Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record label: Profound Lore
Genre(s): Metal, Pop/Rock, Black Metal
The legends are true. The Serpent and the Sphere, the fifth full-length record from Portland, Oregon's blackened folk metal maestros Agalloch, is close to perfect. While the grandness of their vision and the beauty of their performance have always made Agalloch a keystone of the American black metal scene, it is with The Serpent and the Sphere that their vision has finally matched their execution.Impossibly vast, the record engages with the very nature and fabric of the universe, both from a scientific and a spiritual sense, and especially where these two concepts meet, burrowing deep into the moments where reason fades into magic.
For a band that’s spent the last 15 years gracefully and aggressively testing the limits of the sound that heavy metal makes, Portland’s Agalloch have committed very few errors. From 1999’s primitively produced but ambitiously built Pale Folklore to 2010’s arching and magnetic Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch have twisted black metal into a fabric of folk reverie, classical grandeur and atmospheric washes. There have been exultant harmonies and disembodied howls, chamber music interludes and industrial noise ruptures, gilded acoustic fantasies and barbaric electric marches.
Agalloch's fifth album, The Serpent & the Sphere, is an entrancing, inter-dimensional construction zone, a billowing tapestry of fog-shrouded gods and mystical pillars rising toward skies swirling with dark matter. An eccentric, poetic, shamelessly serious attempt at explaining life, death, and the multiverse, the album is an invitation to throw on your headphones, close your eyes, and ask, “What does it all mean, man?” Incorporating elements of post-punk, prog rock, and classical, the reclusive Portland black-metal outfit creates high drama every time their feet hit the distortion pedals. This brand of metal isn't about solos or crazy time signatures or thundering double-bass pedals; it's about patience, beauty, and release.
Contemporary metal is a tree with many forked and gnarled branches, a thing visible above the surface, extending skyward from a dense, submerged core. Which is to say, there are few genres, other than country, that produce so much material with so little visibility. Murk is flattering for metal; it shrouds the whole experience in a certain mystique, but it also dooms to mediocrity those acts that push above ground.
Review Summary: Planting a seed of doubtThere is a colossal amount of construction going on within the tunes of The Serpent & the Sphere, as the instruments time and again revisit the drive to create massive atmosphere and big soundscapes. The problem is, however, that Agalloch did not seem to recognize the importance or even the existence of this insatiable appetite for larger emotion, and rather fumble around with conceptually soaked songwriting kindling that can never light the whole track ablaze. It was, in a much smaller and more localized way, an issue on Marrow of the Spirit, but with The Serpent & the Sphere it feels like the album is consumed by this volatile mix of songwriting laziness, far-reaching pretension, and plain old lack of ideas.
Agalloch The Serpent and the Sphere (Profound Lore) Like a frost giant warming itself by the fire, Portland quartet Agalloch keeps one boot in balmy progressive folk and the other in frigid black metal. The band's fifth LP pushes extremes further than ever, with some of its prettiest, most haunted acoustic textures and heaviest, raspiest roars. "Plateau of the Ages," "Vales Beyond Dimension," and "Dark Matter Gods" wrap sludge-ripping crunch and throat-caressing shimmer together so sensually that pleasure and pain become indistinguishable.