PICK OF THE WEEK: Agalloch’s new ‘The Serpent & the Sphere’ continues band’s legendary run

AgallochThere are those bands you love and follow and when they put out a new record or come to your town, you are excited. Then there are those who, when they release new music, it is an event. When they play your town, it’s a foregone conclusion you will be there to revel in their greatness even if you’re bleeding to death. When you think of their history, it is practically sacred.

Agalloch fall into the category of bands you don’t just pay mere adulation. You genuflect before their presence. They have, over the course of their five incredibly intelligent, thought-provoking records, become one of the most important bands in black metal. It’s not because they outsell all the other bands in their subgenre or have their images plastered over flashy ads in glossy metal magazines. They are the complete opposite. Instead, they make records that are events, documents you must sit down with, close off the rest of the world, and absorb in full so you can feel every bit of their creation. From their amazing 1999 debut “Pale Folklore” through 2010’s modern classic “Marrow of the Spirit” to their brand new opus “The Serpent & the Sphere,” Agalloch are on a legendary roll that shows no signs of stopping and continues to make them one of the benchmarks of all heavy music. Period. No arguments.

Agalloch coverFollowing up “Marrow of the Spirit” their universally lauded 2010 record that topped tons of year-end lists (including mine) could not have been an easy task, but I’m thinking that wasn’t even on their list of goals when it came to creating “The Serpent.” Each of their folk-informed, atmospheric records feels like a self-contained statement, informed by their sound and their spirits, and while each album fits nicely in a catalog together, they are their own things entirely. Led as always by John Haughm, their vocalist, guitarist, and lyrical visionary, along with guitarist Don Anderson, bassist John William Walton, and drummer Aesop Dekker, the band sound as channeled and special as ever, and every note that drips out of this nine-track, hour-long record are full of passion and genuine expression, and if it doesn’t move you, chances are you are dead. In short, they’ve done it again.

The record opens with “The Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation,” an interesting choice to introduce you to the record, as it’s a 10:30-long track that takes its time setting up a mood and stretching out. There really are no speedy or furious moments on this track, and it settles in a mid-paced tempo for the most part. But it’s a hell of a listen, one that’ll pull you along for its entire run, with Haughm switching back and forth from his low-register growls and whispers as he is wont to do. The melody is rich and nuanced, and it has an ending that feels like it is pulling up to an ancient tree in an isolated section of a forest for offerings. “(serpens caput)” is the first of three acoustic-based interludes (played by Canadian musician Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox) that tie the album together nicely, and this cut takes you into “The Astral Dialogue” that immediately begins rumbling and shaking from its opening moments and is one of the heaviest cuts on here. The song erupts with a riff that actually reminds me of their labelmates the Atlas Moth, with Haughm letting loose more vicious growls, going back to whispers at some points, and the band setting into hearty, meaty melodies that are infectious and thrashy, dousing the song in a sense of danger. “Dark Matter Gods” runs 8:38, starting with clean playing as the whisper/growl mix comes into play again. This track feels the most like earlier Agalloch of anything on this record (or anything on “Marrow,” for that matter), but it also has some prog tendencies and, gulp, amazing hooks that’ll set up inside you and never let go. You keep sitting there waiting for them to come back, and when they do, it’s a total rush. This song makes my blood surge, and by the time Haughm howls, “Darkness is the father of all,” you know you’ve been swept away somewhere and experienced something special.

“Celestial Effigy” also begins on a calmer note, with sunburnt guitars spreading out like it’s a warm summer day, but eventually the tempo kicks into gear, and the band drums up more drama, with creaky growls, lead guitars that have a late 1970s spirit to them (which I absolutely love), and some blistering playing, with acoustics coming back into the mix before one final eruption that is taken out with Dekker’s drumming. “Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)” is the next acoustic-rich interlude, feeling rustic and woodsy, with its neo-folk stylings. “Vales Beyond Dimension” is another mind blower, with lead guitars that enrapture you right away, low growls telling the tales, and some doom and gloom to make everything that much darker. Some of the guitar lines again go back to late ’70s and early ’80s classic metal, which is a great touch and works really well here, and some of the music delves into gazey territory. There are plenty of twists and turns, as expected from an Agalloch song, and it all concludes with a dramatic finish where melody swells, the vocals are grisly, and the noise subsides only to spill into the longest cut on the record “Plateau of the Ages.” This 12:28 instrumental track opens with a thick synth fog, a deliberate build, and even some post-rock-style playing before it reaches its mid-point. From there the riffs kick in, gloomy melodies claim the day, and the guitar work begins to rise out of the murk with even more classic tendencies. The spirits rise, the drums begin to tease, and a gushing melody surges, giving the album an incredible finish that’ll have your spirits soaring. The record is capped off by a final acoustic track “(serpens cauda)” that brings the adventure to its rightful ending, like a boat finally finding the shore after a long journey through contentious waters.

Agalloch’s power and majesty cannot be denied, and their fifth record “The Serpent & the Sphere” is another enthralling chapter in their folk-lacked black metal saga. Many bands have tried to ape their sound, but none accomplish matching it simply because those groups are not Agalloch. This was one of my most anticipated records of the year, and it met all expectations. This is one of modern metal’s pillars, a measuring stick for everyone else, and everything they do is crucial to the genre just because they are so good and so true at what they do. They deserve your reverence, so pay it. After all, just look at how much this band has given metal in their nearly two decades together. And who knows how many more vital documents they’ll craft in the future?

For more on the band, go here: http://www.agalloch.org/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/