Agalloch is one of the few bands who have never released a disappointing album; although there is no general consensus among their fans as to what is their high-water mark, if asked to choose, most of them might pick their first two albums, the Scandinavian folk-inspired atmospheric black metal disc Pale Folklore; and the more daring and experimental The Mantle. I, too, consider these albums the finest Agalloch releases, but everything else, including their EPs, comes pretty close, as they bring forth stylistic and musical changes.
The Serpent & the Sphere marks yet another change in the sound and evolution of Agalloch. Strangely, though, while this is quite a departure from the band's earthy, autumn-inspired sound explorations, I found it easier to get into than its predecessor, Marrow of the Spirit, which was more of a lo-fi, colder, and primal release harkening back to their black metal roots while retaining the more atmospheric sounds of their recent output. The arrangements were more protracted, melodies took longer to form and develop, and, therefore, the album didn't take hold and sink in right away. On this album, the songs are more focused with more linear harmonic development, and the melodies are easier to identify, despite the more elaborate sound configuration. Also, there is a more intense rhythmic tension, not only because of the drumming, but because there is a greater sense of space and time between the notes and chord progressions. This allows Jason William Walton to assume a more crucial role in the sound of this disc. He employs sprawling bass lines and spreads them across the whole tonal spectrum. Most of the tracks rely on his low, droney bass figures, sticking to merely a few measures during pivotal sections and enhancing the compositions. The bass on "Dark Matter Gods" is possibly the best bass sound they've mined yet, especially given how it interacts with the other instruments. The bass is beautifully harmonized, surrounded by clean-toned guitar chords, sparse, ethnically influenced drum beats, Haughm's haunting whispers, and ambient, nihilistic moments.
Musk Ox guitarist plays three brief instrumental pieces to lend the album cohesion and unity. I've read comments criticizing Agalloch for bringing in an outsider to play these sections rather than handling the passages themselves, which I cannot agree with. For starters, Nathanael Larochette's playing style is very different than both Haughm and Anderson's; his playing is informed with cleaner chord progressions, where his notes shine and sparkle while still adding a welcome neo-folk vibe to the album. Larochette also has a much different sense of sonic development; there is always a subtle urgency in his playing. Secondly, I can't see what's so wrong about getting outside contribution if it actually serves a pupose, and, here, it certainly does. Besides, the acoustic passages, while sticking to a central music thread and an underlying sonic structure, also display nuanced variations on the theme: the bright sound cosmos of the first one is vastly different from the darker and engaging second piece while the album finale, supplemented by ominous keys, is testament to the work of an obsessively focused writer and performer.
Haughm's vocals are restricted to his easily recognizable style, alternating between whispered singing and feral screaming. Clean vocals are completely absent, but he does utilize his harsher vocal stylings in more varied ways. The first track "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" not only introduces the new sound of the album but also features his raspy and demented screams, at one point breaking into Bethlehem-like desperation, ever so briefly. (You need to listen to Dictius Te Necare if you want to hear an entire album with such vocals.) He sounds truly deranged and psychotic and gives the song the resolution it needs, given it starts with a slow, gradually evolving acoustic piece that stretches into over four minutes to ensure the listener is completely engaged and absorbed.
One thing that needs mentioning is that very few of the pieces on this album can be discerned individually. While this can particularly happen with most post-rock, shoegaze, and experimental albums, this has never happened to me with Agalloch songs on prior discs. I can still readily recognize and identify the band; only 10 seconds would suffice, but the songs are harder to pick apart with a few exceptions. The reason for this may be attributed to the "cosmic sound" this album is based on, which characterizes the whole record (think Fates Warning's A Pleasant Shade of Gray as a reference point). Still, there are a few individual tracks that stand out: "The Astral Dialogue" is sublime with its thunderous, rumbling bass, Ulverian tremelo picking (which finds them performing a musical ritual), doom-laden passages with periodic lapses into pure ambient soundscapes, and shifting rhythmic textures; it's not as epic and grandiose as Pale Folklore because if it were it would seem out of place. The drumming on "Celestial Effigy" sounds like something off of My Arms, Your Hearse if Mike Mendez had played as he did on Damnation. Haughm's whispers are obscured by the guitar sound, which builds with increasing density before resolving with a fantastic theme that takes over and doesn't let go until the final moment. I'm not quite convinced the 12-minute instrumental "Plateau of the Ages" is entirely successful. It blends the band's love of post-rock with wonderful acoustic guitars and soaring melodies, but the riffs seem a tad repetitive and I feel it could have been shorter to have a more lasting effect.
I also have a small issue with the packaging of the album. I've never been a fan of digipaks to begin with, but the fact that the front of the CD is cut out to give it the shape of a serpent with the enigmatic booklet cover peeking through it was a poor choice on the part of the band and/or Profound Lore Records. The 'original' cover of the booklet in a standard jewel case would have been much better, in my opinion.
Bottom line, The Serpent & the Sphere is one of 2014's finest releases. It took me months to fully absorb Marrow of the Spirit, which I'd currently rank higher than their latest output, but I've only been listening to this one for a month, so who knows how it will rank in their discography in the long run.
- Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation
- (Serpens Caput)
- 3. The Astral Dialogue
- Dark Matter Gods
- 5. Celestial Effigy
- Cor Serpentis (the Sphere)
- Vales Beyond Dimension
- Plateau of the Ages
- (Serpens Cauda)