Marrow of the Spirit

When Oregon’s Agalloch first appeared in 1999 with Pale Folklore and its haunting blend of folk and black metal, the metal community quickly drew comparisons to now-landmark releases like Ulver’s Bergtatt and Opeth’s Orchid. At the time, we all knew how special the album was, but I don’t think we sensed how iconoclastic the band would become.

In the decade since, and with only three albums and a handful of EPs, Agalloch has now become a common reference point themselves, showing up in reviews of Finland’s October Falls, Russia’s The Morningside and the UK’s Fen and Wodensthrone, among others. Most impressive of all, Agalloch has done this while subtly shifting and evolving their sound with each release, from the proto-black/folk of the debut to the monochrome, crystalline clarity of The Mantle to the warm and burnished hues of Ashes Against the Grain. All undoubtedly Agalloch, but all unique in their own right. And now, with the fourth release, Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch changes yet again. This time, it’s less of a evolution than a return to their core, cutting into the bones and scraping at their marrow.

After the ambient, cello-backed opener “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness,” (featuring Grayceon cellist Jackie Perez Gratz), the sky opens up and erupts with “Into the Painted Grey” – the kind of raw and rangy black metal that made us all take notice of Pale Folklore in the first place. Yet Agalloch has never sounded this aggressive or furious, from Haughm’s craggy snarl to the scrambling, violent tremolo of the guitars to new drummer Aesop Dekker’s (Ludicra, and the excellent Cosmic Hearse music blog) muscular and frenzied percussion. Wolves in the Throne Room take note, there’s a rival beast patrolling the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Follow-up “The Watcher’s Monolith” sounds like more recent Agalloch, with a fuller-bodied tone and a more languid pace. It too cranks to a full gallop at times, surefootedly navigating through flickering patches of shadow and light. Haughm’s chant-like clean vocals make a triumphant return here, though they’ve been submerged beneath the music – an artful effect. Later in the album, “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” adopts the same warmer tones and smoother, more loping pace, seemingly inspired by the elastic thrum of Disintegration-era Cure.

As always, the music is rich with texture and nuance, with the band’s three guitarists employing a variety of stringed instruments to weave an intricate tapestry. This time out, the band also recorded entirely in analog on vintage instruments. The sound has an organic warmth to it, but it’s also weathered and warped, as if left out in the elements to splinter and crack. Many black metal bands have gone for a cold, dry sound, but this sounds brittle. You can almost imagine these guys crammed into a rickety shack somewhere on a lonely mountain, plugging in and then wailing away as the winds howl outside and the rain weeps down through the trees. (The album was actually recorded at Audible Alchemy Studios in Portland, Oregon).

However, much as I enjoy the return to Pale Folklore’s bleak and rustic tones, the band also brought back that album’s sometimes-meandering guitar solos (go back and revisit “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline Part II” to see what I mean). Both “Into the Painted Grey” and “Watcher’s Monolith” feature high-pitched solos twisting and ringing out above the thunder, and while this duality has always been a part of Agalloch’s sound, at times the tone is simply too keening and shrill to really mesh with the whole.

Luckily, all of that is forgotten by the time you’re swallowed in “Black Lake Nidstång” – a doom-sodden, 17-minute monster that’s the most epic and sorrowful thing that Agalloch has ever done. It’s also one of the metal must-hears of the year, although I suggest a quiet place or frame of mind to properly be carried away.

After a droning dirge of an opening, the song breaks into a careful stride, as if slowly picking its way around the stony shores of a isolated mountain lake. Haughm employs an eerie whisper instead of his usual rasp, which he’s done before, but never like this. I predict it won’t be the last whispered passage we hear in black metal for awhile, because it’s incredibly effective, especially with his tales of the spirits trapped beneath the ripples of the water. Tortured spirits, it would appear, as Haughm’s vocals break and shatter – not unlike early Burzum or …In the Woods. It’s a completely naked, genuine performance, and combined with the tragic howl of the music, terrifying as well.

As if that weren’t enough of an emotional crescendo, after that the song blooms skyward into a phantasmagoria of funereal synths and jewel-like vibraphone tones. Mind officially blown. Those who feared the band’s flirtations with electronics and ambiance on The White EP might take them further from black metal may bristle, but fear not. It may indeed be the least black metal moment the band has ever created, yet it forms the very core of the entire album, and comes off more like an hypnotic epiphany than anything else.

And that’s a good word for Agalloch – epiphany – for it’s that sense of secret truth, of gradual revelation and hushed reverence that has infused everyone of their albums, no matter what their palette may be. Just when you think you have a handle on this band, its ethic and approach, they reinvent themselves again, yet never lose sight of what made them unique in the first place. Marrow of the Spirit is an epiphany you will want to experience over and over, marveling at its exquisite craftsmanship while bracing yourself against its mad and beautiful chill.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
December 20th, 2010


  1. Commented by: stiffy

    Tis a great album. Took me forever to grasp. I still don’t see the need for songs that long.

  2. Commented by: Biff Tannen

    Wow…this review has me mighty interested in the album. I like their back catalog, but was never blown away by it as so many were.I didn’t have much of an interest beyond “I’ll hear it eventually”…but this review has made me want to seek it out and hear it asap. Great write up !

  3. Commented by: Travis

    This is a great review, but I didn’t need a review to tell me to pick up this album. It was already an automatic must have when Agalloch announced it.

  4. Commented by: gabaghoul

    thanks guys.

    Chad, report back once you’ve given it a few listens, curious to see what you think.

  5. Commented by: Biff Tannen

    Will do…. Im sure it will take a few to really sink in, like their other albums do. I’ve got the whole week between christmas and new years off work, so I’ll have plenty of time to digest it.

  6. Commented by: timshel

    This is a dark album, and a challenging one too. I imagine it must have been hard to review. I like how you stuck to writing just about how the the album sounds, real matter-of-fact like that, but of course with an ear for poetic description. No senseless hyperbole or unnecessary judgments about the production, new drumming style or whatever. That’s a relief. But I must say I love the “keening” solos on this album. Wouldn’t be right without them!

  7. Commented by: broadencity

    …always enjoy reading your reviews Gaba

  8. Commented by: Old Pick Axe

    I recently discovered Agalloch thanks to a cool guy over at the Cannibal Corpse forum, and I was astounded. Absolutely blown away. Best black metal I’ve heard in a while. And I used to think that Old Man’s Child’s “St. Aiden’s Fall” was the epitome of black metal. Well…it is, but Agalloch comes damn close.

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