Review Summary: Planting a seed of doubt
There is a colossal amount of construction going on within the tunes of The Serpent & the Sphere
, as the instruments time and again revisit the drive to create massive atmosphere and big soundscapes. The problem is, however, that Agalloch did not seem to recognize the importance or even the existence of this insatiable appetite for larger emotion, and rather fumble around with conceptually soaked songwriting kindling that can never light the whole track ablaze. It was, in a much smaller and more localized way, an issue on Marrow of the Spirit
, but with The Serpent & the Sphere
it feels like the album is consumed by this volatile mix of songwriting laziness, far-reaching pretension, and plain old lack of ideas. There are plenty of riffs, just most of them aren't very good, and even in more lumbering numbers like the ever-building “The Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” there is, in a way, a sense of movement, but a distinctly circular one. Once the track slips back into silence it never really took us on any tangible journey, but instead felt content with treading the same path and returning at once to the point from whence it came. That’s the nature of Agalloch’s songwriting on The Serpent & the Sphere
, a distinctly uneventful romp through some dim musical passageways that show little creative flavor or emotional color.
It is true that tracks like “The Astral Dialogue” or “Celestial Effigy” do depart from this cyclical hemorrhaging, with the former especially being a ripping, heavy affair that is instantly the most memorable piece on the entire record simply because the track is constantly re-inventing itself. Rather than learning from past successes, where perpetual tempo shifts, stylistic variation, emotional depth, or even a slight showing of instrumental flair led Agalloch to release at the very least 3 masterpieces, they opt to throw it all away in favor of an approach that focuses on balls-deep simplicity and monotone atmosphere. You can see the attempt to mimic the success of “The Hawthorne Passage” in “Plateau of the Ages”, but instead of being filled with mournful acoustics and wayward melodies we are instead left with a 12-minute instrumental nearly devoid of dynamics. Riffs swell in and fade out during the build, and by the time the guitars rise above the muddy production it is no surprise that it all comes to crescendo in no bombastic fashion through the implementation of a simple, wailing guitar line that is neither complex nor emotional. It’s the equivalent of musical blue balls, and it happens repeatedly throughout The Serpent & the Sphere
, where the instruments beg to be released and crave for a moment of true Agalloch creativity, but the band stubbornly and frustratingly never allow them the songwriting breadth to do so.
The result is an album that is being asphyxiated by an extremely strong hand, and that proves to be the death of it all. Even when Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox is allowed to let his self-composed and performed acoustic interludes rain some atmosphere on the album, it is all stolen away by counterparts that refuse to accent them. The dancing strings prove less effective when they are coupled next to Agalloch’s suffocated acoustic guitars which are swallowed in the mix rather than left to breathe with ample space. When drawing parallels between the acoustic work on The Mantle
or their neofolk EP The White
the steel and nylon string acoustic guitars sound so much more alive and far more radiant, rather than a simple afterthought or attempt to inject some form of emotion into otherwise barren tracks. Even the drumming is less aggressive, and given Agalloch’s recent enjoyment of loud drum mixes it all sounds benign or worse: swallowed. Only on “The Astral Dialogue” do they pack any punch, thundering below the bellowing, doomy melodies with perfection. That’s par for the course on The Serpent & the Sphere
, though, with Agalloch seemingly unaware that their compositions sound not like the band that released any of their first three albums, or even the band that released Marrow of the Spirit
. It is Agalloch sounding like the multitudes of acts that attempted to capture the magic of their very unique sound, only to make it obvious that they didn’t have the songwriting talent to do so.
That is what makes The Serpent & the Sphere
the most un-Agalloch album they have ever made. Only “Celestial Effigy” sounds like a traditional Agalloch tune, with the rest forming some avant-garde mishmash of awkward structures, forgotten crescendos, and painfully dreary riffing. Part of what brought this band such a striking sound was their ability to nuance riffs in a way that hides the fact that the band is not nearly the most technical act out there. Technicality was not necessary when the songwriting was so masterful, but with The Serpent & the Sphere
there is neither technicality nor compositional prowess. That leaves the album as a muddy, one-dimensional plod that reveals all it has to offer by the time the third track has concluded. “Dark Matter Gods” and “Vales Beyond Dimension” could even be called filler given their inability to add anything noteworthy to the album’s already thin repertoire of tricks, and by the time an hour has passed and the album finally exits the only truly spectacular moments happened almost a half hour ago.
The concept behind The Serpent & the Sphere
could have proven to be a prosperous place to begin with, especially in the hands of a band that have proven they know a thing or two about executing on an idea and bringing visions to life in aural form, but those visions never even begin to take shape here. It is a resounding flop for a band so used to being without fault at all. Many will claim the album to be subtle, that it will take time to plant its roots and grow into something sturdy and lasting, but I claim the opposite. The seed was never planted in first place, and was not given the opportunity to root itself and become another The Mantle
or Ashes Against the Grain
. No, that seed was carried down the river along with the dynamics, wonderful melodies, heartfelt emotion, airy clean vocals, unexpected songwriting twists, and truly innovative thinking that Agalloch let wash away during the creation of The Serpent & the Sphere