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Agalloch’s Blackened Folk Metal Soothes the Soul on ‘The Serpent & the Sphere’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 13, 2014
Label: Profound Lore

Agalloch are one of the best bands in modern metal. This isn’t a question; it’s a fact, one corroborated by a world-class discography that stretches back nearly 20 years. After building momentum via doomy black metal-via-folk classics like The Mantle (2002) and Ashes Against the Grain (2006), the Portland-based quartet won wide acclaim for 2010’s Marrow of the Spirit. That album’s follow up, The Serpent & the Sphere, is even more ambitious, yet less showy about its brilliance.

The album starts off slow, with the somber epic “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” followed by an acoustic interlude. But “The Astral Dialogue” is utterly engrossing, and downright catchy as its folky melodies bound and skip merrily atop Don Anderson’s gossamer guitars. His playing is truly inspired here, and finds a solid anchor in Jason William Walton’s commanding basslines and Aesop Dekker’s full-body drum hits. John Haughm’s vocal prowess shines as he moves effortlessly and pointedly between hushed whispers, throaty growls, and aching clean tones. On top of that, Billy Anderson’s production job is impeccable: Agalloch have never sounded so rich, so full.

The neofolk influence that has long been softly embedded within Agalloch’s blackened sound is more pronounced than ever, in no small part due to classical guitarist Nathanaël Larochette’s glistening strings. The main force behind Ottawa “chamber folk” trio Musk Ox, Larochette composed three acoustic interludes for this album, and his lush, intricate playing beautifully complements the band’s harsher moments. Lest we forget, a younger Agalloch released a now-rare split with neofolk stalwarts Nest back in 2004. With Serpent, those early inclinations have resurfaced in refined form. They’ve dialed down the grandiosity and turned inward. Whereas their triumphant previous album was painted in dark blues and glittering black, this one comes draped in muted grays and browns, calming earth tones that soothe rather than awe. If Marrow of the Spirit was a storm, The Serpent & The Sphere is the stillness that descends over damp stones and battered branches once the howling winds have quieted.