Agalloch - The Serpent And The Sphere - (9/10)
Published on May 19, 2014
Painting fire across celestial effigies.
For a band as universally adored and lauded as Agalloch, their will to repeat themselves is almost non-existent. From the sweeping Ulver-influenced black metal of Pale Folklore, the crisp doomy winter landscapes of The Mantle, and even the gorgeously subtle neofolk of The White EP, the Portland-based group have proved themselves as masters of many disciplines. Drawing inspiration from beyond the borderlands of metal, the band has worked hard to attain their now broad following. The release of a new Agalloch-album is always accompanied by almost painful anticipation. For their fifth album, The Serpent And The Sphere, their characteristically earthbound and pantheistic lyrical themes are replaced with cosmic vistas and celestial grandeur, revealing another digression from their past achievements.
For such a monumental effort, Agalloch’s previous full-length Marrow Of The Spirit still drew some criticism for seeing the band returning to trodden paths. Instead of reinventing their sound, the album was a synthesis of what had come before, adapting bits and pieces to create something novel and fresh. This approach is also to some degree true of The Serpent And The Sphere, which transposes more than a few touches from The Mantle. Although few albums can approach the sheer perfection of that particular effort, the familiar musical themes are by no means derivative.
From the opening track “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation” a familiarly mellow acoustic guitar takes the forefront. Don Anderson’s sweeping riffs, sounding like an evolved variation of those found on Ashes Against The Grain, are interspersed with John Haughm’s delicate picking. Fans of the band may be disappointed to hear that Haughm’s characteristic clean vocals are relegated to the background for the entirety of this album. Instead the weight is placed on whispered rasps and the occasional feral growl. Somewhat unorthodox even by Agalloch’s standards, the lengthy opening track is ponderous and muted, weighing heavily with sorrow and nostalgia.
The three short acoustic interludes “Serpens Caput”, “Cor Serpentis”, and “Serpens Cauda”, are composed and performed by Nathanaël Larochette of the Canadian neofolk project Musk Ox. These tracks divides the album into two parts, and while they are atmospheric in their gentleness, one is led to wonder why a band like Agalloch would bring in someone from outside to write interludes. Larochette’s contributions are minimalistic and not particularly intrusive, but pale in comparison to Agalloch’s own similar material on The White EP. As it stands, the album’s momentum suffers slightly from these toothless gaps.
On “The Astral Dialogue” the pace immediately picks up. The infectious melodies are reminiscent of tracks like “I Am The Wooden Doors”, marching forwards through rolling waves of raw yet carefully measured aggression, finally reaching its apex as the dual guitars crescendo beautifully. These songs have a touch of the progressive that wasn’t as apparent on The Mantle, featuring intricately interwoven melodies and solos playing effortlessly off of each other. Jason William Walton’s steady bass-lines provides the backbone of the spacious “Dark Matter Gods”, which feels truly transcendental in its constantly expanding scope. Odd time-signatures, courtesy of Aesop Dekker (who is truly solidifying himself as a full-time Agalloch’s member), and a vast range of musical motifs, all coming together marvelously is evident of Agalloch being as confident as ever. Touches of Pink Floyd are instrumental in elevating the music onward through the terrestrial atmosphere and into the great vales beyond.
The density and breadth of The Serpent And The Sphere is ambitious to say the least, exceeding all of the band’s previous work in complexity. Every song is packed with subtle moments of clarity and slight touches of brilliant minutiae. Of course more isn’t necessarily better; some of the unique attractiveness of The Mantle is its often stripped down and bare-boned approach. That’s also why songs like “Celestial Effigy” and “Vales Beyond Dimension” succeed as well as they do; they maintain a sense of unity and tightness which occasionally slips away throughout the album. These are minor complaints though, and for most of the album Agalloch succeeds spectacularly in their aspiration. To belabor a point; this is not a simple retread of familiar terrain, but the enduring evolution of a sound almost 20 years in the making.
The last proper song on the album, “Plateau Of The Ages”, is somewhat analogous to the album as a whole. A constantly mounting tension is interspersed with gorgeous melodies, while the acoustic guitar strums on in the background. Completely instrumental, the 12+ minutes long post rock track almost overstays its welcome, but then explodes magnificently in the final minutes before it draws to a close. As dynamic and multifaceted as it is, The Serpent And The Sphere is a puzzle containing a throng of largely dissimilar high points, but also a few pieces that seem to stray without really going anywhere. Luckily, and as expected from a band like Agalloch, the good by far outweighs the not-quite-so-good. The serpent bites its tail as the closing notes of “Serpens Cauda” closes the great cycle.
Personally I find it difficult to compare the different pieces of Agalloch’s discography, as each one has a distinctive sound and personality. The Serpent And The Sphere is no exception, although on a track by track basis it falls slightly short of the band’s greatest moments. Still, there is something here for fans of all their other work, and the sheer complexity alone makes the album bound to grow even larger upon each subsequent listen. Similarly, weirdos who dislike The Mantle or Marrow Of The Spirit are probably not going to enjoy this one either. It’s not a flawless masterpiece, but The Serpent And The Sphere is a gorgeous album and breathtaking in its depth and expansiveness.