Agalloch - Marrow Of The Spirit

This has been a long time coming. Four years ago I gave Agalloch’s Ashes Against the Grain an 8.0 on Pitchfork, though it deserved a higher score. The Portland band’s fourth album Marrow Of The Spirit is even stronger — a dark, sprawling, endlessly epic, flat-out gorgeous contender for metal album of the year. To say I’ve been looking forward to it is an understatement. In 2008 I managed to fit Agalloch into a SXSW preview though they weren’t playing it. Last January I bugged drummer Aesop Dekker about it when interviewing him about Ludicra’s The Tenant (speaking of year-end lists). The tweets, the tweets have been endless. All of that anticipation and Marrow Of The Spirit went further than I thought it would: After forming in Portland 15 years ago, John Haughm & Co. have created their strongest, most moving collection of nature-inspired dark metal.

Marrow is the first Agalloch album to feature aforementioned Bay Area mainstay Aesop Dekker on drums. He brings a heavier, more aggressively punk, live feel. (The shift’s also probably due to Steven Wray Lobdell’s rawer analog production.) From the transition of the bird songs, water, and strings of instrumental opener “They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness” to the furious opening of “Into The Painted Grey” and onward to patches of naked piano with cricket accompaniment (the end of “The Watcher’s Monolith”), Moog surfacing amid backwoods electro-acoustics, Haughm’s most haunting vocals to date (prepare yourself for the 17-minute “Black Lake Nidstång,” one of the year’s best musical moments), and the spiraling bursts of fuzzy, off-kilter/elegant noise (and ebbing bodies of water) on instrumental closer “To Drown,” it’s their most romantic, expansive, icy, daringly progressive effort to date. We’re told Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies was an inspiration. There are guest appearances from cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (Grayceon, Asunder, Amber Asylum), Witch Mountain’s Nathan Carson, and Vindensang’s Jeffrey Neblock, who handles the piano at the end of “The Watcher’s Monolith,” the song I’m premiering today. I could go on…

I’ve been listening to Marrow Of The Spirit consistently for the last month or so and wanted to dig a bit deeper than my ears could take me: I spoke briefly with main man John Haughm about the album and “The Watcher’s Monolith.”

STEREOGUM: What’s the story behind “The Watcher’s Monolith”? The songs on Marrow Of The Spirit are diverse, nail different emotional states. This one feels spiritual, even liturgical. I think back to the title of the album, too.

JOHN HAUGHM: It has a lot to do with a horrible illness I had in Europe a couple years ago and the healing process which involved the Externsteine in the North Rhine region of Germany. Long story short, I visited the Externsteine with my friends and we stayed there late into the night and built a fire with traveling flutists and percussionists who we had met that day. The energy in the stones of the Extersteine is said to have healing properties so I laid down in the sepulchre, in total darkness, while the sounds of flutes and drums resonated through the stones and into my body. I spent about 30 minutes in the sepulchre…it was one of the most amazing spiritual experiences I have ever had. The following day, my horrible illness was gone. The overall message in this song is that these ancient Pagan sites are very important and must be protected and preserved.

STEREOGUM: More than any track on the collection, “The Watcher’s Monolith” reminds me of Ashes Against The Grain. Intentional echo?

JH: We never think about the other albums in our past when we write so, no, there are no intentional references to that album in this or any song on Marrow Of The Spirit.

STEREOGUM: “The Watcher’s Monolith” comes before “Black Lake Nidstång,” a song people are focusing on as “the very definition of epic,” etc. How does “The Watcher’s Monolith” relate to it? If it all? Why did you decide to place it before “Black Lake…”? I’m curious about the overall track sequencing, the story it tells…

JH: We put the songs in an order which we felt maintained a “traveling” kind of momentum. The album is a journey. Each song is a stop along the way; a new experience…

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Marrow Of The Spirit. I included the times so you get an idea of the pacing.

01 “They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness” (3:41)
02 “Into The Painted Grey” (12:25)
03 “The Watcher’s Monolith” (11:46)
04 “Black Lake Nidstång” (17:34)
05 “Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires” (9:40)
06 “To Drown” (10:27)

Marrow Of The Spirit is out 11/23 via Profound Lore. You can hear “Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires” at the Viva Hate site. Check out my friend Stefan’s review at his blog, Transylvanian Hunger. It’s also worth noting that last Halloween, I moved Show No Mercy from Pitchfork to Stereogum and kept the Slayer alive by changing the name to Haunting The Chapel. Here’s to the many Halloweens to come.

UPDATE: Stream the entire album at NPR.

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Comments (23)
  1. EPIC EPIC EPIC

  2. Congrats on a year of HTC and here’s to many many more!

  3. One of the best bands in the world

  4. I really fucking love this.
    I can already tell that this will be a contender for best metal album of the year along with the new Drudkh and Vestiges’ debut.

  5. This song hasn’t really blown me away, more intrigued me. I like that it’s more raw and Aesop’s drumming is meaty as hell but I think to really dig it I’ll have to hear it in context with the rest of the album. Nice wee interview with Haughm too!

  6. After reading your friend’s review, holy crap i couldn’t be more excited. Have to get used to the new production after being spoiled on the last album with the spiffy production but this song is awesome as always though. Sounds a lot more mantle-y than expected, but that’s never a bad thing. So excited to hear Black Lake Nidstang!!

  7. Oh and did you really think ashes only deserved an 8? or was that part of the whole “we’re pitchfork so we can’t give a metal album more than an 8.4″ thing?

  8. agalloch is god! \m/

  9. I never thought I would say that, but I’m not excited about this song. I don’t know if it’s the stream quality or the production but I don’t hear the sonic awesomeness that usually grabs me by the balls when I listen to this band. It kind of sounds all muddy, but not in what can be a good way. Obviously I’m gonna get this and won’t really judge it until I hear the real thing, but damn, I really hope it will sound better.

  10. Really digging this song. Excited beyond comprehension for the album.

  11. there is no way that this band let you down \m/

  12. I loved this, awesome cover art too. Might get the LP

  13. I never understood that either. It seems to be an unwritten rule: metal bands cannot break 8.6 or receive BNM (unless it’s Mastodon).

  14. HTC is getting me into metal! Also with a little help from my other friend, THC ;)

  15. That’s true, I can’t think of a single metal release outside of Blood Mountain that was BNM’d – there must be a legitimate reason for that

    • I wrote the BNM review for Sunn’s Black One in 2006. So that exists, but pretty spare, agreed.

      • Funny, just realized I wrote that BNM Blood Mountain review in 2006, too. I guess ’06 was the year of metal…

        • Boris’ Pink makes three, also all in 06, all of which you wrote…hmm. Give Breihan a call, he seems to be the only one reporting on anything related to metal. I’m really glad he wrote that Kylesa article, it’s been one I was hoping to see. This is their crossover record, with Don’t Look Back as the crossover song, which is shown at the top of the page

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