Label: Profound Lore Records
I am alone in an empty house. This might sound like an inauspicious start for a music review, but stick with me; after all, Agalloch has something of a skill for prompting introspection, especially in music writers. We talk about the spirits of the forests, frigid winters, stars and constellations. It’s all a little melodramatic, right? But we do it because the music compels us, and The Serpent and the Sphere, the Portland band’s newest, is plenty compelling.
This is in many ways because Serpent is an almost singularly unsatisfying record, at least on your first or tenth or thirtieth listen. For whatever reason, the songs don’t open up the way “Into the Painted Grey” and “The Hawthorne Passage” did. At least not immediately. This is partially due to the lush nature of each piece. “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” is a slow, crawling number that never picks up much speed, cocooned in mellotron buzz and acoustic strums, heavy as hell but without a lot of emphasis on that fact. It just, for all intents and purposes, is.
Of course, the notion that a piece of music just is can be anathema for a music critic. We are obsessed with context, legacy, thematic through lines. Given that Serpent is only the fifth Agalloch album in over 15 years of operation, and its first in 4 years, surely this must mean something for the band’s career, right? That the arc has been extended, and in doing so altered in shape. Where does Serpent fit?
Taking the long view, Serpent seems most analogous to The Mantle, Agalloch’s most simultaneously folky and progressive record, with touches of the early black metal on Pale Folklore. Following on the heels of 2010’s groundbreaking Marrow of the Spirit, the album feels more compact, less prone to expressive tangents, and it proves Ashes Against the Grain, Agalloch’s shiniest and most ‘professional’ record, to be something of an aberration, with emphasis given to cleaner, more acoustic textures.
Much fuss has been made about a ‘return to form,’ or more negatively, a dangerous complacency that sounds like retreat, but this does nothing to describe the record itself, and its lack of obviously ‘new’ signifiers makes the surface feel impenetrable. This isn’t the ‘rock’ record or the ‘folk’ or ‘orchestral’ record. My critic’s brain fails utterly when thinking in these terms, as they do nothing to describe what Serpent actually is. That introspective prompt undoes me completely.
But what if I just shut my brain up and listen? What if I take Serpent for what it is, instead of where it fits or what parts compose it? Then something pretty incredible happens: the record opens up, diversifies, and becomes simultaneously lush and spare. The craftsmanship of the songs jumps out immediately, highlighted by the fullest production of Agalloch’s career, downplaying the reverb and highlighting melodic accents and the rhythmic heft of drummer Aesop Dekker. A song like “The Astral Dialogue” follows a fairly straightforward rock pattern, but might among the band’s heaviest songs, cramming layers of growls and screeches atop a full low-end. Where acoustic guitars once burst from the speakers on the louder numbers, now they are fully integrated into the sound, as natural in this setting as a distorted solo.
Serpent maintains a quiet insistence throughout its run, barreling forward through a relatively brief hour without rushing. I am always surprised when “(serpens cauda),” one of the fingerpicked interludes provided by Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox, rolls by, arrives, but I cue the album up and hit play once more. With some of Agalloch’s shortest songs in years, all but two topping out below 9 minutes, no idea stays around long enough to become stale, but each track remains vital. By consigning the slowest and quietest parts to the three “(serpens)” tracks, each remaining song on Serpent unabashedly rocks and roars in a way that feels utterly vital and of the moment, building and losing momentum in rapid increments. I never once found myself bored and waiting for a later track to arrive, or anticipating more exciting part or catchier melody. When these songs have you in their grasp they don’t let go, providing riff after fine-tuned riff, like the mid-register solo that bursts out toward the end of “Dark Matter Gods,” or a palm-muted pattern on “Celestial Effigy” that channels Pink Floyd and King Crimson. And while Agalloch has always been a guitar band, Don Anderson and John Haugum really steal the show here, providing expert point and counterpoint, turning and out of one another’s way in a mutual language.
Most importantly, for the first time on any Agalloch record the band’s playing overwhelms its influences, at least in the moment. I don’t hear Burzum or Ulver or Neu or Can anymore, only a tightly-wound group attuned to their mutual strengths and laser-focused on turning out great music. So I am alone in this empty house, but not in my head. Serpent has pulled me so firmly into its world that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t ignore it. It does not evoke as demand, and explicitly challenges the urge to ponder by pulling one’s attention insistently to the music at hand. It compels, requires, and deserves your full mind. And finally, after giving up on my bullshit need to classify and contextualize, I understand this. There may be more great music than ever available to the average listener, but make time for the true greats. Allow music like Serpent to work its way into your head, because if you don’t give it the time, you’ll miss it completely.