AGALLOCH — Marrow of the Spirit (review)

AGALLOCH — Marrow of the Spirit album cover Album · 2010 · Atmospheric Black Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
AGALLOCH’s first three albums had a lot of crossover appeal that allowed those who usually don’t dabble in extreme metal to find something to latch onto via catchy folk laden melodies, post-rock compositional constructs and healthy doses of interesting electronic segments with an overall brilliant mix of all the elements simmering into a unique product. Add to that the diverse lyrical delivery that showcases John Haughm divvying his vocal dynamics into clean, shrieked and whispered enunciations that allowed a wider spectrum of emotional connection to be conveyed. On “Ashes Against The Grain,” the band ratcheted up the metal aspects a bit to add more Isis inspired post-metal riffs to ride the waves of the atmospheric tides of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor inspired post-rock sensibilities. However the band still complained that despite all efforts, the album was still over-produced and not what they had hoped for.

Add to that the fact that “The White EP” which immediately precedes their fourth full-length album MARROW OF THE SPIRIT was almost entirely acoustic folk-based and it’s no wonder that the band was wanting to up their metal creds a few notches which is exactly what they achieved (for the most part) on this installment of six tracks teased out into an hour and six minutes of full AGALLOCH glory. There were also many other changes afoot. Not only did they end their contract with The End Records and sign with Profound Lore due to personality clashes but ex-Ludicra drummer Aesoop Dekker was brought into the scene to replace Chris Greene. Having his history as a black metal drummer provided the necessary percussive backbone that allowed AGALLOCH to soar above and behind their folk metal roots and implement some extra rambunctious gusto throughout MARROW OF THE SPIRIT. However, make no mistake about it. Despite the fortified black metal aspects, this is an AGALLOCH album through and though and the metal is only one ingredient in a varied recipe.

As the opening track “And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness” slowly creeps in with a sole cello (provided by Jackie Perez Gratz of Gracyeon) in the company of a babbling brook and chirping birds, it seems as if AGALLOCH had employed the talents of Yo-Yo Ma to do his best interpretation of the soundtrack to “Schindler’s List,” however after nearly four minutes of Pagan ritualistic remorse music, “Into The Painted Grey” blasts onto the scene with some of the most intense and bombastic black metal of AGALLOCH’s entire career as it strikes with a blitzkrieg vengeance in the vain of Krallice or Weakling but soon enough reverts to the familiar past glories of melodic dual guitars painting an atmospheric folk inspired melody accompanied by tribal drumming. The track continues to parade through a variety of styles that fit the AGALLOCH brand name quite well, namely shrieked lyrics under the soaring post-rock textures which only happen to implement a higher octane of distortion and adrenalized tempo marches with the usual unexpected changes and cool production techniques.

All is good as the album begins with the usual high level AGALLOCH quality shining through but the band hits their first major hiccough with “The Water’s Monolith.” Nothing bad about the track per se but despite a really strong launching into a more aggressive musical scene, this track seems to have gotten cold feet and sounds more like an unreleased leftover from “The Mantle” as it engages a familiar acoustic folk guitar strumming with atmospheric guitar sweeps to augment the emotional depth. Likewise it engages in the same call and response of clean and shrieked vocals with the latter finding the heavy distorted grooves and familiar melodic developments. The distorted guitars attempt to disguise this malapropos piece that evokes a statue of a stag in a city park more than a darkened bleak landscape depicted on a brilliant relief surface of the album cover. A musical faux pas? Not for mere mortals, but for AGALLOCH, a major no no in their impeccable streak of perfectly designed albums.

The album regains its character with one of my favorite tracks of the band’s career. “Black Lake Nidstang’ is a whopping seventeen and a half minute composition of utter brilliance. It begins with a dramatic timpani and atmospheric ratcheting up effect that evokes a true Pagan ritual is about to take place, much like “The White EP,” but with more emphasis on the metal distortion. Add to that the Pink Floyd type echo guitars as heard on “The Wall” and brilliant transitions between segments and all is forgiven for the third track’s seemingly out of place role. This track goes through many transitions but the most bizarre comes around the eight minute mark where the track turns into a scary and depressive black / doom metal dirge where Haughm’s vocals seem on the verge of breakdown as the doom metal tempos evoke some of the most gut-wrenching performances of his career. The track cedes into a claustrophobic yet hypnotic trance inducing electronica sequence that allows a creepy Moog to allow a vibraphone and glockenspiel to ratchet up the next chapter which emerges as an echoed guitar sequence that evolves into a black metal finale, well more like a sludge metal finale with blackened overtones. Sludge riffs, sludge percussion, black metal shrieks. Outstanding track!

“Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires” continues with more of the echoey Pink Floyd inspired guitars but adds some metal guitar grunge accompaniment and the expected atmospheric mastery. As a near ten minute track, the first third is a build of to the second third where it ratchets up the black metal fury which despite a similar sound that started the album had been neglected for the most part up to this point. While employing the sickest guitar antics providing the necessary atmospheric compositional flare, the entire track retains a soaring melodic majesty that is augmented by an ambient backdrop. The closing ten and a half minute “To Drown” takes MARROW OF THE SPIRIT full circle and reverts back to the Pagan folk ritualistic aspects with a cello reprise, sound samples of nature and also includes unique tones and timbres from petrified bones and glass and metal sheet percussion that create a majestic dark ambient finale replete with whispered poetry, soaring atmospheric guitar and a bleak depressive epic and atmospheric overall feel. While the piano parts are abundant on MARROW OF THE SPIRIT, they significantly contribute to this last track that for the most part sounds like a classical piece that happens to employ some noise, metal and dark ritualistic elements.

AGALLOCH successfully added new layers of complexity to each of their albums. By the time you get to the end of MARROW OF THE SPIRIT you are wondering if you have stumbled into a Holst’s “The Planets” recital that has taken on a Wagner-ian bombast as it slowly staggers out. While not as perfectly implemented as “The Mantle” or “Ashes Against The Grain,” MARROW OF THE SPIRIT is an amazingly brilliant slice of genre bending fusion that keeps AGALLOCH at the top of their game. While the black metal aspects have been turned up a few notches and might scare aware the crossover crowd only swayed by the abundant folk, this album is more non-metal than metal. The atmospheric prowess is the dominant force that just happens to implement more bombastic metal to add even more dynamic forms of contrast. The album was produced by Steven Wray Lobdell who found the perfect balance between the myriad elements that could easily derail into a cacophonous mess but each strand of sound stands proud as it takes its turn in the great folk/rock symphony that constitutes MARROW OF THE SPIRIT. Did AGALLOCH gain their metal creds? Well, sort of. AGALLOCH was never a pure metal band. This Portland, Oregon bunch is much, much more and on this one they take their game to a staggering new level. Only the third track stands out as lackluster.
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