(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.
As always, we welcome your thoughts about the music in the Comments.