Agalloch is one of the rare bands whose music can provoke complex emotional reactions and truly move me every time I listen. From the bleak coldness of Pale Folklore to the creepily morose musings on The Mantle and the tense, uneasy nihilism of Ashes Against the Grain, their music overflows with emotion and feeling. Their odd and groundbreaking neo-folk, black metal, post-rock fusion has been a winning concoction time and again. From their small but fierecely dedicated fan base, there has been an almost palpable anticipation for new material from these Oregonian wood gnomes, and finally, they deliver Marrow of the Spirit. It goes without saying that expectations are ridiculously high based on the masterworks that preceded, but can they continue to operate at such a high level? I want to say yes unconditionally, but the truth is more like a yes, with minor qualifications.
Marrow begins with the darkly beautiful instrumental “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness” featuring guest cellist Jackie Perez Gratz of Grayceon (fans of dark atmospheric music need to check them out ASAP). The somber, haunting cello work accompanied by the sound of a babbling brook is followed quite jarringly by “Into the Painted Grey,” which features the heaviest and ugliest black metal blasting Agalloch has ever done. Over the twelve plus minutes that follow, Agalloch explores a lot of familiar styles and ideas, from muted, moody introspection, to black metal hammering, always maintaining a high level of quality (check out the great riff that occurs at 6:00). This continues with “The Watcher’s Monolith,” which sounds like a lost track from The Mantle,with acoustic guitar offset by rock/metal lead-work and the excellent black metal rasps of John Haughm. It was at this point on Marrow that it began to dawn on me, despite the excellence of the music, there’s also an undeniable feeling of familiarity and sameness here compared to their prior works, and that’s a feeling I never experienced before as an Agalloch fan.
Thankfully, “Black Lake Nidstang” reverses that trend, sounding fresh and new with an evil, pseudo-doom style perfect for a vacation in Mordor. The pained, blackened vocals throughout (especially at 7:23) really make the song resonate and pulse with tension and despair. Also a very long composition (seventeen minutes and change), this track morphs from doom to suicidal black metal and onto something verging on, dare I say it, electronica. However, it remains compelling throughout, and continues the classic Agalloch style of avant-garde experimentation. “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” follows and sounds very reminiscent of material from Ashes Against the Grain, and again feels very familiar. Idea recyling or no, this is still a great song and one of the best on Marrow. Closing track “To Drown,” brings Ms. Gratz back for more cello-fueled, sullen, melancholy reflections, heavy on the dark ambiance (sounding especially cool at 6:44), and another standout number results.
While this is by far their most black metal album since Pale Folklore, it isn’t their best, and suffers by comparison to their stellar back catalog. There’s a feeling of “been there, done that” prevailing throughout several of the songs due to a fairly strong reliance on older ideas. That said, it’s still fucking Agalloch, so it’s ridiculously good music played by superb musicians, and their recycled ideas are superior to new ideas from 99.89% of other bands anyway. Of course, as with their previous material, it isn’t possible to experience the totality of what Marrow has to offer without completely marinating oneself in it to get all the juicy, oaky goodness, and the more you listen, the more this will grow on you.
Though clearly a victim of my unreasonably high expectations, Marrow is still a winner, and while not Agalloch’s most innovative work, it’s another excellent union of music and emotion. Long time Agalloch acolytes and tree hugging newbies alike will surely enjoy basking in it’s strange charms and flavors. Mmm… tastes like wood!