Four years after their last release “Ashes Against The Grain,” Portland, Oregon based Dark Metal act AGALLOCH has finally crafted their long awaited follow-up. Admittedly being an existing, dedicated fan to the band's work, I have found myself consistently impressed by the act's mastery of aesthetic, and sincere ability to make profound, deeply moving and melancholic music. Having delved deep into AGALLOCH's latest opus, entitled “Marrow Of The Spirit,” I can safely say that the band hasn't just created an album that will satisfy their salivating fanbase, but a challenging work of art that will certainly stand to be considered one of the band's highest achievements when all is said and done. While their established magnum opus “The Mantle” may have a greater personal impact on me, never before has AGALLOCH sounded so dark, heavy, and ambitious as they do on “Marrow.”
On their fourth full-length bout, AGALLOCH retains their trademark style of dark, atmospheric and nature-inspired Metal, but as always, manages to tweak their sound to set the album apart from the others in their growing discography. While “Pale Folklore” may be associated with Black Metal, “The Mantle” with Folk, and “Ashes Against The Grain” with Post-Rock, “Marrow Of The Spirit” is a bit harder to pin down. Perhaps this is because “Marrow” incorporates equal aspects of each of these three genres in equal portions; in comparison to the other albums, there are segments here that sound like they could easily be on any previous AGALLOCH recording. What makes the album special is that these styles have been perfectly counter-balanced, so that while the record shares a common mood throughout, no convention of the act's sound is overused.
New to AGALLOCH's ensemble is the San Francisco based percussionist Aesop Dekker, who's introduction makes an audible difference in the band's sound. A drummer who evidently emphasizes power and aggression over subtlety, Dekker's heavy and no-frills approach to the rhythm gives the band a much heavier and looming sound, whereas the band generally lacked the heaviness typically associated with Extreme Metal, in albums before.
The album begins with “They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness;” a calming yet haunting cello piece from guest musician Jackie Perez Gratz, a name that may be familiar through her membership in the Avantarde Metal group GRAYCEON. Over the faint babbling of water and ambient birdsong, Gratz immediately lulls the listener into the vibe of the album; that of darkness, melancholy and haunting beauty. While not remarkable so much as a composition, Jackie's performance is heartfelt, and provides a perfect contrast to the second track on the album, which immediately follows.
“Into The Painted Grey” is without a doubt, the heaviest and most aggressive performance AGALLOCH has ever churned out. Straight from the mellow cello passages of the album's intro, the music erupts into a fury of fastpicked guitarwork and a wallop of blastbeats. As the unrelenting energy just starts to get overwhelming, everything abates to make way for an atmospheric mellower section of constantly morphing pitch harmonies that slowly builds towards the main section of the track. This track really reminds the listener that at their heart, AGALLOCH are a Black Metal band, and this track rings closer to the core elements of the genre than anything they've released in the past. For all of its heaviness though, there is still a great deal of melodic presence here, although it might sound hidden beneath the layers of distortion at first. The force here is undeniable, and while things for from here on will be more mellow, “Into The Painted Grey” sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the album.
Next up is “The Watcher's Monolith,” which was leaked before the general release of the album, possibly under the guise of a 'single.' If “Into The Painted Grey” reflected the Black Metal sound of “Pale Folklore,” then “Watcher's Monolith” does the same for the folk leanings of 'The Mantle.' Featuring acoustic guitars strumming behind soaring Post-Rock derived lead melodies and John Haughm”s existential growls, this dark foray is the most akin to their historical material as anything you’ll find on 'Marrow.' As my introduction to the new set of AGALLOCH material, I found myself greatly satisfied first hearing this track, but it pales in comparison to the behemoth that follows.
Having arguably become the most anticipated aspect of the album, the seventeen minute long “Black Lake Nidstång” has been made out to be 'the definition of epic' by others who have already heard it. While popular opinion isn't always the most justified, this track certainly lives up to the hype it's been getting, and more. An epic, lumbering hymn of Doom Metal, “Black Lake Nidstång” is the greatest, most ambitious project the band has ever set to do, possibly only coming in second behind the perfect “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion,” from the sophomore. With a band like AGALLOCH, one obviously cannot expect a multi-part, dynamic suite in the conventional sense, but a carefully drawn out composition that takes ample time to get going. The track as a whole is immense; each note is given ample time to give the most profound emotional impact, and devastates the listener with the impending feeling of doom the track so effectively conveys. After following a Doom Metal formula for much of the track's length, “Black Lake Nidstång” then takes a much unexpected turn into the realm of electronics, creating a beautifully crafted soundscape, before the final crushing finale. Suffice to say, “Black Lake Nidstång” is hyped for a very good reason; it fits perfectly into the whole of “Marrow” as it's proud centerpiece, and blows away even a listener like myself, who was already expecting great things from AGALLOCH's latest release.
While following an epic of such proportion is never an easy task, “Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires” succeeds in providing a great experience all its own. As the last of three 'conventional' AGALLOCH tracks (the first two being “Into The Painted Grey” and “Watcher's Monolith,”) this is without a doubt, the least challenging part of the album and easiest to enjoy. Beginning with the surreal strumming of a rhythm guitar, the track progresses in much the same way as a work from contemporary Dark Metal act ALCEST would; dreamy, heavily doused in Post-Rock atmosphere, with a hint of Black Metal heaviness here and there. Although the darker pieces have since outweighed this one in terms of my personal enjoyment, this was easily my favourite track upon my first few listens to the record. “Ghost Of The Midwinter Fires” would be a perfect track for an as-yet uninitiated listener to get into the band with.
Closing off the album is the sombre “To Drown.” Compared to the rest of the album, this is a very subtle piece; being driven again by Jackie's dark cello flourishes. Going in a direction that sounds like a darker version of GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR, the song is patched with the unsettling whisper vocals of John Haughm, and some lead work that feels a bit too engaged for the terms of such a mellow track. Sharing a very similar sound palette to the introduction of the album, this track is inherently less interesting than those that preceded it due to its very mellow, almost ambient nature. In any case, the climax of the song sees the cello work of Gratz finally taking a more structured form, leading the listener out of the album's experience and back into silence.
There's no denial that “Marrow Of The Spirit” is a monster of a work; a thick and towering beast that takes quite a few listens to really sink in. Like all of AGALLOCH's music, there is a great deal of atmosphere here, as well as a forlorn and existential worldview that certainly won't be brightening one's spirits anytime soon. While being so excited and eager to listen to an album can very abundantly lead to disappointment, “Marrow Of The Spirit” comes only a shard away from reaching the perfection that “The Mantle” achieved, and for once, despite my anticipation, my expectations have all been exceeded.
(Online January 20, 2012)