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.
Agalloch, when I first heard them, were talked about as black metal — at least in the terms I then understood — though now their press releases refer to them as dark metal. Dark, as opposed to what, I’m not quite sure, but I’ll leave that sort of generic parsing to the heshers and the longhairs, the lifers. I imagine that many of those were never not suspicious of so Pacific Northwesterly an enterprise as Agalloch’s transcendentalist folk-metal. The Serpent and The Sphere, the Profound Lore heavyweights’ newest album, is excellent, to be sure, but it’s at least as much Blackshaw as black — sorry, dark — metal.
Whereas their previous albums, especially 2011’s Marrow of the Spirit, plumbed palpable veins of stygian and eldritch horror, The Serpent sets its gaze heavenward, evoking the terrifying, unknown expanses that reduce our existence on this solitary planet to that of infinitesimal significance. John Haughm’s inhuman vocals are chilling as ever, but this time around, they’re somewhat buried in the mix, often bleached of urgency and dissipated like a cloud of dust. For all the full-throated moments — on “Dark Matter Gods,” “Celestial Effigy,” and elsewhere — Haughn’s voice is sometimes little more than a tagline.
Part of the issue is that space is not a realm best suited to a band of Agalloch’s strengths. Their progression toward the black-ish metal of Marrow was a gradual one, and prior to that period, the group relied more heavily on neo-folk elements. The Serpent is, in many ways, more reminiscent of 2002’s The Mantle than it is of Marrow, but with a refined and elegant brutality that Agalloch lacked in their earlier form. Aesop Dekker, the band’s drummer since 2007, deserves much of the credit for this development. His percussion is multi-faceted, borderline-jazzy at times, yet so adroitly incorporated into the composition that it comes off as emotional, urgent, forceful, as anything but indulgent. The guitar tones are also very lovely here. There are three tasteful and somber acoustic interludes, courtesy guest Canadian Nathanaël Larochette, but The Serpent’s pulpier moments — like the phantom-zone guitar harmony at the end of “Celestial Effigy” — prove to be much more fulfilling. Nevertheless, space opera is a less impressive achievement than the dead serious art horror of Marrow of the Spirit. I mean, sure, high school me is thrilled that “Vales Beyond Dimension” sounds, in its first minute, almost like Lateralus-era Tool, but despite the virtuosity on display, the aim is more earthly, more mortal than previous efforts. This irony deserves to be stated outright.
The less critical part of me doesn’t mind any of these points, not when there is so much majesty to take in. When Haughm enters the frame, 4:40 into “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation,” the gluesniffing half of my brain is thrilled to be reminded in some intangible way of the intergalactic husband of Death). The Serpent’s cartoonish moments are tremendously rewarding, even if they happen to be something of a mismatch for Agalloch. In that same regard, sleepy and ponderous as those acoustic interludes might threaten to be, they also lend the proceedings a cinematic flair and scope. That those three tracks are, in a literal sense, parenthetical to my enjoyment of The Serpent is probably to its detriment, but again, they are tastefully employed throughout.
Perhaps the progression that needs to be noted is not from black metal back into neo-folk and post-rock, but from behind a veil of obscurity across the waves of National Public Radio. The Serpent and The Sphere is nothing short of excellent, nothing but scary; and no matter how much the band has improved, the absence of terror is deeply felt. Perhaps that’s unfair of me to say. Dilettantes like me have been paying attention to Agalloch for a while now, and The Serpent and The Sphere is about as high-profile a release as its genre allows. Deep space notwithstanding, how did Agalloch ever stand a chance at retaining that evocative and unsettling quality?
01. Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation
02. (Serpens Caput)
03. The Astral Dialogue
04. Dark Matter Gods
05. Celestial Effigy
06. Cor Serpentis (the sphere)
07. Vales Beyond Dimension
08. Plateau of the Ages
09. (Serpens Cauda)