In 1994, the Norwegian band Ulver lit a fire with the release of their uniquely composed folk metal album, Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr I 5 Capitler. Although small, this flame burned uncharacteristically bright within the hearts of three individuals, namely Don Anderson, Jason Walton and John Haughm. These men may have never thought they would have been able to take this small fire and set the entire world ablaze with it; but sixteen years later, that is exactly what they have done.
Over the past decade, Agalloch has grown from having a small cult following into something truly iconic. Now, as 2010 nears its end, Agalloch has given us something that shall be remembered as one of the few pieces of music that transcended its own time and helped carry its listeners into a new decade of progression. Marrow of the Spirit is something so powerful and so incredibly emotional that the words of any language would do it no justice. Agalloch has not only managed to encapsulate all of their previous sounds into exactly one hour of playing time, but has also built upon them, making Marrow of the Spirit the group’s most expansive, versatile and complete effort to date. Marrow of the Spirit contains the ebb and flow and rich buildup of Ashes Against the Grain, the dark, powerfully crafted atmosphere of Pale Folklore, the tragic melancholy of The Mantle; and it also successfully captures the beauty of nature’s echoes most recently displayed on The White. If one thing has remained constant throughout all of Agalloch’s creations it is this: the music has the power to rescue and aid the most restless of souls from the bowels of despair and hopelessness, and also the capability of dragging that same joyous spirit back down into the depths of sorrow from which it came.
One of the more pressing questions that arose prior to this release was whether all of the experimentation that took place on The White would somehow make its way onto the band’s next full-length release. Although slight traces of the calm waves of the ocean or the nostalgic sound of one “trudging through the deep snow” are briefly prevalent in previous efforts, the intensified sounds of nature featured on The White were the foundation for that entire release. “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness,” the opening track of Marrow of the Spirit, picks up right where The White left off, only this time the sound of a freshwater stream is accompanied by the lonely notes of Jackie Perez Gratz’s (Grayceon) cello. Traces of the cello are to be found throughout the entire album, but none are as dominant as those occupying the album’s brief but memorable opener.
The reverence of the opening track is short-lived, as a blitzkrieg of drums pound and blast their way “Into the Painted Grey.” The addition of drummer Aesop Dekkar (Ludicra) has immediately proven itself to be a successful one, as no Agalloch song has ever sounded as fast-paced and intense as this. The quality of the album’s production, although drastically different than anything the band has released since Pale Folklore, is absolutely perfect given the dark composition of the album. The amount of riffs contained within “Into the Painted Grey” is unprecedented. The overlapping guitar melodies intertwine beautifully with the more subtle bass and cello, making the track unforgettably triumphant. The changes in both melody and the song’s pacing arrive, leave and return as naturally as the seasons.
“The Watcher’s Monolith” sounds more like modern Agalloch than any other track on the album. Most noticeable are the riffs that are very reminiscent of Ashes Against the Grain‘s catchiest song, “Falling Snow.” Although the structure of “The Watcher’s Monolith” is completely original, there is an interesting sense of humility behind the notes of both of these songs that makes them quite comparable. Much like on Ashes Against the Grain, Agalloch has chosen an early moment in the album to allow the listener’s spirit to be filled with happiness for a brief yet memorable moment. The depth of the track is best exemplified by its subtleties, which blossom more fully with each listen, and is proof that Agalloch builds each of its songs based on emotions from life’s many experiences.
Nightfall. Brief snippets of Jeffrey Neblock’s (Vindensang) piano follow the sound of crickets into Marrow of the Spirit’s opus, “Black Lake Nidstång.” Haughm’s seething vocals seep through the crushingly heavy drone of the guitars. Depressing would be an understatement if one were to attempt to describe the feelings given off by this seventeen minute-long anthem. “Black Lake Nidstång” contains just about every genre of emotionally extreme music that has ever existed. Haughm’s voice is enough to send one into an instant state of depression in the song’s former half, especially when accompanied by the long, drawn-out, guitars.
Looking back at Ashes Against the Grain, the one thing that many questioned was the conclusion of the “Our Fortress is Burning…” trilogy. Referring to that specific track, John Haughm said, “This was the first piece of the trilogy to be written. Chris approached me with this drone thing he was working on and I absolutely loved it. It had to be on the album somehow. So I used it as inspiration to build the rest of the trilogy. Most people seem to think we put it on the album as filler but it is actually quite the opposite. Without “The Grain”, the entire “Fortress” trilogy wouldn’t exist.”
Whether Agalloch could take this newly acquired technique (which helped inspire what might be the greatest climax in the history of heavy metal) and incorporate it into further songs remained to be seen…until now. About halfway through “Black Lake Nidstång,” a similar drone technique is used to help pull the listener out of the depressing state they were previously dwelling in, as the guitars coincide perfectly with a bubbly, electronic melody. The transition is subtle, yet perfectly executed.
“Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” starts off very lightly — a much needed turn of events after the emotionally draining state the listener will be in after being overcome by its predecessor. The 80’s distortion effect used on the guitars is the song’s most distinguishable quality, as the rest of the song’s notes seem to follow the lead of the opening ones. As the song comes to it’s close, sounds of the shore hint that there will be no more uplifting moments on Marrow of the Spirit. The album’s concluding track, “To Drown,” is no less powerful a climax than “Bloodbirds” and will leave the listener absolutely mesmerized.
On a much more personal level, I found this review nearly impossible to write. I would have done anything to avoid writing it when I originally found out about the release, but a colleague and friend of mine requested that I review the album after having a family emergency. Naturally, I was honored to be given the opportunity and acquiesced immediately, but I couldn’t help but feel afraid that something would go wrong. Agalloch is my favorite band after all. What if they happen to read the review and are disappointed? What if my words are inadequate? What if I’m completely biased and give the album a score it doesn’t deserve? In order to overcome my doubts, I just listened to the music. I listened until I could play the entire album through in my head. The more I listened, the more I came to the conclusion that Agalloch truly is the sound of some powerful deity that cannot be summed up into words. They embody the new decade of what metal should be about, and they are not embarrassed to show it. They embody what every fan of extreme music going into the next decade should represent: a love of nature and a patience to withstand the frailties of human nature. Because love is really the reason why we suffer, isn’t it? At times when it would be so much more convenient not to care, this music, if anything, reminds us of who we are and of the power we possess as individuals. If that be the case, than Agalloch is a representation of what already exists inside of us.
“If this grand panorama before me is what you call God, then God is not dead” were words once proclaimed by John Haughm, as he spoke of the grandeur of one of the Earth’s many landscapes. Today, I utter those very words in reference to Marrow of the Spirit.