The Serpent and the Sphere makes no exception, to the rule. This time, though, the four-piece from Portland, Oregon, probably has not stretched itself beyond its limits. The album misses the feeling of utter effort that was so compelling in Pale Folklore and The Mantle: these were albums that let the listener startled, dizzy and entirely captured from beginning to end. The same feeling pounded in the more electric and “metallic” approach of Ashes Against the Grain and Marrow of the Spirit. To a certain extent, that drama also belongs to The Serpent and the Sphere, but, to put it lyrically, it seems to seep and writhe beneath Agalloch’s frostbitten land instead of gliding with brilliance above it. Which is to say, the new album certainly touches unearthly depths, but takes an introspective direction that turns out in less cutting and shrill melodic lines, always provided by the trusted Don Anderson.
Besides, to begin with the title itself, this new album deals entirely with the inner journey towards elevation, may it be physical, intellectual or spiritual: crawling and wriggling in the womb of the Mother Earth like a snake or a worm to reach the superior dimension of the celestial Spheres. The symbolic injection of such a concept is enormous, and its array furtherly extends if we think of the meanings bestowed on these two subjects from time to time in compared cultural systems. The snake depicted as icon of sin, sexuality, change, rebirth, as much as a godly element in several pagan cults (Ouroboros or Apep are just a couple of examples) and its peculiar physical structure clearly represents the cyclic nature of things, life, death, and history. Cycle, which is, obviously, a sphere. It all makes sense. The magnificently harsh landscapes that also used to bring consistency to Agalloch’s searing sound are also present, though with a different acceptation. The maternal and feminine nature of the Earth is the vehicle to a transcendental, philosophical dimension: an astral order of divine architectures, dark matters, arcane cosmos, terrifying gaps of time and space, all beautifully engraved in some of John Haughm’s most precious lyrics ever.
Now as regards Haughm, his clean vocals are almost completely gone and forgotten, which somehow suits the pit of inward and despair he has plunged in by writing such songs, and Walton’s churning bass almost makes as a backing vocals to the frontman, especially on the regal “Dark Matter Gods”. Needless to say, Aesop Dekker makes a superb job milling his way either through the blackened blasts of “Celestial Effigy” and “The Astral Dialogue” and the meditating progress of slower tracks.
“Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” is probably one of the best bits of the album, constantly hovering on the edge of what the listener expects to be an explosion, a volcanic eruption or something like that. Instead, Agalloch indulge for 10 minutes in the slightly sadistic pleasure of playing the waiting game through thoughtful guitar work, tense drumming and soothing post rock beams. “Plateau of the Ages” is a 13-minute behemoth of pure and glowing Cascadian beauty. “Vales Beyond Dimensions” remarks the doom component stronger than in previous works. The instrumental interludiums “(Serpens Caput)”, “(Serpens Cauda)” and “Cor Serpentis (The Sphere)”, strategically positioned, manage to ease down the tension at the seams of the tracklist and seal the portrait of a previously unseen band, projected towards something untouchable, yet deeply rooted to mankind’s most primordial nature. A masterpiece of structured thought, a theoretical and awe-inspiring album.
The Serpent and the Sphere was released on May 13, 2014 on Profound Lore Records. Recorded at Cloud City Studios, Portland, Oregon. Mixed at Everything Hz. CD version available as deluxe digipack with die-cut first panel.
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 (The Sphere)
7. Vales Beyond Dimension
8. Plateau of the Ages
9. (Serpens Cauda)
John Haughm (voice, guitar)
Don Anderson (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals)
Jason William Walton (bass)
Aesop Dekker (drums)