Wednesday 21 May 2014

Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere (Album Review)

Album Type : Full Length
Date Released : 13/5/2014
Label : Profound Lore / Eisenwald Tonschmiede

The Serpent & The Sphere track listing :

1). Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation 10:28
2). (serpens caput)  03:06
3). The Astral Dialogue 05:11
4). Dark Matter Gods 08:36
5). Celestial Effigy  06:59
6). Cor Serpentis (the sphere) 02:58
7). Vales Beyond Dimension  06:48
8). Plateau of the Ages 12:26
9). (serpens cauda) 03:12

Bio :

For sixteen years the Pacific Northwest group Agalloch has defined what it means to combine influences from a variety of musical genres into one brooding, colossal, and cinematic sound that provides the soundtrack to existential themes concerning man, nature, loss, and death.

After two demo releases in the late 90s the band released three full-length albums: “Pale Folklore” (1999), “The Mantle” (2002), and “Ashes Against the Grain” (2006). “The Mantle” has since been heralded as a classic for having been one of the first albums to combine elements from black metal, neo-folk, progressive rock, post-rock, and ambient music. The influence of this record can be seen in many so-called “post-black metal” bands today.

In 2008 Agalloch began re-releasing their demos, B-sides, and EPs under their own Dammerung Arthouse label. In 2010 their fourth album “Marrow of the Spirit” made number one on numerous critic’s top ten lists. In between each of these full-lengths the band pushed on the flexible boundaries they had developed around themselves through a series of EPs that found the band experimenting with post-rock/instrumental rock (“The Grey,” 2004), neo-folk/psychedelic folk (“The White,” 2008) and most recently a mammoth twenty-minute epic work entitled “Faustian Echoes” (2012) released through Dammerung Arts.

Agalloch has earned a reputation for explosive and emotional live performances. They have sold out tours across Europe and the US and have played a variety of major festivals including: Roadburn, Inferno, and Scion among others. The band takes special care constructing the environment of each and every show with wood, incense, and imagery taken directly from their home in the Northwest. Such care makes an Agalloch show more than just a typical heavy metal concert.

The Band :

John Haughm | Guitars, Vocals, percussion
Don Ansderson | Guitars, piano, keyboards
Jason William Walton | Bass
Aesop Dekker | Drums

Review :

Agalloch have been honing their craft for nigh on two decades. The Oregon based band have produced possibly their finest work to date on their fifth full length player; The Serpent & The Sphere.

The album opens in tender fashion before ‘Birth & Death of the Pillars of Creation’ is built layer by layer and allowed to cook slowly for its ten minute plus duration. Melancholy acoustic chords, choral choirs and earthy guitar tones help to build a vast and cinematic opening track.  The vocals on this track and throughout borrow heavily from the snarled, black metal style. When all of these things are put together with a beautifully sombre solo, the outcome is emotional, sparse and affecting. An acoustic interlude heralds the end of the epic opening and leads into the heavier sound of ‘The Astral Dialogue.’

Immediately, the guitars are dense and the drums are pounding. The bass guitar rumbles around in a menacing fashion before the track settles into a more orthodox black metal track. Blast beats, and suitably grimacing vocals propel the track.

‘Dark Matter Gods’ follows, and with it puts its name in the hat for the albums highpoint. Another tender and serene introduction adorns the introduction before a shrill wall of guitars crashes into the mix. The centrepiece of the track here is definitely the vocal. Whilst similar motifs are applied from previous tracks, the way that the vocals are delivered through the verses of the track shows the diversity that Agalloch offer. As the track progresses, the bass powers the song in the latter sections; as the guitars rise and fall in epic fashion. ‘Celestial Energy’ continues the track in the same vein, which puts this brace of tracks at the centrepiece of the album, and effectively ends the second part of the album as the second of three acoustic interludes punctuates this from the final salvo.

‘Vales Beyond Dimension’ sees an opening that uses chugging guitars and slower work on the kick drums. The tempo remain the same, however again, the track is layered perfectly. The mix of acoustic guitars, lead guitar and rhythm guitar is a joy to listen to, as sombre as it is. The ending of the song is again vast in expanse and leads into the last track of the album, and the longest composition here; ‘Plateau of the Ages.’

Again, the way the song is constructed and executed is a master class of production and playing. The musicianship is second to none. An ethereal opening builds and builds with grace and power. The middle of the track has some spine tingling guitar work in one of the most harmonic sections of the album. The drumming towards the end of the track is pounding and emphatic; the track builds to a head and just keeps exploding into life over and over again.

Overall, this album is superb. After reviewing Behemoth’s latest opus earlier this year, I didn’t think anything would touch it in terms of really great records for 2014. Agalloch have certainly set the bar here for the folkier side of metal, where Behemoth set the bar for their brand of extreme metal. The Serpent & The Sphere is a genuine musical journey. The flow and construction of the album is peerless and if you set off on the journey, you will be fascinated throughout.

Words by : Dominic Walsh

You can get it here (USA & Canada) and here (Europe)

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