Thursday, December 23, 2010

Agalloch forges frigid dreamworld with Marrow of the Spirit

Genre: Black Metal
Profound Lore
Running Time: 65:33

Imagine being in the middle of a dense forest. It is night and you are all alone. Snow coats the ground, while a stream babbles beside you on a clear frosty night. The silence and loneliness engulf you. You are now entrenched in Agalloch's world.

The quartet from Portland, Oregon, is one of the few bands to attempt black metal in the states, and their mixture of black/folk metal mixture is up there with almost anything produced by their Euro brethren. I've had trouble getting into black metal, but one thing I've always respected about it is how there is usually some type of nature influence in the music.

Agalloch have nailed that vibe here, creating an opus of an album that is dreary, bleak, cold, suffocating, and lonely.  The album art sums up the mood nicely - you see nothing but a stream running through a snowy forest at night. Water and nature are the two main themes present on the album. In fact, two of the song titles, To Drown" and "Black Lake Nidstang," contain direct water references.

The opener, "They Escaped the Weight of Darkness," features the sound of a running stream with birds chirping in the background, while mellow strings play alongside it. You're beginning to relax when suddenly a massive drum breakdown comes in and then the furious tremolo strumming from the guitars starts kicking your ass. Vocalist John Haughm has a raspy shriek that isn't the best I've ever heard, but it is authentic.

Much of Agalloch's sound tends to wandering and ambient, although that much should be evident from listening to their previous records. Outside of the intro, only one song is under 10 minutes. However, unlike Ashes Against the Grain, this album has a much darker feel. I would compare it to Opeth's Morningrise in terms of the folk metal influences.

"Into the Painted Grey" is solidly black metal, but "The Watcher's Monolith" features extended folk rock jamming before getting heavier. That leads into the albums's staggering opus, "Black Lake Nidstang," which clocks in at over 17 minutes.

The song opens with some ominous strains before giving way to Haughm's eerie whispered vocals. The main riff and drum beat don't kick in until around four and a half minutes. Around halfway through, Haughm switches to a bizarre type of hoarse sounding shriek/yell, wich sounds extremely awkward at first but becomes one of the song's defining elements.

You get some heavier riffs after that before fading into a spooky ambience that takes up about 1/3 of the track. But the song comes back with a vengeance near the end and delivers a truly memorable outro before slipping off into the night.

I find that, along with "Into the Painted Grey," "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" tends to stick out as my favorite song on the album. It's a bit more guitar and melody driven than some of the other tracks, and I really enjoy the riffs on this one. The closer, "To Drown," tends to wander, but the last few minutes end the album off in grand style.

The instruments do tend to sound flimsy at times, but the playing is top notch. The vocals are few and far between,but it makes it meaningful when Haughm finally comes in. It's true that Marrow of the Spirit tends to wander a bit, Sometimes I feel it works a bit better as background music, as it doesn't honestly hold my interest all the way through.

But it's also a very deep album, full of intricate nuances that reward the listener by revealing something new on each subsequent listen. Marrow of the Spirit stands as one of the upper tier metal albums of 2010 because it captures something that not many albums can do.

Agalloch have gone beyond simply making a metal album. They have created a bleak, icy world that's easy to slip away and get lost in.

Score: 81/100

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