Pillorian‘s Obsidian Arc is the first piece of new material to arise from the ashes of Agalloch‘s admittedly messy split, announced last May. The suddenness of the split was, in itself, surprising, and a very bitter pill for longtime fans of the band to swallow. John Haughm’s subsequent referral to himself as a “visionary member” of the group drew significant criticism and further impugned the amicability of the split. As more interviews rolled out in the months after the breakup, guitarist Don Anderson painted a vivid picture of the disagreements that led to Agalloch’s demise. It was no longer credible to entertain the delusion that this was a genuinely positive decision made in the best interest of all the band members. However, it became apparent that the motivations and goals of Haughm were fundamentally misaligned with those of his bandmates, so it to his credit that the Agalloch name was laid to rest, ensuring its integrity remained intact.
It is with some degree of trepidation that I approached Obsidian Arc. My intuitions turned out to be only partly correct. Pillorian’s debut record is a highly serviceable record of black metal. It’s well-produced and has an aggressive songwriting approach which is less subtle than Agalloch’s folk-infused style. It is immediate, driving, menacing, and probably heavier than anything Haughm participated in previously. It is, without a doubt, a good record, but is it a great record, or a timeless record? I would argue that it is not.
The record does start off strong with “By the Light of the Black Sun,” a gargantuan opener that weaves its way through the acoustic intro and into driving melodic passages. The intro to track two, “Archaen Divinity,” is a great, doomy sounding passage, featuring one of the best riffs of the entire record.
There are undoubtedly more than a few moments like these on Obsidian Arc, and it can be an exhilarating listen at its highest moments. The trio of songs that follow “Archaen Divinity” feature some of the most savage and blackened passages to date in Haughm’s body of work, with occasional moments of respite being short-lived. The progression culminates in the unabated fury of “A Stygian Pyre,” an explosive track which pays reverence to the best characteristics of melodic Scandinavian black metal. Album closer “Dark is the River of Man” is one that I would say most closely follows the patterns of Haughm’s previous work with Agalloch, maintaining the melodic and atmospheric subtleties of that project, and is a satisfying conclusion to the record as a result.
Obsidian Arc does not exist in a vacuum, however, and it is precisely the richness and acclaim surrounding Haughm’s pedigree that works against this album as a worthy successor to Agalloch. Context matters. It is an interesting record with great sounds. In keeping with tradition, it also displays a clearly defined mood, image, and art style that compliments the music well. It is also a good indication of Haughm’s particular strengths in the Agalloch equation, highlighting the collaborative nature of that project with tremendous clarity.
The immediacy of Pillorian’s debut record can be easily appreciated, but it lacks some of the depth and nuances that I came to expect from Haughm’s work with Agalloch, and I hope to see those aspects return in future recordings. It is a remarkably even record with very few real weak points, but it lacks the marked impact of a truly timeless work.