Tuesday, 25 January 2011

[ALBUM REVIEW] Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit

1. They Escaped the Weight of Darkness
2. Into the Painted Grey
3. The Watcher's Monolith
4. Black Lake Nidstång
5. Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires
6. To Drown

Possibly one of the, if not the most highly anticipated album of 2010 finally hit the shelves in late November. Their unique brand of heavily post-rock influenced Black/Doom hybrid has earned them a substantial following in both metal and non-metal circles alike. So how does their first full length since the majestic break through album of Ashes Against the Grain fare then? Well put simply, it's not a disappointment in the slightest.

There's no denying black metal has been somewhat finally making waves into territories never considered viable before, and depending on your outlook this is either 'about time' or heresy of levels unimaginable. Many hate Agalloch solely for this reason alone, they along with bands like Alcest and Wolves in the Throne Room have introduced what they would describe as 'undesirables' into their sacred genre, and frequently used the scapegoat that they've been diluting the 'black' in their metal progressively since their début. Well that isn't a valid excuse anymore, as Marrow of the Spirit is probably the most 'black metal' album they've done.

The post-rock influences are still there, but the album is a lot more Katatonia and In the Woods than it is Godspeed! or Swans. The most notable casualty of the increase in intensity is the omission of John Haughm's clean vocals, as I always considered these a big part of Agalloch's identity. Enough of what isn't in the album though, because what is in the album is six magnificent tracks, dynamic, melancholic and yet compelling and still managing to retain that primitive heathen aura that's unmistakably Agalloch. The album starts out with “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”, effectively a prelude to the album, and nothing more than a solitary cello over the sound of running water and birdsong. An appropriate mood setter but nothing overtly remarkable. The first proper track “Into the Painted Grey” is where the increase in intensity is most recognizable. From the blistering drumming of Ludicra drummer Aesop Dekker to the traditional black metal style riffing, it's Agalloch as vicious as we've ever heard them. Haughm's vocals never vary from his throaty rasp, but luckily enough, his harsh vocals are just as impressive as his clean. The guitar throughout the album is heavily layered with acoustic passages and leads seamlessly interwoven with the heavier riffing. Agalloch always had a penchant for long songs, and no-one does it quite so well. Each song remains highly engaging due to the effortless transitions between various sections in the song and the sheer diversity in instrumentation is but a part of this operation. Take for example the atavistic yet absolutely stunning “Ghosts of Midwinter Fire”, from it's serene, echoed opening notes right through to the ending of a climax which is not far off from something Mogwai would produce. The real pinnacle of the album comes in the shape of “Black Lake Niðstång” though the apocalyptic introduction with forebearing drumming, classical guitar passages and Huaghm's ominous whispering through a cold doomy centre of total desperation and bleakness ending in a mix of obscure electronic sounds and a more traditional black metal sound, it's Agalloch at their most downright depressing and is utterly emotionally draining. “The Watcher's Monolith” is one of the more upbeat numbers on the album and has more in common with the Agalloch albums of old than this and the closer “To Drown” in typical Agalloch fashion finishes the album leaving the listener totally entranced, and to be perfectly honest, could have easily been a Godspeed! song just as much it is Agalloch.

The album is unequivocally their most ferocious release to date, but it still retains that whole post-rock atmosphere they're famous for, more so in structure than sound this time around though. They pull off the whole untainted, primal earthen sound better than anyone else. This is mainly due to their influences from neo-folk bands such as Sol Invictus and Death in June. It may not be obvious in the music, but this neo-folk influence and coupled with the post-rock influence provide the base to Agalloch's sound, while the metal forms the backbone. Agalloch are unrivalled at what they do, and if you're a fan of that natural, ashen sound you probably need no introduction to Agalloch. But if not, and looking for the textbook soundtrack to the dreary, washed out portents of Autumn, I don't know a better album. Imitator's will come and go, some are better than others such as the likes of Gallowbraid, but at the end of the year Agalloch have come back just to remind everyone that they're still around, and to show them just exactly how it's done.



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