The Serpent & The Sphere

Written by: EW on 07/09/2014 15:23:20

I’ve always had the utmost respect for Agalloch, their artistic passion and irrefutable integrity for I see in them a band who embody the very notions of what any act should wish to be like. The idea of forming around a heavily atmospheric folk-laden doom metal sound, in the US of all places, in the midst of metal's crippling recession in the mid 90s, is testament to a fortitude found in few before, or after. It is to metal's eternal credit that Agalloch remain standing to today, a deserved magnet for critical plaudits along the way, but having slowly made their way to album number five I can't help but feel a little of their Portland, Oregon fire has dissipated in "The Serpent & The Sphere". While it's predecessor, 2010's "Marrow of the Spirit", grew slowly and at times aggressively, to an appreciable level not far off the opening trilogy of albums, this time the mellower sounds and calmer spirit work as the soundtrack to a symbolic retreat from 21st century civilisation but not so from the perspective of the fully engaging and significant album us fans had been after. The album is a few months old now and I’ve given it plenty of listens to be sure in my mind that "The Serpent & The Sphere" is overall rather disappointing.

It starts, as it means to go on, with a slow gilded guitar punctuating the frosty air, alone like at a sombre campfire gathering with added amplification. This, in "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" heralds the 10-minute track with a mystic introduce before it enters dynamic life with a crashing drum beat shortly after, although from here the song rather drifts along casually until another reversion to gentle strumming and John Haughm’s hoarse declaration of "my work is done" brings forth a pleasant solo to close out proceedings. Proof of the album’s intention to prioritise the ambient landscape comes in the form of successor instrumental "(serpens capult)" before "The Astral Dialogue" arguably first stokes the album’s fires with a strong blackened riff, although it’s positioning deep within the mix is obvious enough an indicator that this should not be treated as a return to ‘metal’ form from the band. The song’s successive chapters paint a slightly confused spectacle amid the deliberations of Aesop Dekker’s blasting bass drum beats and twee guitar passages which are only further exaggerated by "Dark Matter Gods”. After another gentle introductory piece the song builds into a firm descending riff which perfectly compliments Haughm’s vocal howling but it feels as if a considerable part of the momentum is lost once the track reverts to Sólstafir-esque feedback wailing and clean tones, neither of which are derisory in the slightest but which simply prohibit a consensus of momentum ever being built up in either form of their despairing solitude or caustic metal leanings. "Celestial Effigy" is built around some clever guitar passages which work well alongside the steady and less interrupted beat of Dekker and by the time a speedy tremolo riff at the midpoint emerges it feels as if Agalloch are hitting the high point of the album. Passing through the quaint second of three instrumentals, “Cor Serpentis (the sphere)” which reminds of the recent October Falls work, "Vales Beyond Dimension" and latterly "Plateau of the Ages" seemingly drift by without hitting too many of the peaks commonly associated with Agalloch, either in their tender or more vigorous approaches. Those that are, such as the delightful, scything solo in the second half of "Vales…” that rises and falls with the drama of the song, and the dramatic bass undertone to the opening of "Plateau…" are too rare for the expanses of time filled by the remaining progressions.

These momentary profusions of wonder feel too fleeting and unconstructed to counteract the lingering sense of incompleteness that hangs over "The Serpent & The Sphere”. When it works, Agalloch’s combination of darkened neofolk, ambient and post-rock/metal are uniquely sublime but progression has bought upon a release that is commendable in it’s instrumental performance but someway down on their best from the perspective of a fully flowing, coherent album. Pity.


Download: Celestial Effigy, The Astral Dialogue
For The Fans Of: October Falls, Falloch, Sólstafir
Listen: Facebook

Release date 13.05.2014
Profound Lore Records

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