Premature Evaluation: Agalloch The Serpent & The Sphere

Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere

Premature Evaluation: Agalloch The Serpent & The Sphere

Agalloch - The Serpent & The Sphere

The fifth full-length album from Portland, OR-based black-ish metal band Agalloch, The Serpent & The Sphere, opens with a 10-and-a-half-minute track called “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation,” and it is a mindfuck. The song spends some three and a half minutes laboriously building from near-total silence, and upon finally hitting its groove, it proceeds for the next seven goddamn minutes at like 56BPM — a rhythm you might describe as “adagio” or “deliberate” or “glacial.” Frontman John Haughm’s lead vocals are mostly whispered, his rhythm guitar track is entirely acoustic; there’s some portentous plainsong chanting, and at numerous points, components of the already spare instrumentation peel away, leaving only one or two pieces in play, as if the song is buckling under its own enormous weight. It reminds me a lot of the elegant and deeply depressive funeral doom made by Australia’s Mournful Congregation (or Agalloch’s Profound Lore labelmates Loss, from Nashville), although it doesn’t attempt to wring quite the same powerful drama from those sonic elements. It’s not a difficult song, exactly — it’s rather refined and beautiful-sounding, in fact — but on first blush, as an opening track and inaugural statement, it makes no fucking sense.

This is partly because The Serpent & The Sphere arrives to rapt anticipation, and it’s an odd choice on the part of the band to greet such anticipation head-on with a song that inspires adjectives like “glacial” and “portentous.” Agalloch’s last album came out way back in 2010, and that album, The Marrow Of The Spirit, represented a pretty significant breakthrough on a number of levels. In terms of quantifiable metrics, Marrow is (even now, after three-plus years) the best-selling album in Profound Lore’s deeply stacked catalog — a catalog that also includes releases from Pallbearer, YOB, and SubRosa, among others. But Marrow’s cultural impact was greater than its commercial one. It’s hard today to remember a time when American black metal was not covered by mainstream media outlets — and to be sure, some American black metal was covered by some mainstream media outlets prior to Marrow — but Marrow was a tipping point; it was the first American black metal album (or black metal-based album, at least) to achieve something approaching consensus. It was named the best album of 2010 by the revered metal magazine Decibel, but was also the recipient of breathless praise from places like NPR (“It’s hard not be hyperbolic about new Agalloch material”), and Pitchfork (“Marrow confirms Agalloch’s place at the frontier of American metal”), and Stereogum (“It’s a sprawling, endlessly epic, daringly progressive, flat-out gorgeous example of where you can go with ‘black metal’ when you decide [and have the ability] to shatter the template”).

That last quote comes from former Stereogum Senior Writer Brandon Stosuy; it predates my employment at the site by a good year and a half (although I too gushed about Marrow upon its release), but in my time here, I’ve maintained that enthusiasm. I’ve gone on record time and again to say that, in my opinion, Marrow is the best metal album to be released so far this millennium. When we were compiling our Most Anticipated Albums Of 2014, I petitioned to include Marrow’s then-untitled follow-up in that list’s upper tier. We eventually slotted it at No. 7, a ranking justified not only by Marrow but the entire Agalloch catalog, including the three albums that precede Marrow: 1999’s Pale Folklore, 2002’s The Mantle, and 2006’s Ashes Against The Grain. As I wrote in our review of The Serpent & The Sphere advance track “Celestial Effigy“: “[T]hat catalog is not only nearly flawless, but peerless among its class — the body of work produced by Agalloch over the last decade and a half stands alongside the body of work produced by any artist in any genre over that same timeframe, and it stands a great deal taller than most.”

Which brings us back to “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation,” and why it makes no fucking sense leading off The Serpent & The Sphere: How do you kick off this album with that song? Agalloch excel at crafting uniquely kinetic music, and that’s especially true (traditionally, anyway) of their album openers: “Into The Painted Grey”; “Limbs”; “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion”; “She Painted Fire Across The Skyline.” Those are the songs that open the last four Agalloch albums (respectively, in reverse-chronological order), and they are all songs that blow you the fuck away, songs that pull you in and keep you there. “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation,” by contrast, is ponderous, almost motionless — moreover, it’s followed by a 3-minute interstitial acoustic track, called “(serpens caput),” performed entirely by guest musician Nathanaël Larochette (aka Canadian neofolk act Musk Ox). Larochette contributes three such tracks to The Serpent & The Sphere — “(serpens caput),” “Cor Serpentis (the sphere),” and “(serpens cauda)” — and though all are equally delicate and devastating in their beauty, they are plainly there to set or sustain mood.

In every way beyond actual sequencing, “(serpens caput)” feels like an intro track, like it should be the first song on The Serpent & The Sphere, especially considering how the album proceeds from there. Track 3, “The Astral Dialogue,” might be the most immediate, intoxicating, and unabashedly catchy song ever written by Agalloch, with riffs that rival anything on the absurdly hooky last Inquisition album, and performances — especially via guitarist Don Anderson — that send Inquisition back to the woodshed, shamed. “The Astral Dialogue” is the start of a three-song run that challenges any such sequence in Agalloch’s entire catalog. It’s followed by “Dark Matter Gods,” which shifts from subaquatic ambience to landscape-leveling tidal waves of guitar — abruptly at first, but as the song progresses, those two extremes are bridged, and by the time it hits the halfway mark, the whole thing is a single mass that has pulled away from the earth altogether. By its final third, it has lifted the listener, too; seriously, play that thing on headphones during a brisk stroll and you will find yourself levitating for the last two and a half minutes. The closing track in the above-mentioned three-song run is “Celestial Effigy”: Agalloch at their proggiest; seven minutes of shifting time signatures and tones, guided by Anderson’s adept, innovative, multi-textured playing.

Throughout The Serpent & The Sphere, Anderson’s guitars are on almost pornographic display. Even as “Celestial Effigy” is fading out — on the heels of a fireworks display of a lead — Anderson is just dropping in these crazy sweeps that sound like they’re being played on bagpipes or something. Later, on “Vales Beyond Dimension,” he jumps from, like, a Voivod thing to a Built To Spill thing to a Bob Mould thing to a Pink Floyd thing; right around the 4:20 mark, the song transitions out of this huge, heart-swelling Explosions In The Sky-esque bridge with a 15-second guitar breakdown that could have been lifted off …And Justice For All. It comes out of nowhere, but it’s exactly the right piece at exactly the right instant: Not only does it seamlessly connect two otherwise disparate textures (using an entirely disparate third texture to do so), but it elevates the climax that just occurred, it sounds fucking amazing, and it accounts for like .4 percent of the entire song.

The Serpent & The Sphere is full of instances like that — courtesy of not just Anderson, but every member individually, and Agalloch as a unit. These are gigantic, complex songs, with stone-sturdy frames — given muscle, momentum, and even structure by drummer Aesop Dekker and bassist Jason William Walton — but they’re carefully etched with intricate, breathtaking details. [1] No small amount of credit here is due producer Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Om, Red House Painters) whose work has brought out the clearest, richest, and most colorful sounds of Agalloch’s career. Meanwhile, Haughm remains one of the very few extreme metal vocalists who adjusts his delivery to accentuate his lyrics: He’ll go from a whisper to a hiss to a roar to a bellow to a gurgle, and even occasionally a totally clean tone (although clean tones are reserved for the background on The Serpent & The Sphere), and he does so with purpose. Check out the way he moans, “My work has begun,” at 8:35 on “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation.” It’s absolutely the song’s apex, and that peak is scaled largely due to Haughm’s decision to alter his delivery in that moment — a decision that would never even occur to most of his peers.

The Serpent & The Sphere closes with two instrumental tracks. The first of those, “Plateau Of The Ages,” is about as close to soundscape-style post-rock as Agalloch have ever veered: It’s 12 and a half minutes of slow builds and dramatic bursts, frantic tremolo-picked squeals of guitar and thunderous explosions of low end. It’s the one non-Larochette track here on which Haughm, not Anderson, is the primary guitarist, and the Agalloch frontman keeps his performance focused on foundation and melody. And that’s followed by the album’s closing number — its “outro” – the final Larochette piece, “(serpens cauda).”

Which brings us back, again, to “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation.” Literally. The core themes of The Serpent & The Sphere are seemingly betrayed by the album’s cover art and its title: rings, orbits — the cycle of life, eternal return, continuous loop. But if the album is intended as an ouroboros — an endless circle in which the tail is devoured by the head — then it would logically begin with Larochette’s “(serpens caput)” and end with his “(serpens cauda).” (That’s not exactly a wild leap: An ouroboros is traditionally represented in the form of a serpent, and from Latin serpens caput means “the serpent’s head” while serpens cauda means “the serpent’s tail.” Cor serpentis is “the serpent’s heart.”) In that reading, “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation” falls outside the album’s cycle entirely — indeed, it is a cycle all its own: birth and death; creation. And viewed in that capacity, the song makes perfect sense exactly where it stands. It’s neither the beginning nor the end, because a circle has neither a beginning nor an end, just inside and/or out.

But the individual songs’ titles — “The Astral Dialogue”; “Celestial Effigy” — suggest a fascination with matters astrological and astronomical. So it bears mentioning that Serpens is also the name of a constellation, located in the northern hemisphere, made up of two non-contiguous parts: Serpens Caput to the west, and Serpens Cauda to the east. The brightest star in that constellation is called Cor Serpentis. Meanwhile, “Pillars Of Creation” is the name of a photograph taken by the Hubble telescope in 1995, which captures a scene occurring 7,000 light years from Earth, in the Eagle Nebula. In the photograph, one sees three massive interstellar towers of cold gas and dust — towers that stretch across four light years: the titular Pillars — that are in the process of forming new stars. Just looking at that photograph while listening to “Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation” substantially altered my impression of the song, but doing so isn’t necessary. Knowing the context alone sheds potential light on Agalloch’s choice to start the album there, and thus the album itself: The Pillars are not a part this or any constellation; they are the very birthplace of the stars that form constellations. [2]

The first time I saw Agalloch in concert was also the first time they ever played New York City: at Le Poisson Rouge on March 22, 2011 — four albums into the band’s then-15-year-old career. This is not because Agalloch never play live, but because they are ridiculously selective about the venues and situations in which they will do so. “We believe in having a spectacular experience rather than touring constantly and making a lot of money,” Haughm told Brooklyn Vegan in 2010, from Bucharest, Romania, where his band had flown to perform two shows with the French group Alcest — the first two shows of that band’s career. “We’re not a band that wants to rush toward success and burn bridges on the way. We don’t believe in hyping our craft to the point where people are sick of us in a month. We prefer to let the music do the talking and let our actions show who we are.”

The LPR gig in Manhattan was packed tight; prior to the show, tickets had been selling on Craigslist at three or four times their face value, and based on the size of the crowd squeezed into that space, it appeared all those tickets had been put to use. Early on in Agalloch’s set, between “Into The Painted Grey” and Ashes Against The Grain’s “Falling Snow,” Haughm bantered, “We’ve played a tiny village in Belgium three times, but we’ve never played the grandest city in America. Until tonight.” Everyone in attendance was already aware of that fact, but upon hearing it acknowledged, the place went bananas. Of course, the place had been going bananas all night prior to that moment, too, and continued to do so all night thereafter. We were witnessing an Event, and we knew it — and Agalloch were feeding off our energy and returning it amplified, thus further electrifying the room, a closed loop of another kind. It was one of the best live-music experiences of my life. Of course, Agalloch deal in nothing less than superlatives, Events. To be a fan of the band demands patience; they make you wait, and they make you work. But when the payoff arrives, it is thrilling, glorious, momentous. Everything comes into focus. Everything makes sense.

The Serpent & The Sphere is out 5/13 via Profound Lore.

[1] The same could be said of Agalloch’s entire catalog. In my mind, the quintessential Agalloch moment is an Anderson guitar sweep that comes at the 12:00 mark on “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion,” and it lasts for literally one second.

[2] The very deliberate choice to make lowercase the titles of the bookending Larochette tracks suggests that Agalloch are not directly (or at least not solely) making reference to the constellation. The Serpent & The Sphere’s sleeve contains an epigraph by Ralph Waldo Emerson indicating that Haughm and Co. are grappling here with both the above-mentioned concepts of infinity — infinity of the spirit (the serpent) and infinity of the universe (the sphere) — to varying degrees:

Teach me your mood, O patient stars
Who climb each night, the ancient sky,
leaving on space no shade, no scars,
no trace of age, no fear to die.

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