matter anyway, and if there are others who come to enjoy Agalloch through this album, I welcome them heartily!
My view of what I’m hearing so far is closer to Andy’s view than yours. If I try to look at it through your perspective, I think it speaks volumes of the kind of quality that Agalloch produces when what someone sees as a weaker effort by the band is still stronger than much of the 2014 pack so far.
I wholeheartedly admit and am aware that my standards/expectations for the band are way too high. Is this still a great metal album? Absolutely! If we want to play the arbitrary numbers game, this is a solid 8/10 for me in comparison to everything else out this year. But judging from within Agalloch’s discography itself, probably a 6/10, at least initially.
This one could be a grower though, and I never discount that possibility. It just didn’t have the immediacy or “wow” factor that past albums have had on me.
I haven’t made it through the whole album yet, but after the first few tracks it’s a very different album to Marrow, and in all honesty hasn’t captured me the same way Marrow did. Maybe I just expected something with a bit more kick like the first tracks off Marrow. I’ll still listen through fully a few times, and may come to like it for what it is, but it almost feels like a completely different band.
I’m a little late but, wow! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I agree with you point for point, except on your use of the word “filler” to describe the acoustic interludes. It’s funny because normally they could very well be considered filler tracks. However, because this album is so homogenous, the acoustic tracks (for me, at least) really started to stand out. Not to mention that Nathanael’s compositions were very lush and the musicianship was very tight.
No, you’re right. “Filler” wasn’t my intended word to use, “interlude” was. It’s definitely not “filler” in a negative sense, they were beautifully recorded and composed.
I read a review on AMG (not a really positive one) which got me startled and fearing that Agalloch might’ve actually dropped the ball on this one, but after having been able to listen to the album 5 or 6 times now I can say I don’t understand the negativity. This album fucking slays. It’s quite different from their last full-length in 2010 and much closer to Ashes.. and the Mantle, which is a big plus for me. The production is stellar. The step away they did from atmospheric influences in favor of post-metal influences was the right one to take.
So yeah, I agree completely with this review (although I wouldn’t have put my opinion in words so eloquently)! Good to know I’m not the only one who’s enjoying this one a lot 🙂
Disagree. Marrow had an air of mystery and darkness while this one is very one dimensional in comparison.
I can’t say I understand any of the negativity towards “Marrow.” As someone earlier mentioned, I think it is their best work, and is my favorite metal album by far. Everything about it captures a mood that seems to be what they were going for. It is muddy, it is hazy, it is bleak, and it is powerful.
As far as this album goes, it so far has not captured me in quite the same way, but I also have been listening through crappy speakers, and the streaming doesn’t seem to be of a very high quality either. I also feel like I get the most from their music and most music by going on a walk for the whole album to let it really sink in. I also feel I might get a better impression once I’ve read through the lyrics and can relate the the themes and ideas in the lyrics with the music that it corresponds to. Also, I’ve noticed with most other artists, the albums I don’t quite like at first, tend to be my favorites in the long run. Maybe this album will be one of those?
This isn’t so much a comment about the album as it is the press features it is being included in; for whatever reason some spammer got my info and I’ve ended up with Entertainment Weekly magazine in the mail for me over the past few weeks. Amidst all the typical celebrity gossip/news featured in this toilet paper worthy publication, somehow The Serpent & The Sphere was included at #4 on their top 10 “must haves” of the week. Thought it’d be worth mentioning here as the more “mainstream” coverage of Agalloch is sure interesting to witness.
Holy shit. For some reason I find that really depressing.