Agalloch_The Serpent and the Sphere aMarrow of the Spirit‘s “Black Lake Niðstång” marked the beginning of my journey through American band Agalloch‘s sizeable discography. The album delicately, but rather doggedly, introduced me to the band’s fusion of avant-garde black-ish metal, neo-folk and post-rock, drawing influence and inspiration from the atmosphere of Ulver and resembling the ambient nature of October Falls. It’s John Haughm’s talent for merging this kaleidoscope of textures that gives Agalloch a level of inspiring complexity while still giving the songs an air of accessibility and easy listening.

We’ve come to expect most things in life will have a beginning and an end1, it’s logical and somehow comforting. Marrow of the Spirit had a logical beginning and end, but The Serpent & The Sphere defies logic; in fact it takes logic and force feeds it to itself. The beginning is, in fact, no beginning at all, while the end loops back onto the opening strains like a giant snake devouring its own tail. Much like the infinity symbol used in the albums artwork, the album traps you in an infinite, looping dose of Agalloch-isms. Does The Serpent & the Sphere live up to the hype of being “one of the most anticipated albums of 2014?”  And will the album’s sense of infinity carry the “hope of Heaven or the despair of Hell?”

Disregarding “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” for the moment, “(serpens caput)” or the Snake’s Head feels like the logical starting point of the album. Much like “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness” with its guest performance by cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (Grayceon), “(serpens caput)” opens to the delicate and writhing notes of guest neo-folk guitarist Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox. The track captures your attention by driving together a dreamy, shifting soundscape conjuring images of otherworldly meanderings set below Nathanaël’s delicate, post-rock inspired melody. Nathanaël’s melodic contributions re-appear in “Cor Serpentis (the sphere),” and “(serpens cauda)” or the Serpent’s Tail. The tracks all falling within the three-minute range, which for an interlude or transition could be considered lengthy, but within the The Serpent & the Sphere‘s infinity, their distinctive and gentle prodding is actually over pretty quickly.

John Haughm’s vocal style switches through a multitude of phases on this album, contributing more in an instrumental fashion or voice-as-texture rather than specifically as vocals. “The Astral Dialog” and “Celestial Effigy” give you healthy tasters of John’s blackened, raspy growl, along with his ghostly, narrated whispers that remind me at times of M. Lehto’s rasps (October Falls). What I do miss on this album though are John’s piercing screams from Ashes against the Grain‘s “Not Unlike the Waves.” It’s his wounded, passionate wail that most strongly draws me into Agalloch‘s world and the closest he gets are the final few moments in “Birth and Death and the Pillars of Creation”.

Agalloch_2014aThe Serpent & the Sphere rehashes many of the instrumental tricks and flourishes Agalloch delivered on earlier releases, but with less artful avant-garde quirk and embellishment. The majority of the album consists of post-rock style repetitive build-ups (“Birth and Death and the Pillars of Creation,” “Dark Matter Gods” and “Plateau of Ages” being prime examples) with subtle, barely noticeable changes here and there, culminating in lengthy subtly textured instrumental excursions that leave you unable to quickly distinguish one track from the next. If I were to give this texture a face I’d liken it to an endless expanse of brickwork.

Billy Anderson (Cloud City Studios and Everything Hz) is responsible for the mixing, mastering and production across various projects including Agalloch‘s Faustian Echoes EP, and he handled the recording and mixing here as well. This provides The Serpent with the same warmth and feel of Faustian Echoes with enough attention given to Nathanaël Larochette, but the hint of fuzzy blackened-DIY heard on Marrow doesn’t take hold here. Apart from production changes, I’ve noticed a marked shift in the dynamics across Agalloch‘s discography, with improved dynamics in play earlier in their discography — this troubles me in a band that relies heavily on subtleties.

The feeling of having been down this weary and emotional road before, both via Agalloch‘s own discography and their influences, needles me throughout the album. The Serpent & the Sphere is a clever concept and the feeling of infinity is skillfully carried through, but try as I might to find something new here, it’s not adding anything original to the Agalloch catalog and that detracts heavily from the overall listening experience. This is no contender for my year end list I’m afraid.

 

 


Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Eisenwald Tonschmiede
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Websites: AgallochOfficial | Facebook.com/Agalloch
Release Dates: EU: 2014.05.19 | NA: 05.13.2014

 

Show 1 footnote

  1. And that end is generally known as Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™. – AMG

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  • This record is kind of a jumble for me. Maybe I’m just missing the great genius, but I kinda feel like since none of us like this record, it’s probably not just me.

    • Noctus

      Agreed.

    • I’m still trying to love it like I want to love it.

      • You’re too invested, Kris. Just let your cynicism take over.

        • But…It’s Agalloch!

          • I know, but you can just go back and listen to Bergtatt and you’ll be like “Wow! Agalloch is Norwegian!?” :P

            BTW fanboys I’m kidding. But if you do want to complain, send all complaints to:
            Die Angry Metal Guy
            c/o Steel Druhm
            144 Heavy Metal Ln
            New York; NY
            10001

          • FYI: I’m paranoid and armed…with religion.

      • Madam__X

        I tried and tried too, there’s no winning this!

        • Ernesto Aimar

          I’ve listen to the album tens of times before writing my review….but I had the same problem. Still, even when I think (at least for now) it’s the weakest album of their catalogue, I gave it 8 out 10, just because compared to the rest of the scene, they still hold a different kind of vibe. Nonetheless, I expect much more from them….so next time I won’t be too delicate.

          • I refuse to do that. If it ain’t workin’, it’s low. A band’s scores are in reference to the band’s material when they’re as big as Agalloch. You can’t compare Agalloch to the scene, you can only compare them to themselves.

            And frankly? I like the new Cormorant better than the new Agalloch.

          • Ernesto Aimar

            Fair enough, a band should only be compared to itself. But, eventhough I expected much more from their new release….it still holds the Agalloch sound. And to me at least, that’s something to say. Comparing it to “The Mantle”, I definetly agree with Madam X ‘score. But I can’t give the record a 5/10 when it still holds the essence of their sound. The neofolk elements are not that present, but the pagan feeling, the obscure atmospheres, the post-metal riffing, the post rock-ish landscapes are still enticing.

            I really don’t dig into Cormorant, at least not for the moment. I like the new Insomnium better than the new Agalloch, but I don’t regard that as a proper comparisson. But in any case, every point of view makes this world of reviewing richer and richer.

          • Madam__X

            It holds the essence of their sound, but the question I ask is – have they used this well? Is the album good, great or just ok…

          • Ernesto Aimar

            I dare say it’s good. The thing is, I hope for Agalloch to be Awesome and this definetly isn’t. I’m sure that with time my opinion on the album will change, although I don0t know whether for good or for bad

          • The new Cormorant is great, but if there’s one thing I don’t like about it is the dynamics, the DR is way low, it suffers a lot from it and it makes it sound overproduced, I liked the “raw” feel from Dwellings and Metazoa a lot more. Real life has prevented me from writing at more length about music but hopefully I will try somewhere later in the year.

          • Amen.

          • Carlos Marrickvillian

            Fuck yeah wheres the AMG Cormorant review I love’d dwellings and am very interested to see how this band goes with out its main song writer / bass player

          • Jose Barajas

            if i have to listen to a cd or watch a movie or do something over and over again to force myself to like it, chances are i probably don’t like it. there are some exceptions of things i listen to a few times, but usually i get a gut feeling about something after the first spin and if i’m feeling it, then i’ll continue to respin and pay attention to it. but if not then i’ll just won’t.

  • I haven’t even heard this album yet but I have faith you’re all very wrong ;)

    • Madam__X

      Hit play and join our ranks ;)

  • Lord Gronbuske

    I hope you’re wrong for once and this is as it should be one of the greatest albums ever since it is Agalloch.

  • Felipe Mendes Tacla

    I love this website and the minds behind its articles. But I love Agalloch in an incredibly deeper level, and cannot tolerate this review. It is both painful and nauseating. I’m gonna hurt myself with this album? I don’t know, maybe.

    But I simply CAN’T accept it…

    • Best of luck, bro.

    • Alceste Delacour

      Try being a Sonata Arctica fan…

  • Brett Myers

    This is what I love about this site. Even though you guys review a lot of stuff that I don’t care about, and I regularly disagree with you, I feel like you are the most honest review site. When every other site is praising an album, you guys are often the only ones giving a dissenting opinion, and it’s often valid. A lot of sites won’t give a mediocre review to a band as revered as Agalloch. Obviously I’m going to reserve judgement for this record until I hear it, but I have no doubt that you are 100% honest and not at the mercy of the label hype machine.

    • That’s what we’re going for! Though, we never pan records just to have a dissenting opinion. We pan records ‘case we don’t like ’em.

  • HippieOfDeath

    I SO don’t wanna believe you, but I’ll wait until I can get my hands on this one

  • Zadion

    All of Agalloch’s previous albums have bored me to hell. Is this going to be torture for me or what?

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    Another big release gets a pants down from AMG.
    Interesting upon reading the review I was left still wanting to check out the record and was a bit surprised by the 2.5 score. To me the review read as ‘good’ but in the reviewers opinion not as compelling as the bands previously very high quality releases.
    My policy is usually to take scores with grain of salt and pay more attention to the review.

    • Do that. Scores are scores.

      Also, again, there is a consensus here at the AMG offices on this score. And we never intend to pants big releases. I _did_ just give Elvenking a 4/5.

      • Carlos Marrickvillian

        I second Brett’s comment below, good writing and independent analysis, nice work by Madam X. Whilst critical there was enough in there for me to still wanna check it out

        • Madam__X

          Thanks for the kind words Carlos! It’s Agalloch, how could you not :)

          • Feytalist

            A good review is one where, even if the score is extreme, the contents of the review is enough to make me decide for myself whether I will like the album or not.

            This is such a review. Low score, but the points you raised still make me want to check it out.

            So… thanks :D

          • Madam__X

            I appreciate the feedback, thanks Feytalist :)

      • Sordid Bass

        Let’s not forget that White Wizzard review from last year!

        • I personally distanced myself from that at the time. I refuse to take credit for it.

      • Carlos Marrickvillian

        Hats off to the AMG crew you really were first with the scoop on this one.
        I’ve tried really hard to like this…but yeah its boring. It has flashes of (probably innate) excellence but theres an over arching sense of aimlessness about TSATS and you’d could posit a lack of commitment. After listening to it a dozen or more times I honestly cant think of a song I’d wanna go back to.
        The impression I get is that this is the Agalloch transition from metal record where they wnat to branch out but are unsure how to do so . There are some real hints of bands like The Verve and Radiohead and it will be interesting to see how they either collapse, bounce back or progress from this record.

        • Madam__X

          I’m interested to see the very same thing on their next release – collapse, bounce back or progress.

  • Press release claims: “The Serpent and the Sphere” is the most glorious sounding AGALLOCH album to date.

    I haven’t heard it yet so I can’t really comment about the digital release, but it seems after reading this it’s nothing earth shattering. Maybe they should have added at the end, “on wax.” Sigh…

    • Did some measuring, looks like the new Agalloch is an 8. Their old stuff is more like 10s or 11s. It’s a shame, and I’m not sure why it’s necessary?

      But I don’t think the production is really the best as it is. I feel like I’m coming off as really, really critical, but I just was very disappointed by this record generally. I’d probably have gone lower on the score.

      • Well, Mantle, Ashes, and Marrow all hover around the DR7/8 area, so I would say this album is probably par for the course regarding dynamics.

        Bare in mind, that is still above average, though I haven’t heard the record yet so…

        • I didn’t measure those myself, that was what Madam X said to me. But yeah, the production here ain’t great.

          • Madam__X

            Yup I definitely got 10/11 on From Which of this Oak and Pale Folklore and from there the numbers reduced.

          • Ah gotcha, X.

            Btw, I am very happy that you are even discussing these finer production details in your review. Great work! :-)

            I am going to hopefully get the promo today so I am gonna give it a good listen. Though I must admit, after your review and AMG’s “point lower comment,” I have very low expectations going in.

  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    Let’s face it: gone are the days of greatness for this band. Marrow Of The Spirit was average at most (only thanks to the intro and the majestic Black Lake Nidstang) and Faustian Echoes was abysmal. This one is below average too, graced by haunting interludes but once again sporting only glimmers of the past brilliance

  • Alceste Delacour

    This is pleasantly haunting.

  • metalwithay

    Wow, I was really looking forward to this album too. I was expecting to see a 4 at the end of this review. Still going to listen to this when it comes out, but I guess I have to be prepared to be disappointed.

  • T.J. Barber

    2014, the year of high caliber bands releasing meh albums?

    Cynic and Autopsy come to mind…

    • T.J. Barber

      Alcest, Iced earth, Massacre also concerned about Vader, Opeth, Mayhem, Anathema, wolves in the throne room …

      Year end lists are going to get interesting. It always seems to be the case big releases get top marks despite how dull they might be (Black Sabbath for instance last year? No reputable site cared, all the big magazines had in their top ten though.)

      • T.J. Barber

        I also forgot that slayer’s new album sounds pretty silly so far.

      • Grymm

        So far, my year-end list consists of a folk band from Germany, a psychedelic lounge band from Greece… and Triptykon.

        Not exactly bowled over in terms of releases so far this year.

        • Madam__X

          I’m having much the same my side.

        • T.J. Barber

          I think Hail Spirit Noir is going to be one of the best of the year too. Which folk band from Germany are we talking about?

          To be fair I was really impressed with the new Gridlink and I know Lord Mantis has been really polarizing, but it’s one of my favorites for a while now.

          Triptykon is awesome as well, I just really dislike the song Altar of Deceit. It’s got highschool metal band lyrics.

          • Grymm

            Nebelung’s Palingenesis. Seriously, that album is flat-out amazing.

            And I need to hop on the Gridlink bandwagon.

          • T.J. Barber

            I’m going to check it out, for some reason I just kinda passed over it.

            I feel like it’s worth noting just how bummed out I am by this article. I have generally considered Agalloch to be my favorite band for some time, and while I’m sure the album will be a fun listen I think this review will also be spot on, just… more of the same.

            I also really think it’s important (I saw this in another comment) to compare a band with their own previous output. Albums don’t have to be new Morbid Angel to be a big let down, but I’m betting new Agalloch is comparable to Watain’s Wild Hunt.

          • I am going to say this and peeve people off: As my review stated, the new HSN is overrated and a step down from their previous release.

            It’s simply not black enough. They meandered a lot on that record into Doors/psychedelic rock territory. Been there, done that.

            I miss the aggression of their debut immensely and hope they bring it back.

          • T.J. Barber

            I’d agree it’s not as good as Pneuma. But I still really think it’s great.

          • It is good TJ, no doubt about it.

        • Morbus Chron?

          • Grymm

            And another I need to check out!

          • Teitanblood – Death?

            Note Grymm, I can do this all day. :-)

          • Madam__X

            Lol do it ;)

          • Nasheim – Solens Vemod?

            X, I couldn’t resist. Note: DR12!

          • Madam__X

            I’m intrigued – checking it out now!

          • Blast it! :-)

          • Madam__X

            It feels like my soul’s being ripped out! Stunning :)

          • It really is a beautiful record.

            *cough* Fluisteraars – Dromers *cough*

            Not dynamic (far from it), but still excellent.

            I really got to stop doing this… :-)

          • Madam__X

            Fluisteraars is good too, def need to get my hands on it :)

          • It’s on Bandcamp, I think my review links it. Let me know! :-)

          • Madam__X

            Check out Pet the Preacher too… OMGoodness.

            Kamikaze Night will steal your heart!

          • Going to do that now.

          • Listening…this is excellent! I tip my hat to you Madam X.

          • Madam__X

            Thank you kindly :)

        • Carlos Marrickvillian

          Come on, theres been some great releases this year. How about Artificial Brain and Artificial Brain and then there was Artificial Brain and for those quite special dinner party moments its worth mentioning Artificial Brain’s record, its really good too…

          • Madam__X

            That’s a great release. Also Ass to Mouth’s Degenerate – definitely the top grind release I’ve heard this year.

          • I bought this record and still haven’t listened to it. Thanks for the reminder!

          • T.J. Barber

            Everything about the Artificial Brain Release is awesome. I’m also a big fan of Coffinworm IV.I.VIII this year too.

          • Madam__X

            I still need to check out Coffinworm.

          • T.J. Barber

            I think it plays well with Indian from this year too. Though I know there was quite a debate on this site about that release making the record of the month list in January.

          • Madam__X

            Gave Indian a try but couldn’t get it to take hold. You win some you loose some I guess :)

          • T.J. Barber

            It happens, I think if we all needed to like the same things to get along we’d be listening to Avenged Sevenfold.

            The article section exploded in the last day with albums I need to look into.

            Nebelung is incredible btw Grymm. Giving Nasheim a second look now…

          • Madam__X

            Lol, this is true!

          • Carlos Marrickvillian

            Coffinworm is now on my to do list!

  • Well, this stopped my bandcamp prepurchase dead in its tracks.

  • Nicholas Thomas

    I’m listening to it now and I gotta say its good, but it sure as hell isn’t their best album… I might even to go as far as ranking it at the bottom, but even then I’m not saying its a bad album, just not as good as what they’ve done before.

  • andrew macdonald

    The new Infestus album is better than Agalloch. Effortlessly merges black metal riffing, acoustic guitars and also has the epic, sweeping, panoramic thing nailed. Easily end year list material.

    • Madam__X

      The Reflecting Void is definitely a better release, I agree.

  • Chris

    Listened to it three times via the NPR stream today. It’s not Agalloch’s best effort, but I think it’s still really damn good. Kinda like being the worst Ferrari on the lot.

    • Ask yourself this question: when you’re in an “Agalloch mood,” will you listen to this or The Mantle? At some point, being the worst Ferarri on the lot just means you’re a waste of materials, ’cause at least someone would drive an old Mazda.

  • euthanatos

    At the beginning of the review I was :D, but by the end I was D:
    Will still listen to it, of course, but very hesitant now

  • basenjibrian

    listening to the stream on NPR right now. You know…it doesn;t really blow me away, and I am no Agalloch fanboy, but I am enjoying this in the sense of a mellow, kida groovy, kinda hippyish post black metal way.
    I might give it a solid 3.0 but could split the difference: 2.75! Time for quarter point steps, guys! (Just kidding!)

    • Madam__X

      Lol I’m stubborn, no quarters allowed!

  • Jose Barajas

    I love your reviews. Very well written, engaging, and informative. I come to you for more a definitive backing as to why I like or don’t like something. I already have a gut feeling towards a cd, but whenever I go to review sites to see what people say, I always feel like I’m in the minority. I was definitely in the minority for Shelter, but I trust your opinions. I want to like Agalloch but like you mention, they have such a big discography that now buying new cds is kind of super fans. It’s so hard for me to get into bands with a large discography so I will be passing on this from your honest review

    • Madam__X

      Thanks for the kind words Jose.

  • OzanCan

    I am in denial…I refuse to believe what’s been written in this review…The fanboy in me suffers

  • Forest Father

    I’m actually agree with the review. This album contains many rehashed moments of previous albums and comes almost crystal clear the formula of songwriting, more evident than ever before. The vocals alone are weak enough to really take some points off it. I mean, Marrow onwards they show a severe lack of inspiration and this album is no different.

    One thing Agalloch has made more and more is to repeat sections ad nauseam, only adding small melodic licks/beats to disguise how really repetitive is the songwriting. Those subtle changes are not enough to guarantee keeping the listener’s attention spam, given the riffs are not really that engaging and the mood drives are also quite calculated and also repetitive as well, even totally predictable (and this comes from a guy who can listen Burzum’s albums from start to finish). If they could really write strong and interesting riffs, I wouldn’t be troubled by this at all.

    Still I’m not a fanboy nor I hate the band, but I haven’t find them really that incredible ever since their debut (which is a shameless and obvious mix of Ulver’s Bergtatt and early Katatonia); not even the Mantle is really that excellent (they got to know Empyrium it seems and added a a good share of the folk/doom feeling of them into that album).

    I find hilarious how rabid are Agalloch’ fans to apologize and justify everything the band does and are totally closed to any criticism, for valid and obvious it might be.

  • Shawn Cypher

    I’ve never posted here before, but I must disagree (respectfully) with this review. I bought this album on iTunes this morning and I’ve had it on repeat all day today. I must say I quite enjoy it.

    So, my opinion to anyone that has liked anything Agalloch has done in the past, I’m fairly sure you’ll probably like this.

  • JS Wissman

    I’ve been listening to Agalloch for awhile now, having good doses of all of their major albums. I have enjoyed the new album on its own merits without comparing it to Agalloch’s previous recordings. I just saw Agalloch live this past Sunday night. Hearing some of the tracks live only added to my enjoyment of the album. The Astral Dialogue along with Dark Matter Gods are my current favorites. To my ears, Astral Dialogue starts as–if one had never listened to any other Agalloch–a doom metal song with a guitar tone somewhat reminiscent of vintage doom metal bands. I digress. I think while your review analyzes the new Agalloch album based on their previous efforts, and the similarity between the new and old material, there is something to be said for just listening to the album and finding out if, upon repeated listening, the songs absorb the listener into the soundscapes Agalloch excels at painting. I admit, I’m thoroughly absorbed.

    “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” –John Cage