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Agalloch’s The Serpent and the Sphere: The Woods are Lovely, Dark, and Deep

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I don’t listen to albums the way I used to, and that bums me out. Granted, I can’t anymore: life doesn’t lend itself to poring over liner notes while hearing the whole thing front-to-back. Usually, I throw something on when I’m en route somewhere, while I’m writing, or doing stuff around the house. I don’t find that it robs me of enjoyment of the album, but that it enables me to, you know, take a break from it if I have to (or want to). Agalloch’s The Serpent & The Sphere seems to be assembled specifically to make me feel shitty about all of that. It’s a Homeric journey of a record peppered with some of the band’s finest moments to date, but it’s not nearly as effective unless listened to in the right context: the whole fucking thing.  The Serpent and the Sphere is purely Agalloch’s vision, and they needed the entire vessel of the album to get it right.

Basically, this isn’t an iPod shuffle affair. It’s got 3 instrumental segue tracks and opens and closes with 10+ minute post-metal epics. The remaining songs are all excellent, but have tendrils poking into what comes before and after them. The difference between The Serpent & The Sphere and Agalloch’s catalog up to now—which certainly isn’t filled with 3-minute blackened pop metal songs—is the hugeness of it. Ashes Against the Grain is pretty epic, as is Marrow of the Spirit. But Serpent has the band sounding more confident in their ability to summon something enormous and evocative. For a band as keen on evolution as they’ve been, their latest is filled with moments bucking hard against the boundaries of who they are. Agalloch’s post-blackened folk metal seems easy to pigeonhole, but just when one assumes they’re ready to wrap their head around the band, the floor drops out to show everyone how much more there is to them.

The Serpent & The Sphere is filled with plenty of expansive moments, but chunks of it are surprisingly nasty. The ballsy doom riff that opens “The Astral Dialogue” is burly enough to warrant a few listens before you notice its subtle Agallochiness (which is further obscured by the band’s convincing take on Viking metal that follows it). “Vales Beyond Dimension” is basically a love letter to pre-Celestial Isis, with all the requisite downstroked chords and Neurosis worship. But even in these semi-uncharted territories, everything is decidedly Agalloch. Folk melody henpecks the edges even in Serpent’s heaviest moments, and the band don’t venture far enough away from metal to cause genre seasickness. They have a very specific sound that the record spends its running time trying to broaden. But not once do they collapse under their own weight. The band are working in a big enough terrain here to risk getting lost. But despite that danger, they confidently move through the area they’ve deemed theirs.

The Serpent & The Sphere also risks Pink Floyd Meddle Syndrome (patent pending!), a record bookended with two great songs and some filler jammed in between (“So, we’ve got ‘One of These Days’ and ‘Echoes.’ Is there more? A song about a dog? Really?”) But the folky doom of “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” and the post-metal climb to the summit of “Plateau of Ages” (with its The Edge-grade reverb-drenched leadwork) is a broader interpretation of the songs that come between the two of them. On their own, they’re pretty decent Agalloch exercises. In the vernacular of The Serpent and the Sphere, they’re a liftoff and gentle gliding out of the album. While it lacks the sort of idee fixe that fuses proggy concept albums together, the music feeds into eachother. “Plateau” wouldn’t be the same without the relatively straightforward Agalloch of “Celestial Effigy,” nor would the lulls and peaks between the black metal of “Dark Matter Gods” make the same sense were it not for “Pillars of Creation” opening The Serpent & The Sphere. It’s at once progressive and reflexive. The world doesn’t want you to listen to albums on the whole anymore, but set aside an hour or so for some QT with this one. It’s one worth exploring, as the snarling and doom riffs can’t overshadow the beauty surrounding them. Or, in some cases, right underneath.

Agalloch’s The Serpent & The Sphere comes out May 13 on Profound Lore. You can stream it  here and order it here (or if you’re in Europe, order via Eisenwald).

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