Generally speaking, the first three albums of Agalloch career (“Pale Folklore”, “The Mantle”, “Ashes Against the Grain”) are considered masterpieces by what seems everybody. The fourth effort “Marrow of the Spirit” has a bit more of a mixed reputation. Some people see it also as another great album while others see it as a sign of a band losing their artistic ground. While I do think “Marrow…” (Before “The Serpent…” came out anyway) was theoretically the worst album by the band up to that point, it wasn’t a bad album on its own, in my opinion. Although the opinion that the band had begun to falter artistically did hold some merit. However if “Marrow…” wasn’t the band’s main career dip, than “The Serpent and the Sphere” certainly is. At least to this point. More specifically, the songwriting feels uninspired, the performance comes off as lazy and a certain emotion and passion is clearly lacking.
Contrary to previous efforts, “Serpent…” lacks a lot of inventiveness that has been present on the band’s other releases, as song structure follows a surprisingly simple approach. The songs lack most any technical creativity, with the instrumentation mostly just plodding along without much substance. Riffs go nowhere nor do anything interesting and acoustics pop in from time to time, but they feel like they were just thrown in. But in general, a lot of songs are absent of any really passion, creativity, complexity or generally intriguing material. The song structure does suffer from this quite a bit, as most songs feel like they’re building up to something but never ever get to where it sounds like their going. It’s incredibly underwhelming to listen to. I think the song that’s the most guilty of this is the opener, “The Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation”. This one is a lumbering mammoth that goes on for close to eleven minutes but lacks any real soul. Artistically, technically, sonically it lacks any real substance and justification for its length and almost gives off the impression of an intro track rather than an actual song.
The vocals also sound much less interesting and less than varied. I’ve never been a fan of his whispered rasps honestly and that’s the majority of what he does here. They always have sound awkward and forced, like he doesn’t have the right throat for it. His cleans on the other hand always sounded really great to me, but the clean singing rarely pop up and usually only for a brief period such as an introduction to a song or a background sample. I am unhappy with this route for not only the personal reason of disliking how it sounds, but also because it comes off as really one dimensional. Something I would typically associate with Agalloch.
A lot of these with the technical side of things are made worse by the album’s really muddy production. Instruments are constantly overlapping each other, the bass just sounds like a bunch of rumbling, the guitars are pretty thin and often buried under the drum work which even themselves sound pretty weak on their own. Even the vocals have a tendency to be buried in the mix.
But the main thing that hinders this album for me is the general lack of emotion and passion it has. The atmosphere and emotion feels very shallow and at times even synthetic. There is this strong vibe coming off the music that members really didn’t care about what they were doing, or at the very least didn’t bother trying very hard. It feels very safe, very thoughtless and very passionless. If I had to theorize, I’d think the reason why is mainly because they’ve had four major successes and maybe got a little lazy as a result.
Bottom line, I’d have to say that this is a major disappointment. I’m reluctant to say the band lost their creative edge and they just don’t have anything left to create, but I will say that this record is undoubtedly their laziest, least thought provoking and emotionally void record to date. It’s not the worst album I’ve heard, but compared to Agalloch’s previous efforts, it just falls flat on almost everything.