Sound — 8
Agalloch is a product of the '90s doom metal movement centered in the American Pacific Northwest. From this movement emerged bands such as Sunn O))), YOB, and, of course, Agalloch. These bands broke new ground by playing lengthy songs, which featured occasional screamed or growled vocals in what often seemed like an endless drone (there have been songs that are just ten minutes of guitar feedback and cymbals). That is not to say that this music was bad or boring, just that it was an acquired taste.
Over the years, and especially now, Agalloch has developed into probably the most mellow band to come from that scene. With their fifth full-length album, "The Serpent & the Sphere," they have built a work of art that can be appreciated by more mainstream music fans instead of only the most extreme metal fans.
The first thing that jumped out at me when I turned on the music was Agalloch's use of acoustic guitars. Merely, using them is not novel for avant-garde doom metallers. However, Agalloch gives the acoustic guitars unique meaning and purpose. For one, they use them primarily to texture the broader sound of the songs instead of just using them alone to serve as filler. Unfortunately, two of the seven songs on the album utilize solely acoustic guitars and they could definitely be better. Actually, those two songs do sound like filler.
Those two tracks notwithstanding, the real beauty of this album can be found in the long, but not arduous, tracks that make up the remainder of the album. For one thing, Agalloch does not often repeat sections in a song or harp on one part for too long. Though the varied sections keep the listener interested, the real hook (if it can be called that) is the dynamics. Whether it's variations in volume, changes between acoustic and electric guitars, wide chords or picked litanies, quiet as a cricket or as hard and biting as the point of a knife, this album exhibits exquisite dynamics that strike a chord with the listener. For some reason though, I do not believe that this is Agalloch's intention.
Nevertheless, the dynamics are most evident in the battle between the lead and rhythm guitars. While the rhythm guitars often sound melancholy, dissonant, and even eerie, the lead guitars are the polar opposite. It often feels like the intrinsically "good" elements of the lead guitars redeem the almost sinful elements of the rhythm guitars, creating an exciting, yet tranquil harmony. Then, as if in some kind of ballet, the vocals dance between the two. Even though the vocals are usually raspy and unpleasant, they still appear to serve good instead of evil.
The two main criticisms I have of the album regard its variety and production. All of the interesting things that I have previously noted are true for within each song. As I listen to the album as a whole though, I find that each song has the same, general musical ideas. This at times leads me to lose concentration and to not make me want to pay attention. In essence, if you've heard one song, you've heard all you need to hear. The only exceptions to this are the two acoustic songs, which even between themselves sound similar.
The other aspect of this album that is not top notch is the production. Maybe Agalloch is purposely going for a trimmed down, garage band type of production sound. But for an album that tries to sound as majestic as "The Serpent & the Sphere," this standard doesn't cut it. Agalloch could have sent this album over the top if they had taken a bit more care with the production and used it as a tool instead of a challenge that needed to be completed. I have certainly heard worse album production (the production of this album isn't outright terrible), but Agalloch missed an opportunity to take this album to a higher level.
Lyrics — 7
In terms of vocals, this album is actually heavy on instrumentals. When vocals do come forward, they are slightly above average. As I mentioned before, most of the vocals are sung in a male, raspy, somewhat insane voice. Pluses include the connection between the character of the voices and the lyrics that each puts forth as well as the apparent story in the lyrics. The only negative I can think of in terms of the vocals is the lack of an over the top, "wow" performance. The use of entirely free verse to write the lyrics is somewhat daring.
Lyrically, as best I can tell, the album is about some person who is battling with inner demons. There is also the possibility that this person is some sort of demigod or supernatural being. Regardless of what I can derive, or what the true meaning is (if there even is one), the lyrics are interesting.
Here are some from "Celestial Effigy":
"There is a voice adrift in the darkness
A whisper of wisdom and purity
Beyond the vestiges of sanity
There is a voice deep in the starless
and marble black dark space
Where no light draws a shadow
Where no time escapes unhallowed
'An effigy; a gift from another kind'
In the glow of a distant aurora light
No dreams shall take form
Gifts dwell in the depths of
Overall Impression — 8
Overall, this is an intriguing album. It especially shows Agalloch's growth and their willingness to experiment a little. While I would not have expected it from them, Agalloch actually writes melodic music with this album that can be appreciated outside of the metal community. As I discussed before, the album's greatest strength is its use of dynamics. Agalloch's use of dynamics can best be heard on the instrumental track, "Plateau of the Ages."
Though I, as a fan, am impressed with this album, I feel that Agalloch could go even further. Maybe next time, with a little bit more variety and a better producer (the two are not mutually exclusive) Agalloch can make an album that stands for ages.