Sound — 9
In some ways, it's convenient for Agalloch that they take so long to produce their albums. The four year gaps only serve to support the theory that each of their records is grown; spawned from the seeds of the last but possessing individual traits and characteristics. Marrow Of The Spirit' doesn't strictly fall in line with this. Agalloch have severed many of their ties to 2006's Ashes Against The Grain', and begun to float away to an ethereal world of further experimentalism. But as we'll learn, their journey isn't complete.
Before we can immerse ourselves in the substance, there is a major aesthetic issue to be addressed. There is no desire here for a trimmed, tuned, perfect mix. Each instrument lands on the pile to create naturally flawed textures, with timing, tuning and EQ only brief afterthoughts. Flat-out rejecting the blockbuster production of Ashes' is a bold move but it is Agalloch's confidence in their material that breaks down the initially formidable barrier. It all settles as you get to know the structures, and sooner or later all these discrepancies fade to become transparent, leaving the music itself in plain view and once this moment has passed, you can't imagine the production being any other way.
Promoted as their darkest effort, Marrow...' has barely a moment of true positivity over 65 minutes of bleak ambience, grandiose metal and pulsing rock. There are four main tracks bookended by contextual, motivic pieces and within this, there are two distinct movements. Into The Painted Grey' and The Watcher's Monolith' take their cues from past works (specifically their Pale Folklore' debut) and are in that sense more traditional; hallmarks of black, folk and doom metal are woven through the band's rolling progressions, rhythmic evolutions and lead-driven structure. The second half of the album, however, is where the promise of darkness really comes good. Reverb-drenched guitars and tribal timpani construct vast space to usher in the album's cinematic masterpiece, Black Lake Nidstng', and the colossal doom of it all lingers for the duration, leaving an identifiable split in mood down the middle of the album. Even the airy, post-rock influenced Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires' seems bittersweet.
Lyrics — 9
Fans of The Mantle's great soaring chants will be disappointed to hear that they play little part on Marrow Of The Spirit'. In fact, vocals as a whole are intermittent, vessels for lyrics rather than musical direction. John Haughm's famous stage whispers do most of the leg work and are as effective as ever, but there is one song which, as in every other department, indicates signs of real progression for Agalloch's vocal palette: that song is, of course, Black Lake Nidstng'. Haughm signifies different narrative voices through different vocal styles; the voice of the nidstng', I imagine, will be talked about for years to come. Over a section bearing most resemblance to funeral doom practices, Haughm shrieks; letting his voice crack with anguish, delivering the words with gut-wrenching impact and blatant black metal influence. It is, quite frankly, the darkest moment of the band's career to date.
Overall Impression — 9
It can take a long, hard graft to uncover the gratifications in Marrow Of The Spirit', due to its technical imperfections and its ambitious midway dive into new territory. The latter is, I suppose, the biggest flaw of the album while both sides of the coin are stimulating, embarking on such a journey halfway through means the ending, beautiful and twisted as To Drown' is, comes all too soon. If you invest yourself too heavily on the first listen you may find yourself with blue balls.
However, to snub it would be to deprive yourself of some quite exceptional music. This is one of the top albums of the year, and is itself a promise of even greater things to come. By the looks of things, the future is dark, exceptionally dark. See you guys in 2014.