Review Summary: Although it does its best to hide it, The Serpent and the Sphere may be Agalloch's most powerful and grandiose album to date.
If I had to choose a mere three words to describe Agalloch’s newest full length album, The Serpent and the Sphere
, I’d probably have to go with: layered, brooding, and most of all monolithic. It isn’t an album that gives itself away on a first, second or even third listen. Much like a person, it requires patience, perseverance, and attentiveness in order to decrypt the outer layers and get to what lies within, a daunting task perhaps, but one that can reap immeasurable rewards when done for the right person (or in this case the right band). With classic releases such as The Mantle
and Ashes Against the Grain
under their belt and still not a bad album in sight, Agalloch are a band that has certainly earned the effort.
The Serpent and the Sphere
may very well be the band’s most forceful output yet but it hides itself behind a wall of sound sort of production. Once the soft opening notes of “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” finish their soft greeting, the electric guitars immediately come crashing in with a thickness that has never yet been seen on an Agalloch record. This very loudness is what makes the album so daunting yet so rewarding all at once. Picking out the minute details that make an Agalloch album the beautiful journey it is becomes a challenge that will not appeal to any listener. Listen after listen, however, the album reveals itself layer by layer, be it an accompanying melody that was being played softly below the loud distortion or a pinch harmonic thrown in as an exclamation after a particularly powerful passage, such as in “Plateau of the Ages” as it brings the album to a resounding climax. As each layer is gently peeled off and the heart and life of the album is revealed, the initial intimidation of the loud production turns into a comfort of sorts. Having trekked a path to the center of the sound, the loudness now serves as a layer holding the outside world at bay while the listener finds himself engrossed in the experience that is The Serpent and the Sphere
Having bridged this gap, the album is not all that different from past Agalloch opuses although done with its own unique blend of the traditional Agalloch flavour (a combination of folk, black metal and post-rock/metal). If anything, it is especially comparable to their 2006 release, Ashes Against the Grain
. Much like that album, Serpent’s
most prominent genre in the Agalloch melting pot is post-metal as it relies mainly on the use of electric guitars, both clean and distorted, to create long, epic tracks that often feature many emotional peaks interspersed with moments of calm. The band adds to these moments of respite with the help of Musk Ox’s Nathanaël Larochette who delivers three beautiful, short interludes played on the classical guitar. Given the imposing nature of the album, these interludes are positioned well throughout the album, giving the listener a short breather before the band moves on to the next section. Although, the flow of some songs seems a little questionable at times (especially apparent during some of “Celestial Effigy”’s transitions), the album generally seems to have been meticulously planned to carry the desired brooding and reflective emotions. An odd sounding climax-less build, such as found on Dark Matter Gods
, is quickly explained by an explosion of sound shortly after that utilizes one missed buildup as a reinforcement for the next.
Coming after the foray into black metal presented on Marrow of the Spirit
and Faustian Echoes
, The Serpent and the Sphere
is an unexpected tug in a new direction. This jarring change of pace, coupled with the album’s general loudness makes for a challenging adjustment that may not seem worth the effort to every listener. However, in time, the album reveals itself as a deep, powerful, and emotional voyage much like the albums that preceded it. Agalloch have gone through a metamorphosis once again and shown us why they are such a respected act in metal today. Their ability to retain their best features while reworking their sound on every album is unmatched and once again the band have come up with an exciting new addition to their ever consistent catalogue of material.