If someone asked me what the most significant metal band of the past decade was, I am not entirely sure which name I would ultimately drop, but the elite circle of finalists would definitely include Agalloch. Pale Folklore (1999) and The Mantle (2002) pretty much defined America’s brand of folk metal, influencing countless bands to come as that global musical movement picked up steam. Ashes Against the Grain (2006) gave us one of the earliest incarnations of post-black metal on record. It might not sound much like what that term conjures to mind today, but in its day it was monumental, and time has not lessened the epic weight of tracks like “Limbs”.
But then there was Marrow of the Spirit (2010). This album was ugly. I can’t think of any better word for it. I won’t go so far as to say it was bad, but it was sufficiently displeasing to my senses that I never engaged it long enough to responsibly draw that conclusion. I didn’t want to listen to it, and it left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t really want to listen to The Serpent & the Sphere either.
Agalloch – Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation, from The Serpent & the Sphere
But I did listen to The Serpent & the Sphere. I listened to it quite a lot, actually, in the background as I worked or played games. It was pushing a dozen on my last.fm charts before I got to thinking “Hey, I ought to give that new Agalloch album a spin and review it.” Wait, have I heard this before? “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” had been lulling me into such a passive state that I must have forgotten I was listening to anything at all by the time its ten minutes ran their course.
It’s the antithesis to Marrow of the Spirit‘s “Into the Painted Grey”, in a way. Where that track summoned in me the instant urge to rip my headset off my ears and put on something else, “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” dug its way into the back of my skull and set its roots where I would barely notice them. It didn’t just get tuned out; it etched itself in my subconscious. And it’s no wonder. On my first really attentive play through, with the volume blaring, I find the track completely enthralling. It’s a brooding neofolk masterpiece best experienced without anticipation. If you listen wondering where it might lead, you are bound to grow impatient. If you just embrace it in the moment and let it consume you, you’re in for a treat.
Agalloch – The Astral Dialogue, from The Serpent & the Sphere
The next track, “Serpens Caput”, is a gorgeous and rather brief acoustic instrumental, and then “The Astral Dialogue” kicks off like Pale Folklore was just released a year ago. The many inattentive listens before had engrained the melody in my mind without my knowing, and the familiarity was so strikingly similar to their 1999 debut that I found myself shocked to realize I had only first heard the song a few months ago. A dubious avant-garde interlude at 3:14 aside, “The Astral Dialogue” is old school Agalloch to a T. At least, I should say, the composition is. The feel is a bit different. Where Pale Folklore was as crisp as a cold winter sunrise, The Serpent & the Sphere has a much fuller sound. (Youtube, as usual, can’t hope to capture it all.)
The Serpent & the Sphere feels a bit frontloaded, with the opening 20 minutes being the most compelling, but “Dark Matter Gods” and “Celestial Effigy” carry on the Pale Folklore mid-tempo folk metal tradition. “Cor Serpentis” offers another fabulous acoustic interlude track much like “Serpens Caput”. I think the album loses steam a bit on “Vales Beyond Dimension”. We get a catchy hook at the beginning and near the end, but the plod in between feels a bit contrived.
Agalloch – Plateau of the Ages, from The Serpent & the Sphere
“Plateau of the Ages”, the final track before a brief acoustic outro, more than makes up for any second thoughts about “Vales Beyond Dimension”. It kicks along in the Pale Folklore tradition we are by now thoroughly reacquainted with until 4:20, when we hit a wall of post-rock. It switches back after a two minute taste of things to come, and we get the real grand post-rock exit from 9:30 to the end. It might not be the most breathtaking use of the genre that you have ever heard, but I love the way Agalloch take it and make it their own, masterfully fusing it to the sound that has defined them for years.
I have actually read a lot of comments suggesting that Agalloch lost their touch on The Serpent & the Sphere. It’s hard for me to see any grounds for that. I suppose it is not much like Ashes Against the Grain really, and not at all like Marrow of the Spirit, but I don’t regard those albums as Agalloch at their best. Ashes might have been their most significant work, but my heart was always for Pale Folklore. The Serpent & the Sphere feels like that album, more than anything they’ve released since it. Oh, it might not be quite as catchy, and it’s certainly not as raw or black metal infused, but it’s a pleasant blast back to the Agalloch I loved most.