Originally written by Jordan Campbell
At the risk of stating the obvious, Agalloch is regarded as something of a critical darling. Since their second album, The Mantle, was released in 2002, the band has enjoyed rarified esteem and reverence. For the most part, it’s been warranted. The Mantle is an undeniable classic, a work painted in novel shades of grey. They put on some bulk (and branched out from Bergtatt‘s blueprint) on the sweeping Ashes Against the Grain, and spread wings of ambiance with their stunning 2008 EP, The White.
After that, the band plateaued. 2010’s Marrow of the Spirit was acclaimed, though more by virtue of pedigree than merit. And the twenty-minute, single track EP Faustian Echoes failed to capitvate.
The main issue with these releases was Agalloch’s attempt to accentuate their “metalness.” Typically, that’s a commendable effort; as metal fans, we tend to be drawn to power and heft. However, Agalloch’s more “aggressive” material often comes off as flaccid when stacked against that of their contemporaries. (e.g., “I Am the Wooden Doors” and, ironically enough, “Into the Painted Grey.”) The band is more dexterous when working with a lighter palette; excursions into obsidian wilderness often amount to awkward stumbles through stick-thin reeds.
Thus, Agalloch is that rare metal band that is better at being, well, not metal. The last couple of releases, infused with flits of Nerf-force trauma, instilled an itch for the band’s creative peak, when they were gently wrenching their souls from musty corridors and into the autumn air. A longing brewed: Wouldn’t it be great to have a spiritual successor to The Mantle? Some kind of uniting bridge between that record and Ashes?
Well, here it is.
The Serpent & The Sphere is the first backwardly-conscious Agalloch record. Up ’til this point, they’ve been steadily—albeit mildly—progressive, using stopgap EPs to flesh out their sprawl. This record doesn’t make progress, nor does it bare Faustian Echoes’ blackened fangs; aside from Aesop Dekker’s heavy footwork, this is a pretty low-key record.
That should be good, right? Agalloch going “back to their roots,” playing to their strengths?
Of course. Trouble is, they sound a little bored with the prospect. The Serpent & The Sphere is less a warm-hearted reunion than a lukewarm retread. When you make stylistic connections with roots records, they need to be a conduit for vitality. Too often, The Serpent & The Sphere lacks kinetics.
The pacing of the record is glacial, and for a lesser band, these structural decisions would be fatal: Opener “Birth and Death and the Pillars of Creation” is ten minutes of ponderous, airy pseudo-doom, a critic-baiting dirge that pays homage the “fuck self-editing” trend of the moment.
Following this, there’s a three-minute interlude, making the first track seem like a guarded gateway to the actual album. There’s something bold about front-loading a record with the least compelling track, but there’s also a reason that Stannis Baratheon isn’t the first character you meet in Westeros.
The album’s core is decidedly more substantial, with “Dark Matter Gods” swelling to a wistful climax, and “Celestial Energy” doing its best to flesh out a lingering specter from Ashes Against the Grain. But following that, little of note results from the combined eighteen minutes of “Vales Beyond Dimension” and Plateau of Ages.” These are familiar waters flowing down a familiar stream, yet it’s the wrong kind of familiarity: the kind that stirs a memory of the prior, more captivating work that Agalloch is self-referencing.
And so, the conservative nature of this record is ultimately it’s downfall. It’s an oft-pallid reanimation of historical reference points, a safe record from a safe band. There’s something to be said for comfort, assuredly, and The Serpent & The Sphere will find its intended audience. But the lack of a standout track—or even a standout moment—renders it the weakest entry in a storied catalog.