Few bands, metal or otherwise, have built a reputation over the last 15 years as sterling as Agalloch has. Ever since the 2002 landmark The Mantle the Portland band has put a very unique spin on extreme metal, its blend of folk/pagan influences and atmospheric black metal yielding startlingly beautiful music that many didn’t dream possible in such a harsh genre. And just like the pace of the band’s full-length album output, Agalloch’s musical evolution has been slow and steady, each record indebted to the same formula – introspection and staggering beauty juxtaposed with speed and darkness – but 2010’s Marrow of the Spirit was particularly revelatory. An easy choice as the best metal album of that year, topping Decibel’s list of course, it felt climactic, especially compared to 2002’s The Mantle and 2006’s Ashes Against the Grain, like it was a summit the foursome had been striving to reach for the past decade.
Trouble is, what do you do after that? Agalloch has never been complacent, but in the wake of releasing an album that’s universally regarded as career-defining, that question must linger, even just a little. But like Gary Snyder told Jack Kerouac, “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” Or better yet, like in The Dharma Bums, just run down the damn thing, which is exactly what The Serpent & the Sphere (Profound Lore) feels like. The songs are shorter, crisper, more streamlined and direct, the momentum of that apex reached on Marrow propelling the music down that hillside with grace and breathless energy.
What fans will notice first, and what will undoubtedly rankle some, is that the full-on, blastbeat-driven speed is downplayed considerably. While that played a major factor on Marrow – Aesop Dekker’s loose-yet-controlled blasting is phenomenal – there’s more focus on simpler dynamics, with enough room made for the odd post-punk influence to creep in, most notably on “Dark Matter Gods” and “Celestial Effigy”, both of which owe a lot to The Cure’s Disintegration. It’s the sound of a band discovering that it can shift gears without compromising the music’s metal integrity. Metal still roots the music, of that there’s no doubt, only the pace is measured, and in turn that draws the listener in more. You’re able to take in the melodies by John Haughm and Don Anderson, to absorb the poetic lyrics more easily, as the songs ebb and flow elegantly, interspersed by tender classical guitar intrludes by Canadian musician Nathanaël Larochette. Songs like “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” and the gorgeous “Plateau of the Ages” only feel comfortable because of the sheer mastery of the form the band displays. Comfortable and familiar, but never for a second complacent. You just go along for the ride, careening, leaping down that hillside until you dig your sneakered heels into the mud and fall there, glad.
Also out this week:
Down, Down IV: Part II (ADA): Those who didn’t know what to make of Phil Anselmo’s relentlessly atonal debut solo album last year will be very, very happy to hear he’s back to the Southern sludge grind on this very good second installment of Down’s EP series. It’s more of the same from the guys, which is all their fans ever want, and to the band’s credit songs like “We Knew Him Well”, “Hogshead/Dogshead”, and the wonderfully Sabbathian “Conjure” more than hold up their end of the bargain.
High Spirits, You Are Here (Hells Headbangers): A peer of mine wrote the other day, “Let’s just let Chris Black run heavy metal.” I’d be perfectly fine with that. Whether making music with Pharaoh, Dawnbringer, or Superchrist, Black understands the aesthetic of classic heavy metal so deeply that he rarely if ever puts a wrong foot forward. High Spirits ventures into the more melodic side of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, that late chapter in the era that yielded such bands as Tokyo Blade and Grim Reaper. Simple, streamlined, with strong emphasis on hard rock harmonies and melodies derived from Blue Öyster Cult, this album is not only more upbeat than anything Black has written to date, but it’s also some of his strongest, most dynamic material, his singing feeling more confident than ever. Like Dawnbringer’s last two albums, the simplicity You Are Here somehow cuts right to what makes heavy metal so appealing. It’s intangible; you hear this album, and something clicks. Few contemporary metal musicians get it like Black does, and he gets it totally, life-affirmingly right on this magnificent little album. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Hour Of Penance, Regicide (Prosthetic): The Italian band is back with another helping of well-crafted death metal, striking a good balance between physicality and melody. The guitar work by Giulio Moschini and Paolo Pieri is especially noteworthy, tossing in nimble melodies amidst robust – and often very catchy – rhythm riffs. Dan Lake premiered this album last week, and it’s well worth checking out.
Killer Be Killed, Killer Be Killed (Nuclear Blast): I know what you’ve been thinking, “Why can’t we ever hear Greg Puciato and Troy Sanders sing boring ‘90s groove metal with an underachieving Max Cavalera instead of what they do with Dillinger and Mastodon?” Well, your prayers have been answered. Enjoy.
Lantlos, Melting Sun (Prophecy): I was looking forward to this album, I enjoy Lantlos a great deal. But unlike Alcest, which has always been better when avoiding black metal trappings, the black metal side is sorely, sorely missed on this hazy, dreamy, and unbelievably boring effort. Sure, there’s more of a heavy aspect to counter the melodies, but the heaviness plods away lugubriously, while the hookless melodies just float along without engaging the listener in the least. I did not see this coming at all. What a disappointment.
Nightsatan, Nightsatan And The Loops Of Doom (Svart): Well, this is weird, a soundtrack album that’s twice as long as the movie it’s for. And what a strange, strange movie Nightsatan and the Loops of Doom is, too, an homage to 1980s post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy flicks laced with music that draws equally from Goblin and Giorgio Moroder. This one for the VHS revivalist crowd.
Of Spire & Throne, Toll of the Wound (Broken Limb): It’s easy to compare the Edinburgh band to Conan, as its breand of doom metal is similarly blunt and pulverizing, but what makes this new EP so interesting is how it slowly sets itself apart, from the minimalist brilliance of “Tower of Glass” to the surprisingly stately “Cascading Shard”. This is a band to keep an eye on. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Owl, Into the Absolute (Zeitgeist): My immediate reaction to this EP by the German band was, okay, Conan doom with Meshuggah’s guitar tone. But then the blastbeats kicked in, the atmospheric keyboards started, progressive rock texture is displayed, the guy started singing, and I was completely thrown for a loop. It’s a very, very interesting thing these three guys are doing on this record, and I’d like to hear where they take this music next. There’s huge potential here. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Teitanbood, Death (The Ajna Offensive): You sometimes get the sense that there’s competence in Teitanblood. They know dynamics, and the material is performed with a level of intensity that can best be described as striking. However, the faster passages – which dominate the album – are so relentlessly buzzing in tone that any musicality this stuff might have had is stripped away completely. You can sound as dense as you want and still retain a sense of musicality. Portal, Impetuous Ritual, Grave Miasma, and Bölzer all prove that. But when your overwhelming desire to sound comically evil and lo-fi renders the recording unintelligible, it ceases being music and is nothing more than racket, to the point where merely looking and sounding scary can’t save your sorry, cartoonish selves.
Vallenfyre, Splinters (Century Media): The Paradise Lost/My Dying Bride/At the Gates side project made no apologies for its Swedish death metal fandom on its debut album back in 2011, and although that hasn’t changed at all on the follow-up, there’s one big difference. It hits you as soon as those guitars kick in: this is a Kurt Ballou recording. Granted, the man’s guitar tone has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to get excited when band after band put out records that sound the same, but the way Ballou brings the crust influence out of Vallenfyre on this very loud record will please many. It sounds fantastic. The only thing is, this album is so dominated by Ballou’s presence, it sacrifices any identity this band might have had before.
And back by surprisingly popular demand (thanks to everyone for asking it be resurrected) here’s this week’s must-hear album from outside the metal scene:
Swans, To Be Kind (Mute/Young God): A huge influence on a wide array of artists to the point where you could use that old Velvet Underground line (“not many bought their albums, but those who did formed a band”) Swans suddenly became the most name-dropped band in metal and indie rock in the wake of the release of 2012’s colossal triple album The Seer, regardless of whether anyone knew the band’s history or not. Looking back on it, though, it worked more as a spectacle, a wild, multifaceted look back at Michael Gira’s vast body of work work not only with Swans but Angels of Light as well, rather than something one would revisit time and again. To Be Kind, though, feels like an album that you would want to revisit over and over. The idea is the same as The Seer – again, it’s a whopping two hours long – but it’s so much more cohesive as it twists and turns deeper and deeper into bizarre and often harrowing territory, completely distinct from anything the band has ever done before yet undeniably Swans. Noise, blues, folk, and rock collide as Gira sings, croons, shouts, and yelps like a madman, the entire mad package tied together by producer John Congleton. It swings with demented glee, it seduces, and it punishes, best exemplified by the astonishing 54-minute cycle of “Just a Little Boy”, “A Little God in My Hands”, and “Bring the Sun/Toussaint l’Ouverture”. Primal, orchestral, cathartic, and soulful, this is a far more intense a listening experience than any metal album you’ll hear this week. Hell, perhaps all year.