Agalloch are a thrilling metal band from Portland, Oregon who have been making music for almost two decades. Their latest, The Serpent & The Sphere, has just begun streaming on Spotify. Listen above.
Cutting back on the gritty black metal qualities that pervaded 2010's Marrow of the Spirit, the band's last full-length, Agalloch craft a more epic, but still relentlessly heavy sound on The Serpent & The Sphere. Don Anderson and Jon Haughm's guitar tones are cleaned up slightly, but that counteracts Haughm's relative lack of clean vocals on this album. Working with producer Billy Anderson for the first time, Agalloch reinvent themselves for the umpteenth time, and come out the other side with their cleanest-produced and furthest-reaching album yet.
The Serpent & The Sphere has so many gems hidden within its hourlong runtime that reviewing it after the first listen would be an exercise in futility, but there are some first impressions that seem unlikely to fade anytime soon. The first is how jaw-dropping Anderson's playing on the album is. With his frequent use of acoustic guitars, he's always managed to balance heaviness and beauty with a deftness that's truly astounding, but on The Serpent & The Sphere, changes from one to the other often occur at the drop of a hat. Anderson seems well-equipped to play any style of metal -- doom, black and folk in particular -- and uses seemingly perfect judgement to decide which style to go for in each riff on this album.
Anderson is aided by the presence of Nathanaël Larochette of the Canadian folk band Musk Ox, who lends his nifty picking to the album's interludes, and makes transitions between songs even more shocking. These three softer moments retain The Serpent & The Sphere's mystical qualities, recalling English folk music at its darkest, and tether an otherwise grandiose album to a central sonic theme. Agalloch have never shied away from the acoustic guitar (2002's "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" showed just how effective a juxtaposition with a distorted electric guitar could be), but on this album they seem to keep electric and acoustic as separate entities, letting Larochette's brief interludes exist almost on their own. It's an intriguing strategy, and one that's sure to make more sense after this album's had a month or so to sink in.
The Serpent & The Sphere, like most of Agalloch's music, is an album that will take a while to wrap your head around, but even before that happens, the music within can still be enjoyed for months on end. Agalloch throw you from one soaring climax to another, and build you up in uncontrollable anticipation in between, making one of the best epic metal albums in recent memory. They're a band with years of experience and boatloads of talent, and it certainly shows on The Serpent & The Sphere.