Review Summary: Agalloch find themselves lost inside the confines of their comfort zone.
As one of the harshest and most unrelenting Winters in recent memory comes to an end, it is difficult not to feel overcome with a renewed, yet fleeting sense of joy. For a while it felt like Spring would never arrive, and now that it has it is hard to actually behold. But eyes do not deceive; the frost on your windowpane is truly melting, and fresh droplets of water drip down onto the soil, where the first flowers of spring are just beginning to bloom. Spirits are running high and newfound hope is drifting through the warm breeze, affecting even the darkest, loneliest of souls in profound ways. The music of Springtime is that which matches the season's bright colors and optimistic outlook. Musical pieces like "Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity" by Gustav Holst captures the essence of the season, with its layers of harmonizing orchestration crescendoing over a simple, yet glorious melody, progressing flawlessly from somberness to tranquility like the transition of Winter to Spring. With that being said, it is no wonder that few things feel stranger than listening to Agalloch in the Springtime.
There is a certain Wintery aura that surrounds Agalloch's music. Every element of each song contributes to the overall atmosphere of Agalloch’s albums. This was best demonstrated in The Mantle
, the band's crowning achievement. By becoming more folk-driven and post-rock, The Mantle
built upon the sound of their previous work and displayed the band's brilliant songwriting ability. Throughout the album, gloomy, acoustic-driven neoclassical melodies were used to paint a picture of a gorgeous forest in the listener's mind; each treetop blanketed in a sheet of snow. Haunting riffs, reminiscent of doom metal, shroud each song with darkness and fear, representing the grimness of nature and the loss of hope in the face of desolation. Vocals are used strategically and sparingly, with both clean singing and death growls guiding the listener as he or she trudges through the snow. The sound Agalloch established in The Mantle
was further developed in the two following releases. Both Ashes Against the Grain
and Marrow of the Spirit
changed the band's overall sound while still remaining extremely atmospheric and enthralling throughout. As a result, the initial concern I had when Agalloch announced their fifth album, The Serpent and the Sphere
, was not of its merit, but rather that the album would be unfitting with the time of season. However, very early on into the album, it became apparent that my concerns were misplaced. It is certainly not bad by any means, so why exactly does this album fall flat?
The answer is simple: Agalloch seem to have forgotten what made them such a fascinating band in the first place. The music on this album is without focus or clear intent; nearly every song drags and meanders along a repetitive riff with melodic and acoustic passages thrown in just for the hell of it. For these reasons, it may appear almost as if the band no longer have idea what they are doing.
This is not to say that The Serpent and the Sphere
is a departure from Agalloch’s well-established sound. Rather, it is without a doubt the band’s least-realized effort to date, lacking both the creativity and depth of the band’s previous releases. Agalloch have clearly found their comfort zone and show little willingness to leave. As a result, the album sticks to a predictable formula and strays little from what is expected of an Agalloch album. Heavy riffs reign supreme in nearly every track, with folky passages popping up to provide relief in the midst of growled vocals and aggressive drumming. While this formula does work well, it nevertheless serves to make the album seem uneven, since the dark, heavy moments are by far the strongest and most memorable parts of this album. The acoustic, folk-driven melodies on the album sound uninspired and forced. In particular, the acoustic instrumentals “(Serpens Caput)” and “Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)” add absolutely nothing of value to the album whatsoever other than to fill time. Both of these songs are likely poor imitations of “The Lodge” from The Mantle
, an acoustic interlude which features minimal instrumentation other than acoustic strumming and percussive dinging sounds created from striking a deer skull. Unlike the interludes on this album, which are little more than acoustic doodling, the interludes on The Mantle
and those elsewhere in Agalloch’s discography possess strong melodies and helped to add fluidity to the album. Although there are a standout few acoustic passages, such as the intro of “Plateau of the Ages” and the entirety of closing track “(Serpens Cuada),” the majority of them are lackluster and utterly pointless.
A major area in which The Serpent and the Sphere
falters is in its unfocused songwriting. Each song manages to hook the listener’s attention when it first begins by slowly building momentum and becoming increasingly loud as more layers and textures pile up. Rather than capitalize on that momentum, however, the band instead chooses to jump immediately to the song’s riff, which is then repeated for what may well be an eternity. Over the course of nearly every song, the band consistently get lost within their music, allowing the song to wander aimlessly as it progresses until eventually succumbing to a lull. This slow, meandering pace Agalloch have adopted is sure to try to the listener’s patience, as shown by opener “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation,” a song focused around a relatively uninteresting riff and generic drum patterns which stretch over the course of ten and a half-minutes with little variation throughout. Due to their aimlessness and lack of purpose, most songs begin and end without leaving much of an impression on the listener, while other feature strong moments but as a whole are undeniably boring.
As with any Agalloch album, The Serpent and the Sphere
has no shortage of atmosphere. The band clearly focus on conveying different types of mood and atmosphere during each song, arguably even more so they did on Marrow of the Spirit
. At first, this may seem to be a positive trait for an Agalloch album to possess. Here, however, it is detrimental; it serves as the primary reason why The Serpent and the Sphere
is so easily forgotten. Every emotion expressed on this album has been expressed before in the band’s discography. As such, an inscrutable sense of familiarity lies at the heart of each track. Nothing new is ever brought to the table and the atmosphere conveyed is noticeably weaker than that of the album’s predecessors. Here, acoustic passages are sad, but never outright depressing like those on The White
. The black metal-inspired riffage and drumming remains dark as ever, conveying a tone of anger that never quite matches the violent rage found on Pale Folklore
and Ashes Against the Grain
. There are moments of genuine beauty to be found on the album, but unlike The Mantle
, these moments appear sporadically, usually halfway through each track, and are thrown into songs rather clunkily. The album does undoubtedly have its fair share of nuances, but for the most part The Serpent and the Sphere
struggles to find its own unique identity within Agalloch’s discography.
While its flaws are numerous, this album is not necessarily a complete failure. Merely, it succeeds in the same areas as previous Agalloch efforts. Although the songwriting here is unfocused and detrimentally flawed, the album is still able to work well as a whole, with every song transitioning well from one to another. Despite the blandless of the interludes, the album's overall flow is fluid and consistent. In addition, the band’s individual performances are truly worthy of merit. Don Anderson continues to be an eclectic and skillful guitarist, dominating every song with soothing folk melodies and intense riffs. Aesop Dekker puts forth his most commendable performance on this album, often carrying the rhythm of a song on his back with thunderous drum beats. Jason Walton on bass adds little to the acoustic passages during the album, but helps create intensity when songs begin to speed up and become more chaotic. The only member of Agalloch who fails to live up to expectations is vocalist John Haughm, whose clean vocals are entirely absent from this album. While Haughm remains emotive and passionate as ever, his fixation on unclean growls prevent his vocals from appearing in the softer parts of the album. As a result, his vocals become monotonous as the album progresses. Besides the subpar vocals, however, Agalloch appear to be at the top of their game instrumentally, with the album’s superb production highlighting this fact.
The Serpent and the Sphere
is the first time Agalloch have released an album that does not relate to the season of Winter. In no way does this album paint vivid images within the listener’s mind or conjure scenes of white forests with frozen rivers surrounded by mounds of snow. As a result of unfocused songwriting, formulaic and forced acoustic passages, and a stubborn refusal to step outside of their comfort zone, The Serpent and the Sphere
find Agalloch failing to convey any sort of visual imagery to the listener other than that of a band playing music and writing songs in a recording studio.
On a positive note, it can be said that there is something strangely intoxicating about The Serpent and the Sphere
. Due to the strong performances by each band member on the album, it is easy for one to lose his or herself in the repetitive nature of the music as a song slows down its pace and succumbs to a lull. Who knows, perhaps this album would have been a success had Agalloch not lost themselves within their music as well.