Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Agalloch: Marrow of the Spirit (2010)


The difficult-to-classify Oregonian band Agalloch just released their fourth full-length, Marrow of the Spirit. Upon first listen, it's easy to see why it takes them four years to release an album, as there is a lot going on and every note is obviously given careful consideration.

If you're unfamiliar with the band, it's tough to explain their unique approach. There are elements of folk metal and black metal in here, and it's all depressing music, similar in a lot of ways to an understated version of Primordial. But none of their influences are too obvious. It's also clearly a sound derived from spending time in a lonely forest: They've incorporated nature into the music (including night insects and stream sounds), which sounds like a corny idea until you hear how convincingly it's done.

The tracks are appropriately long, because musically, they cover a lot of ground. A case could be made that they're a progressive metal band. Several tracks include some relatively straight-forward black metal, but it always comes off as depressing rather than aggressive, and it never lasts too long. Often, a minimal, distorted rhythm section provides the backdrop for interesting leads, provided by electric or acoustic guitar, or maybe even cello or piano. Vocals can be whispered, rasped, or clean.

Other times, the bass provides the melody, or there's some synthesizer weirdness taking over the whole song, or sustained discordant notes could be played over ominous drumming. And that's just "Black Lake Nidstång".

But despite the variety within the songs, they each have a melodic theme holding them together, usually a high-pitched clean melody repeated in different ways throughout. Sometimes (like on "Into the Painted Grey") there are two melodies going at the same time, to startlingly powerful effect.

Marrow of the Spirit provides the rare marriage of atmosphere and memorable music. Every track is emotionally powerful, and makes you feel as if you're the one sitting in the woods, dealing with unbearable grief. But the melodies will stick with you just as much as the mood, giving it a lasting impact.

The Verdict: Agalloch have proven once again how much they deserve critical acclaim. Obviously, this isn't for thrash maniacs, but if you keep an open mind, and allow yourself to be taken in, you won't regret taking this journey. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

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