Marrow 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”.
The 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.