Agalloch – Marrow Of The Spirit
Marrow Of The Spirit
Agalloch have been and will, most likely, continue to be a favorite of mine. I’ve been listening to them for nearly ten years now and have admired their work tremendously, The Mantle being one of my all-time favorite albums and an innovative masterpiece within the diverse extreme pantheon. Over the years, I’ve seen their popularity grow from being a niche, pagan black metal type of band to becoming one of the most well-respected, relatively innovative bands of not only the black metal scene but of extreme metal altogether (even though, in reality, Agalloch is not very extreme). Marrow Of The Spirit, the album in discussion today, is the band’s fourth full-length released in 2010; I have intentionally waited a while – well, nearly two years now – to offer my official critical analysis since an album of this weight and magnitude (in regards to expectations and anticipation, that is) requires time to sink-in, be explored, and thought upon before any kind of reasonable reaction is to be made. It’s good, maybe even great to some, but at the end of the day this is the band’s weakest, least characteristic release to date. I know, the album’s got like ten 100% reviews on Metal Archives and, of course, the obligatory 15% ones so, in general, it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it album and here I am feeling somewhat indifferent. Why? … read on and I will attempt to explain to the best of my abilities, highlighting what I consider to be the positives and negatives accordingly.
The album opens up with the sound of a brook flowing amidst the chirping of birds in what is presumably the spring or summer; indeed, it’s a bit odd and out-of-place considering the desolate, winter-time cover artwork the album bears. Rather immediately a solo cello comes in, playing a mournful tune throughout the three/four minute duration of “They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness”; the piece isn’t actually composed by the band, but fits their aesthetic well enough and is a nice intro track for what it is. “Into The Painted Grey” follows rather roaringly, quickly revealing itself to be the most abrasive song the band has ever penned; it’s so incredibly fresh, lively, and powerful that I was quite taken aback by just how damn good it was. The song, aside from a few interlude-esque guitar rambles anyway, does not relent and is essentially twelve minutes of aggression which, coming from Agalloch, is quite a feat. This is one of the best songs of the album and perhaps even the band’s entire catalog; I hope they explore this dynamic more in the future as it’s successful with room to grow. “The Watcher’s Monolith” dolefully follows and is, unfortunately, probably the weakest song I’ve ever heard from the band; it wanders rather aimlessly, utilizes somewhat out-of-place analog synths here and there, is melodically and structurally predictable by Agalloch standards, and is even followed by a short, generic piano piece at the end that seems to be an attempt to recapture Odal’s outro glory that fails miserably. It’s done by a guest musician and lacks any real kind of emotive power.
“Black Lake Niðstång”, the album’s centerpiece, is somewhat experimental in nature and, ultimately, is quite a success. The song, as comparable to perhaps “The Mantle”, conjures up sincere feelings of melancholy, yearning, and spiritual isolation that are quite a redeeming experience after the mediocre track it follows. The song nearly bleeds bleakness and is quite doomy in nature, being rather slow and plodding throughout most of its seventeen minute duration. There is a nice analog synth break in the middle that is followed by some interesting clean guitar layering that is exceptional. From here, the melodic theme builds and builds into what is the album’s most climatic, post-rock-meets-black-metal moment, and one of the most powerful and demanding in the band’s career thus far. “Black Lake Niðstång”, like “Into The Painted Grey”, showcases the band traversing new territory with much passion, and the outcome is rewarding from the listener’s perspective (as is it from theirs as well I’d imagine). It’s this sense of adventure that excites me about a new Agalloch album, knowing there’s going to be elements I’ve yet to hear integrated into the band’s sound.
“Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires” follows, and is a by-the-numbers Agalloch track that, unlike “The Watcher’s Monolith”, is rather engaging despite its predictability. The song rehashes ideas from tracks like “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms”, “Falling Snow” and much of Pale Folklore in such a way that it has that kind sort of déjà vu feeling going on which is a bit disappointing. No less, it’s still a good song that’s probably going to become a staple in their touring set-lists (and is, perhaps oddly, the only song the band performed from this album when I saw them a couple months ago). The album closes with “To Drown” which is a nearly-instrumental piece that manages to express some good ol’ desperation rather winningly throughout the first half, but then turns a bit too bombastic for its own good during the second portion of the song. Either way, John Haughm’s poem/lyric that accompanies this piece is one of his best compositions yet, and is rather potent to those lost in the spiritual disarray of the modern age. Overall, it’s a nice closing number but they’ve done better on all of their other albums; whether it’s the piano on Pale Folklore, the life-loathing “A Desolation Song” on The Mantle or the ambient drone of “The Grain” on Ashes Against The Grain. “To Drown” kind of goes in circles and is a bit too lengthy for its dynamics.
Ah yes, now it’s time to discuss Marrow Of The Spirit’s real bane: its production. On Marrow Of The Spirit, this is lost somewhere between the desire to be raw and the desire to be concise; whereas Pale Folklore and The Mantle had relatively black metal-toned guitars, there was still a certain clarity and energy about the production and, although Ashes Against The Grain is certainly the band’s most accessibly produced it, too, had a punchy, lively aura that really shined throughout its duration. Marrow Of The Spirit sounds somewhat deadened, lifeless, and blasé which, in some cases, can be a positive thing when it comes to the annals of extreme metal. However, in the case of the highly emotive and spirited Agalloch, this becomes quite a distraction, as it’s overly bland and suffocated. The band seems to be trying to prove a point with this album, reminding their now ever-growing audience that they’re black metal, and aren’t afraid to be raw and can easily defy any expectations set about them. This is all fine and dandy, of course, although we’re talking about a well-established band with a cult-like fan-base who, at this stage of game, are beyond making points – you don’t need to produce your album poorly to make a statement. Marrow Of The Spirit is not raw enough to give it any kind of invigorating, intensive black energy, but also not produced well enough to give it the polish or refinement that Ashes Against The Grain had, for example … It’s simply there like dead weight: flat and uninspired, and hopefully a mistake the band’s not going to make twice. I’ve read other complaints about the stale production, so I suppose it’s nice to know it’s not just me being fussy here.
All-in-all Marrow Of The Spirit, despite its strengths, is shrouded in a weakness that makes it the most dismal, uninspiring Agalloch recording to date. It’s caught in an identity crisis: a band summoning together all of its energy to prove a point while trying to make a record and, unfortunately, letting the point precede the album. To some extent, I am empathetic to their plight since they’re an American band doing what a lot of European bands do (but, to Agalloch’s credit, they do it differently) and, I’m sure, often feel in the shadow of such European bands with richer, heathen backgrounds to grasp onto from their ancestry and geography. Agalloch, on the other hand, are some pretentious white guys from Oregon with no real spiritual culture or heritage to hold onto, so again, I can see to some extent why they’re out to make a point since they’re circumstantially the underdog when it comes to that whole “being a true-blue-pagan-in-metal” thing. Despite this, however, and as I mentioned earlier, the band is beyond the let’s-make-a-statement phase of their career, as there’s no need to; they’re well-respected worldwide and are doing more interesting and experimental things than most of their European peers so, really, they’ve got nothing to worry about and hopefully, at this point, the band has realized this and is embracing it accordingly. The final verdict? An okay album. Not a total write-off, but certainly the most disappointing release from Agalloch thusfar, “Into The Painted Grey” and “Black Lake Niðstång” being the real (and only) gems here that still make Marrow Of The Spirit worth your money and/or time. Besides, you may feel differently and think it’s the best album ever so give it a shot and come to your own conclusions. 😉
Andrew Senkus’ Rating: 2.5 out of 5