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Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere CD (album) cover

THE SERPENT & THE SPHERE

Agalloch

 

Experimental/Post Metal

3.75 | 81 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'The Serpent & The Sphere' - Agalloch (71/100)

Agalloch is the uncommon result of an uncompromising vision and style. Though they've never let themselves be bound to one sound, their identity is strong and distinctive, even in the wake of recent imitators. With each album, Agalloch seemed to have found the perfect balance between staying true to one's own aesthetic, and shifting the style to the point where each album felt like a new journey. With that in mind, it's not surprising Agalloch have made such waves. Particularly in recent years, their momentum has snowballed to the extent where they're now one of the most talked-about bands in extreme music. Their second and third albums- The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain- remain two of my best-loved albums ever.

With the unbearably high expectations that would no doubt arise with a new Agalloch record, I'm not altogether sure whether I could have listened to The Serpent & The Sphere without some sort of disappointment laying in wait. Agalloch's latest album is easily the least impression in their career thus far, but it yet stands as an impressive contribution to what is fast-becoming one of the best discographies in metal.

Similarly to the impression I had with 2010's Marrow of the Spirit, rather than renovate their entire style, The Serpent & The Sphere feels like a conscious consolidation of elements they previously innovated. The Ulver-esque black metal of Pale Folklore is arguably most prominent, with The Mantle's folk displays and Ashes Against the Grain's post-metal leanings filling out the rest of their palette. Taking the fourth album into account as well, The Serpent & The Sphere enjoys the distinct analog production of Marrow of the Spirit. All put together, you have an album that retains the rich quality and atmosphere of Agalloch, without so much of the identity I'd associate with their individual albums. Then again, Marrow of the Spirit also suffered this criticism, and I still consider it a masterpiece unto its own.

Whatever issues that may be had with The Serpent & The Sphere lay within the written material itself. The atmosphere remains as bold and vast, but in fusing their styles, the result is rather muddy and inconsistent. "The Astral Dialogue" and "Dark Matter Gods" pack a solid punch, but none of the individual songs have the memorable impact I may have taken for granted on earlier albums. In spite of coming off as weaker songwriters this time around, there are plenty of immaculate moments on The Serpent & The Sphere, precisely the sort of stuff that made them a favourite band of mine in the first place. "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" has a crushingly doomy feel, and while it lacks the dynamic impact of other slower Agalloch tunes (the masterful "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" comes first to mind), it sets the stage with a bleak atmosphere that carries throughout the rest of the record. While "The Astral Dialogue" seems to run together with "Dark Matter Gods" on the album, it stands out to me as one of the album's best cuts, with biting riffs that recall Agalloch's labelmates in Hammers of Misfortune. Perhaps it proves a point, but the included interlude tracks provided by Musk Ox acoustic mastermind Nathaniel LaRochette are the best written, most evocative tracks on the album. On top of creating a satisfying 'bigger picture' for the album, the interludes co-exist beautifully with Agalloch's bleakly solipsistic aesthetic, to the point where I hope this is not the last we've heard from him on an Agalloch release.

While the material on The Serpent & The Sphere does not impress me nearly as much as their last three albums, I can safely say Agalloch have improved the practical execution of their material to the point of virtual perfection. With the help of producer Billy Anderson, The Serpent & The Sphere isn't just the best- sounding Agalloch have ever been- it's one of the best productions I have ever heard on a metal album period. Marrow of the Spirit played with analog grit in the wake of the overly polished Ashes Against the Grain but didn't nail it entirely. The Serpent & The Sphere enjoys a richly organic production that sometimes even outshines the music itself. It's one thing to have a polished big-budget production, but it takes some level of vision and genius to find the optimal warmth and frame for a band's sound. Aesop Dekker's drumwork is thick and heavy, the guitars sound rich, and Jason Walton's bass work is consistently audible for once. From a technical standpoint, The Serpent & The Sphere arguably succeeds beyond any other album I've heard this year. It's a shame I don't find myself quite so impressed with the music itself.

There was something beautifully poetic and captivating about the way Agalloch sought to capture the essence of nature in their lyrics and music. It's certainly a bold move for the band to have stepped away from the earthly to explore its astral counterpart, but Agalloch's wordier approach to the ethereal doesn't carry the same resonance. Even so, if anything defines The Serpent & The Sphere in the context of Agalloch's illustrious discography, it is this conceptual liberation from the worldly plane. While the music is still perfectly recognizable to what Agalloch have conjured in the past, it is conscious of this change; space electronic embellishments and oscillations virtually unheard of in their work come to bear whenever the atmosphere permits. The lyrics reveal more depth when they're read, and taken into context with the album's interlude-heavy structure and cover art featuring the ceaseless worm Ouroboros, there is plenty of depth and thought-provoking content available to anyone willing to search for it. Agalloch are none the less meticulous in their work, but their earthly aesthetics of yesteryear are preferable to the road they've taken.

While he retains the rare gift of having a distinctive black metal rasp, Haughm has limited himself to a small set of familiar snarls and brooding whispers. Where his plain (and appropriately sombre) clean vocals might have added variety on past albums, his almost entirely rasped delivery on The Serpent & The Sphere doesn't offer the impact I would expect to hear from him. Come to think of it, it's probably a significant reason why I've never been able to connect to the album's theme and lyrics. There's nothing wrong with his snarl in of itself (and I might not have even noted the lack of range in a lesser black metal act) but by the sixth time he falls back on his default moody whisper to elocute some declaration to the universe, it no longer feels as poignant or moving as it should be.

If anything's been proven to me in this experience, it's that being a fan can have its downsides. Were this the first Agalloch release I'd had the pleasure of hearing, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it more, but I'm certain that my lasting thoughts towards it wouldn't have been so critical. Perhaps the album needs a pair of fresh ears to enjoy to its fullest extent; the fact is that while Agalloch remains a powerfully resonant force with a gripping sense of style and atmosphere, they seem to be at the point where they have begun to rest on their laurels, at least when it comes to renovating their sound. The Serpent & The Sphere is a solid album for all intents and purposes, but for a band as breathtaking as Agalloch have been in the past, I was expecting more.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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