Friday, June 27, 2014

S.H.S. Album Review: Agalloch - The Serpent And The Sphere

Agalloch has been shaping innovations in the modern metal scene since their formation in 1995. Consider not only that it has been four years since 'Marrow of the Spirit,' but also the trends and bands that have come and gone... Despite these facts, Agalloch still resonates strongly alongside its more current peers in the hearts and minds of today's thinking man's metal fans. 

To touch briefly on the band's evolution for those who are not familiar, their sound began as perhaps a continuation in spirit of what early Ulver brought us... folk-laden, blackened, melodic metal...where stark contrast between the abrasive and acoustic musical elements is complimented by clean and raspy vocal sounds intertwined throughout. With 'The Mantle,' the second LP, they took on an increasing orchestral approach, with sweeping, almost 'cinematic' flair not unlike another key influence of theirs, Godspeed You Black Emperor. By 2006, their sound grew even more grandiose, drawing comparisons to bands such as Opeth, Isis, and Swans, as evidenced greatly by their three part epic entitled, 'Our Fortress is Burning.'  For their 2010 LP 'Marrow of the Spirit,' Agalloch locked into a seemingly perfected formula. Despite a return to a grimier, raw production style and a reining in of clean vocals, this record represented their most prolific, genre-defying effort yet... The group does not simply tack gimmicks onto any tried and true formula, nor do they rehash their colleagues and fore-bearers.

If 'Marrow of the Spirit' is their magnum opus, where do we go from here? When metal bands evolve, it is often done without grace, much to the chagrin of their loyal fans. Fortunately, with 'The Serpent And The Sphere,' Agalloch has found a way to present us with the best elements from their history in a newly refined, artful way... 

The album opens with a sweeping, pensive track containing ruminations concerning the cosmos. Although there are plentiful peaks and sharp edges, overall, the vibe is much more tempered and atmospheric than ever before. It's a very appropriate introductory song. 

Next is one of three instrumental, classical guitar pieces named after stars in the Serpens constellation, offering a motif throughout the listening experience. 

From Wikipedia: "In Greek Mythology, Serpens represents a snake held by Asclepius, a healer. Asclepius, represented in the sky by the constellation Ophiuchus, which splits Serpens into two distinct halves, was known for killing a snake that was resurrected because a different snake had placed a certain herb on it before its "death". Serpens is depicted as either winding around Ophiuchus in the night sky or simply passing through him, although the precise reason for either of these is unknown."

These three passages illuminate the imagination, providing the record with a common thread, bringing to mind freak-folk melodies of the past, with ethereal sounds washing over the acoustics... (These are written and performed by guest musician NathanaĆ«l Larochette )

Following these is 'The Astral Dialogue' which further defines the new sound... A decidedly progressive-rock approach with a return to the triple meter/blackened metal runs they are known for. It's worth noting that at this point, it is revealed that the band has abandoned the clean vocal aspects in favor of whispers... This very successfully augments the arcane aura of the recording. 

'Dark Matter Gods' is widely regarded as a favorite, and this author would tend to agree. It epitomizes what makes The Serpent And The Sphere so special... it's sprawling ambiance, it's satisfying solos and interludes, and simply a general feeling of anticipation. It's genuinely exciting, and they never retreat to any formula where blast beats are expected, for example. I applaud their willingness to take risks in this way.

'Celestial Effigy' is a close second when it comes to choosing favorites, although it's very different than 'Dark Matter Gods.' It contains many subtle influences wrapped a relatively straight forward, progressive metal package. The delivery is just so poignant and the song structure is uniquely captivating. It begins with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, from his poem Fragments On Nature: 

"Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die."

Notice how sections of key lyrics are whispered, highlighting the subject's attention drifting from thoughts and ideas, to observations and even making vocal pacts: 'My Allegiance is with the inner self, the dark celestial voice of wisdom, beyond the dust that is this world.'

'Vales Beyond Dimension' offers a vivid emotional journey, my favorite song lyrically, bringing to mind the idea of astral projection. 'Plateau of the Ages' is a brilliant, near thirteen minute instrumental that is a stirring narrative all on its own. 

In closing, it's clear that the biggest victory here is the lost art of crafting a full-length LP as a cohesive story. It would not be a stretch to call this a 'concept album,' but I would not condemn it with such a cheap label. Agalloch is not a black metal band, they are not just a good melodic metal band, they are leading the pack in intelligent metal. I feel a kinship with this record, as it coincidentally found its way to me as I was exploring similar metaphysical themes. Although I can't wait to see what the future holds for Agalloch, I won't mind taking another four years to unfold the mysterious depths of this record.

Purchase at Profound Lore Records
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