Is it just me, or has 2014 been a year completely barren of essential Black Metal releases? Seriously… where’s the Black? There hasn’t been a single heavy-hitter from any of the scene giants so far. (I haven’t heard the new Mayhem yet, but I’m sure it’ll suck as every Mayhem album post-Wolf’s Lair Abyss has.) Not that Agalloch should or could ever be pigeonholed as just a Black Metal band. Their inspiring musical palette has always encompassed a wide variety of styles, including Black, Folk, Doom, Prog, Post… it’s more of a Grey Metal, if you will. Still, it’s a tall order not to expect these Portlandian champions of all things dark and dreary to fill the void created since I stopped listening to Try Not to Destroy Everything You Love nine hours a day. That doesn’t exactly bode well for anyone willing to accept the fact that each new Agalloch record seems to be less excellent than its predecessor. Case in point: Pale Folklore — an absolute classic; if you don’t own, you don’t know shit about shit. Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor — timeless; I still listen to the Sol Invictus cover on repeat to this day. The Mantle — godlike; utterly mesmerizing perfection. Ashes Against the Grain — …um… I don’t remember much about it, other than it staying in rotation a lot longer than Marrow of the Spirit or Faustian Echoes did. Now, with The Serpent & the Sphere, the band has delivered their slowest burner yet. A largely instrumental LP at a time when I need Haughm to hiss at me the most. It isn’t terrible. Let’s not kid ourselves, these guys couldn’t write bad music if they tried. It just isn’t immediately memorable or outright sizzling with the bleak ‘n’ grim majestic power that allowed these US legends to stand tall in a field dominated by Scandis. It is awfully damn pretty, however. Beautiful clean guitar passages ring out over an ascendant rhythm section throughout, occasionally giving way to those signature acoustic frolics. It’s as introspective and atmospheric as all get out, but severely lacking pain. There seems to be more Prog than passion this time around. More moodiness than malcontent. Glimpses of perfection do reveal themselves on opener “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation,” and the heart of the album (“The Astral Dialogue,” “Dark Matter Gods,” and “Celestial Effigy”), but even here there’s more table-setting than main course. Of the last four songs, three are instrumentals, the notes of which cry out loud begging for narrative verse! I need Agalloch to spin me that windswept, frozen cocoon of bitterness, rage, and despondency, where no light nor warmth nor hope dare shine through. What I don’t need is a voice as good as Haughm’s left on the shelf for what feels like 75% of the album. The better the band, the higher the expectations, and —selfish or not— mine were not entirely met.
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