From beginning to end this album is a wonder, combining moments of crushing heaviness with overwhelming beauty, and I found it a tall order to find the words to describe this feat. Produced by Billy Anderson and featuring three acoustic interludes, and using elements like a waterphone and a 100 year old zither, Agalloch’s The Serpent and the Sphere is immediately enticing and not a simple album to absorb at all.
Listening to the opening track, “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” for the umpteenth time, it’s still a struggle to draw my attention away from its captivating grip. Between John Haughm’s unleashing of a raspy growl layered over a hypnotic chant and a thoroughly melded effort from Don Anderson (guitar), Jason Walton (bass) and Aesop Dekker (drums), this track sets the stage for the album – but the best is yet to come. A taste near the end of this first track (8:40) hits you with a stunning riff of simple beauty, quietly fading, enticing you to go on.
Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox has infused his magic into three amazing acoustic interludes, and no time is wasted introducing them. The first, “Serpens Caput,” immerses the listener in a sea of calm. The sound of waves hitting the shore is subtle, and it’s a perfect lead-up for the explosive energy of “The Astral Dialogue.” A scream pierces, the voice is clear and vicious – ‘with the symbols engraved in the sky’ – and a glorious melody accompanies the rasping, feral voice. Combining the raw power of black metal with an atmosphere of undeniable beauty, this track is a great example of what really makes the band stand out among the vast spectrum of talented acts out there today. For now it may be my favourite of the album, with its easily recognizable sense of belonging to the Agalloch catalogue but distinctly grand, new and unique feeling nonetheless.
That glorious feeling only continues with “Dark Matter Gods.” This time Haughm’s vocals begin as a whisper – ‘frozen, in timeless aura’ – as a melody of simple driving bass combined with a seamless progression leads us through several enticing passages. By halfway through it hits an incredible peak, a spacelike atmosphere resounding and uninterrupted until the drums of Aesop Dekker start to bring you, the listener, back to reality with the repeated invocation, ‘dark matter gods’. Though it’s more like back to a dreamlike state, a galloping triplet lending a punch just before letting you have one more bit of nearly psychedelic wonder before the end. Perhaps this track, and the ones prior and following, could be seen as a three-part epic such as we have known from previous albums (Pale Folklore‘s “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline”).
‘my allegiance is with the inner self’, ‘there’s a voice deep in the starless, of the black, dark space, a voice of wisdom and purity…’ … ‘there’s a voice deep in the darkest places calling out to me’
I didn’t think the entire album could be as good as “Celestial Effigy,” what seems like ages ago. I thought that if this track alone was as beautifully memorable as it is, that’s enough, I can do with one song of this caliber in an album. Well… oh man, these guys have done it again. This track is completely unforgettable once heard, never mind when you’ve given it a few solid listens to appreciate the seamless transitions from speeding fury to groovy, headbang-inducing loveliness (5:30) and then right at the outro, about 6 minutes in, dual guitar mastery closes things off in an epic way. Right down to the last hit of that bass drum this song is a commander of attention through many repeated listens.
Ah, and that soothing guitar tone returns right on time with “Cor Serpentis (the sphere).” This second interlude from Musk Ox’s Larochette is very appropriately named. It’s a completely entrancing interlude with a pleasantly hypnotizing effect.
The most crushing, bass-laden intro on the album arrives with “Vales Beyond Dimension.” Upon letting up we get one more return to the amazing spacey atmosphere touched upon previously. Haughm’s raspy vocals really stand out here and are so appropriately placed – ‘the past is a sphere, a mystic shape’… There’s something about the harmony (5:38, for example) and as I write this I’m realizing it’s my favourite outro on the album, too, with that epic guitar tone leading us far away, to the next tantalizing offering and just about the end of this fantastic journey…
“Plateau of the Ages“ is humbling – in the way that it got several listens, enjoying the heck out of it, before I thought, ‘hey wait, this is an instrumental! Holy crap. It just feels so perfect, so immense (2:08) that I didn’t think twice about it. Proof that Agalloch really know how to cast a spell on the listener. Crashing out on an incredible note, heavy bass drums provide a satisfying fill. At about 7 minutes in, you might start to realize what’s happened as the melody returns, faster, really giving you an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in its perfection as a piercing guitar melody rings through, singing out to space and time.
As much as I’m happy to listen to “Serpens Cauda” every time, being the final track it manages to make me a little sad knowing the album is over. Still, its utterly unique charm cannot be really properly described; with this last of the three acoustic interludes to close things out, the magic lingers through the very last pluck of the strings.
(Profound Lore Records)