Portland, Oregon (and beyond) and Agalloch have long been held in high regard as being at the forefront of the much-loved Cascadian black metal movement. With bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Skagos and the oft-cited as hugely influential, Weakling as peers and a curiously under-appreciated record in 2010s Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch have much to prove with their first full length in four years. The Serpent & The Sphere is a record that pays homage to the Agalloch of the past with recognisable guitar motifs appearing frequently throughout the album yet the band never feel as though they are living in the past, rather they are breaking free of their older selves and moving forward into a new era. The use of similar lines is used perhaps only for reference, to allow Agalloch to begin the process of looking ahead while giving their audience something tangible to hold onto. It’s certainly effective as the Agalloch of today is distinctly more vital than they have been in the past. Gone are the sections of clean vocals, which here seem buried deeply within the mix and used as backing laments, in order to be replaced by vocalist John Haughm’s more often used rasped and sometimes whispered approach to proceedings.
“Birth and Death and the Pillars of Creation” begins the album on gorgeous and weighty tones, the acoustic style of the guitar playing sweetly against the more moving aspects of the composition and allowing the band to breathe new life into their work. Those acoustic nuances follow into “(serpens caput)” with Musk Ox’s Nathanaël Larochette lending his skills to the first of three interludes which bond the record together giving it a heightened cohesion. “The Astral Dialogue” fires itself into life on superbly paced black metal overtones, the drums and guitar working to add a classic sound to Agalloch’s organic presentation and the band asserting their newfound esoteric slant on the landscapes that open up during the song. Moving away from their nature and life and death explorations on this release, Agalloch have taken on new questions and routes to enlightenment and have instead adopted the discovery of other planes for their inspiration on The Serpent & The Sphere.
“Dark Matter Gods” pushes forward on a fine melody which is driven by Haugm’s distinct voice and Don Anderson’s gorgeous guitar inflections which soon build and curve around the song in ever increasing waves while “Celestial Effigy” seeks a higher truth on powerful drum beats (Aesop Dekker) and bittersweet harmony. “Vales Beyond Dimension” segues wonderfully into the morose and sombre “Plateau of the Ages,” a track awash with reflection and drama and one that again incorporates those loving touches of older Agalloch works in the guitar steps. Shimmering light is cast off the guitar which illuminates the darkness that the band often find themselves in, they’ve been seeking a different truth with The Serpent & The Sphere and on this work they reach the level they’ve been pursuing.
While The Serpent & The Sphere isn’t one of Agalloch’s more searing works (something that fans will need to reconcile, and quickly, because this record is incredibly consuming), the band have created a record of distinct grandeur and with it a new future. They don’t feel as angry as in previous records but here they have attained a clarity, a wonder at the universe beyond what we know and their quest has only just begun. For a band that have been on this plane for nearly twenty years, change was necessary and The Serpent & The Sphere is only the beginning.
9.0 / 10
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