Thursday, January 1, 2015

Agalloch - The Serpent & the Sphere

Not being the type that keeps in close touch with their fans through frequent social media and website updates and interview appearances, Agalloch has proven to be a somewhat difficult band to follow. Their tours are always small and there is never a significant amount of effort put into promoting them. Yet their dedicated cult following that reaches all ends of the globe fills every venue that they perform in and spend time and money searching for their often times hard-to-find albums and merchandise. The announcement of their latest album appeared almost out of nowhere, with no prior teaser or warning. But woe, and behold, The Serpent & the Sphere appeared on shelves during the summer of last year, marking their second release through Profound Lore Records. This also continues the 4 year gap pattern in between releases (obviously the band takes their time in crafting their works of art), and in effect ending a very bothersome and impatient wait for myself since discovering them a year after they released The Marrow of the Spirit in 2010.

Due to the fact that they aren’t nearly as sporadic and seemingly lost like most progressive and experimental bands in the world appear to be, there will forever be endless opportunities for Agalloch to take their musical direction in without compromising any major aspects of what they have already established. Some progressive bands strive to do something completely new with each album; a risky, but bold step. When listening to each of Agalloch’s albums in order, you can hear the gradual turns their sound takes over the course of time. Pale Folklore being literally the raw blueprint of their sound, and after going in a much more folk-oriented direction with the two following albums, swing to the other end of their spectrum, their black metal side. The Marrow of the Spirit toned down the acoustic and folk stuff that had attracted all the hipsters and put much more emphasis on their actual metal side. More distorted guitars, more blast beats, but still having that beautiful melodic atmosphere. The Serpent & the Sphere basically takes that step even further, with more raw instrumentation that doesn’t get caught up in guitar and vocal effects.

The reason for this direction is a total mystery to me. Usually, when musicians start playing around with their guitar pedals too much, they get lost in it and rarely ever choose to turn back and go to their roots (aka Alcest). The vocals on this album (for the most part) seem to be totally void of any reverb or other effects, which makes it sound like a lot of the amateur underground local band demos and EPs I have in my collection. Not implying that it’s a bad thing, but it just sounds like the vocals from a low-budget EP. But regardless, it gels fairly well with the polished guitar distortion and soft drums. There’s also the increased use of whispered lyrics during softer parts that almost always grow into full-on screaming that’s then followed by the rest of the band picking up.

The Serpent & the Sphere is the first album by this band where I can hear the bass guitar at all times. Even when listening to it on shitty earbuds or laptop speakers, I can still hear the growl of the bass guitar strings vibrating against the frets. Agalloch is a black metal band, so production and sound quality isn’t going to be something that has a lot of time and effort invested in. But for some reason they had the bass guitar mixed in a very common way in which it basically blends in with the rhythm guitar and adds a massive lower end to it. But on this album, it’s totally separate. Once again, not sure why they felt that this was the album to do it on, but it’s nice to actually have an audible reminder that they have a bass guitarist. As far as what the bassist actually does is mostly just those Steve Harris-style triplets following the drums and base chords with the occasional sweep or walk that breaks away from the primary chord structure.

I know this is my first review in at least five months, so I apologize if my writing is a bit choppy and unorganized. If you haven’t seen it already, The Serpent & the Sphere is the fifth best album of 2014 according to my year in review list. What Agalloch will do next will remain a total mystery and, if the pattern continues, we won’t find out until 2018. But until then, I will be here, eagerly awaiting their next masterpiece. This album, obviously, gets 20/20.