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…
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.