AGALLOCH: THE SERPENT & THE SPHERE (2014)
1) Birth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creation; 2) (Serpens Caput); 3) The Astral Dialogue; 4) Dark Matter Gods; 5) Celestial Effigy; 6) Cor Serpentis; 7) Vales Beyond Dimension; 8) Plateau Of The Ages; 9) (Serpens Cauda).
After a four-year pause, briefly interrupted only once with the one-track EP Faustian Echoes (on which they tried combining music with an actual Goethe recital and film soundtrack samples, to no major success), Agalloch are finally back to deliver, as you might have guessed, another very much Agalloch album. This time the vague concept behind the songs is even grander than before, switching from issues of decay and extinction of the human race to the birth and death of the Universe itself, apparently imagined in the shape of the Great World Serpent, so if regular cosmology is too boring or difficult for you, feel free to take a sixty-minute crash course on the basic model of the universe from these guys.
The problem is, if you raise the conceptual stakes so high, you should probably be prepared to extract the adequate high cards from your sleeve — and yet, so it seems, this band is still not willing to go far beyond the deuce, if you know what I mean. Four massive LPs into their career, we are now perfectly aware of all the regular trademarks of Agalloch, and The Serpent & The Sphere adds nothing whatsoever to their usual bag of tricks. On the contrary, it subtracts: for instance, there are no more traces of clean vocals (have they gotten death threats from serious fans or what?), the instrumentation is very basic (no strings and very few keyboards), and the song tempos, which used to range from «very slow» to «mid-tempo», all tend to drift towards «mid-tempo» now, leaving less room for the subtle, gradual unfurling of the atmospheric canvas.
When you contrast this mysterious self-limitation with a bombastic song title like ʽBirth And Death Of The Pillars Of Creationʼ, this sort of blows out a brain circuit. True, Agalloch never positioned themselves as a major experimental outfit, preferring to test the possibilities of a set formula rather than blow the formula itself to smithereens. Even Marrow Of The Spirit, disappointing as it was in general, had itself a bit of testing (the cello intro alone was an unusual move by any accounts). But The Serpent & The Sphere, despite its lyrical ambition, after a few listens remains the first Agalloch album that gives a sharp impression of «regress» rather than «progress», even according to Agalloch's own limited standard.
The bulk of the album is given over to these burly mid-tempo romps that we all know very well by now — two or three guitars woven together in droning / folksy-jangly manners, driven forward by a huge drum sound and occasionally accompanied by John Haughm's whispered or growled (more often, whispered and growled) vocals. Describing them is impossible and useless (they tried doing it over at Pitchfork and came out with descriptions like «flickering notes stabbing at distended riffs and pristine tones countering sheets of distortion», which, if you stare at them long enough, could equally well apply to, say, the Rolling Stones, for example). All I can ask myself is — does any of these riffs and tones exceed the average expectations? And the answer is a strict no all the way.
The longest and probably «crucial» number on the album, the twelve-minute instrumental ʽPlateau Of The Agesʼ, only matches its title, I think, if there was nothing much happening on that particular plateau throughout the ages (which, come to think of it, might very well be the actual fate of most plateaus). A completely predictable, safely played set of crescendos, mainly based on a series of ascending trills the likes of which have been produced a miriad times already — just compare this to something like ʽIn The Shadow Of Our Pale Companionʼ, with its memorable main theme, a series of melodic jumps that were impossible to preview, and a certain sense of exuberance from an ambitious young band that had just picked up the scent of something not completely, but noticeably different. ʽPlateau Of The Agesʼ — and everything else on here — is the same band going through the motions, seemingly bent more on creating a «metaphysical installation» than music that would continue to be interesting. No steam.
The songs are linked together with three short instrumentals, whose Latin titles refer to the head, heart, and tail of the Serpent — three chrono-spatial parts of the Universe? — but here, too, the curious conceptual idea is realized with three boring acoustic interludes, consisting of the same types of scales and arpeggios that Agalloch themselves and everybody else have already explored many times in the past. Come on now, wouldn't we expect just a little extra thrill from the consecutive appearance of the head, heart, and tail of the Serpent? How about at least using three different instruments, or something?
Probably some songs are slightly more creative than others, but, honestly, I do not have the strength to drag them all under the analytical microscope. Long-term fans of the band have indeed praised the album, and, since it swears such stark loyalty to the formula, if you really love Agalloch for the atmosphere, you will not be disappointed. If you love Agalloch for the riffs and memorable melodies, you might be a little disappointed (I didn't manage to memorize anything, but maybe it's just me). But if you love Agalloch for pushing boundaries of the genre, stay away. The only thing that will be pushed here is your patience; and mine has been pushed hard enough to get all pissed off and leave here with a mean thumbs down. Will be seeing you 'round about three years on, gentlemen, and please don't forget to bring back the cello at least.
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