Review Summary: If this grand panorama before me is what you call god... then god is not dead.
Expectations are a bitch aren’t they? A band releases a stunning debut that blows everyone’s tits off. The pressure is on to top themselves. A band integrates modern post-rock into their melodic black metal sound and blows everyone’s tits off again, arguably topping themselves against all odds. The pressure is on again. A band follows up that masterpiece by trading post-rock for post-metal to augment their folk/black metal sound with results that blow the doors off the entire genre. But every star that rises has to fall, and one can only burn hotter than the sun for so long before slowly turning to ash. And so the last pair of albums were less universally received in spite of their merits; Marrow Of The Spirit alienated many fans by branching out into even more avant-garde territory, while The Serpent & The Sphere was by contrast so safe and regressive that the band almost felt stagnant for the first time in their career. And most shockingly of all, the band finally imploded soon thereafter, thus ending the monolithic legacy of Agalloch not with a bang but with a whimper… Or so we all thought. Not wasting much time, frontman extraordinaire John Haughm began a new project, Pillorian, picking up the pieces of the clay urn that was Agalloch lying shattered on the floor. But is Pillorian the phoenix rising from the ashes of dead winter days to dress the sky with embers once more, or is it merely a mishapen steed?
In my quest to answer that question I’ve taken the liberty of sequestering myself in a remote lodge to experience and scurtinize the results closely for two whole weeks, slowly swishing them in my mouth like cognac and digesting their rich dark flavours offered to me like personalized gifts from a long-time friend. And so I let the desolation songs caress me, my friends. Like falling snow onto my limbs as I silently contemplated the journey of Agalloch, existence, and the great cold death of the earth.
Make no mistake, a part of me died with the news of Agalloch’s disbandement. My somewhat lukewarm reaction to their final album was nothing compared to the profound despondency and grief I felt realizing that an era had come to a close, leaving a future uncertain. Things didn’t seem to end on the best of terms because Pillorian’s debut album Obsidian Arc sees John at his most angry and melodramatic; he’s breathing lava throughout most of this album with his most tortured screams ever, his signature clean vocal style mostly on the back-burner, rearing its head only on the desolate and heart-rending A Vestige Of Thorns, as well as the colossal closer Dark Is The River Of Man. ‘Fill what is left with a coil of thorns, fill what is left with rusty nails, fill what is left with obsidian shards’ John rasps on the former track before howling ‘make me whole again’ as the ghost of Agalloch unfurls like a spectral lotus before you. But Dark Is The River Of Man is perhaps the most Agallochian track of the bunch, clocking in at a healthy 10 minutes, it is given more time and space to breathe and develop as we are treated to mesmerizing doses of Ashes Against The Grain motifs spliced with Marrow Of The Spirit song-writing. ‘There is a river in us all, it flows a crimson ruin through our veins. Place your hands in the water, let the black mire penetrate your being’ John croons while weaving a dark, aching, melodic spell, conjuring visions of overgrown forests and vales beyond dimension where one might escape the weight of darkness.
By The Light Of The Black Sun is the perfect opener as it is brimming with Haughm’s signature clean arpeggios coupled with brooding distorted rhythms while highlighting the more conventional aspects of black metal that Pillorian is embracing like blastbeats and faster tempos. This contrast of old and new showcases the melancholy spirit of Agalloch being very much alive, only presented in a slightly different more modern package. As the unbridled aggression of the track slowly subsides into a clean interlude, the song begins hitting massive melodies that bleed reverb and desperation as they flail while John howls ‘I have been gilded by the light of a black sun, by straps of alchemy and time I am bound’. The song then completely implodes into a swirling vortex of blast beats, tremelo-picked riffs and sorrowful guitar harmonies cutting through the storm like bright wires.
A Stygian Pyre really throws you for a loop with its abrupt opening that wastes no time wading into its own chaotic waves. It feels like stumbling in on an energetic conversation already in progress and not really knowing what’s going on but being instantly engaged. The song is extremely fast and aggressive by Agalloch standards but as it builds to its final dramatic crescendo it evens out with guitar melodies as familiar and comforting as the reassuring touch of an old lover.
Archaen Divinity and Forged Iron Crucible tone down the introspective horror in favour of a doomier, more apocalyptic sound that reaches levels of bleakness never before explored by Agalloch. Aesop Dekker is clearly a very tight and technical drummer who is reigning himself in most of the time, but when he’s finally allowed to let loose during key crescendos the results are more direct and kinetic than anything Agalloch ever did from a rhythmic point of view.
Although I didn’t fall in love with Obsidian Arc immediately, now that I’ve had time to evaluate it it’s clear that its effect on me is antithetical to that of The Serpent & The Sphere. While sitting through that album at times felt like a bit of a chore, Obsidian Arc is showing no signs of growing stale after 50+ successive rotations. In fact, my love for this album is only just beginning to mature as these songs sink in and entrench themselves in the pantheon of oak that is Agalloch’s legacy. As for where it fits in that great pantheist, it’s still too soon to tell but it’s clear to me that this is one of the most effective and memorable black metal albums of the past 5 years, and that is a mountain on which I will die on. So for the love of our pale companion, listen to this album, then listen to it again and again and let it paint a new fire across your skyline.