Innovation often requires the deconstructive perspective of an iconoclast. If nothing is sacred, everything is possible, with the greatest rewards best yielded from the highest risks. So it’s an interesting dichotomy that heavy metal and its myriad subgenres often represent both the most wildly inventive and oddly conservative outlooks on musical experimentation. Black metal, in particular, seems to display these extremes more dramatically than, say, doom metal or grindcore, with many “kvlt” holdouts steadfast in their adherence to the sound of Norway circa 1994, while the other end of the spectrum reveals a new breed to which the classic template is only a very loose reference point.
Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch falls squarely in the latter camp, not only pushing the boundaries of black metal, but essentially charting a unique path. Black metal, or metal in general, has only been one aspect of Agalloch’s oeuvre since day one, as they’ve since explored the atmospheric realms of post-rock on The Mantle and offered a set of dark, moody pieces on 2006′s Ashes Against the Grain. The group’s latest offering, Marrow of the Spirit, is their most stunning yet, an epic masterwork that finds the band progressing into a realm of both extreme power and delicate beauty, placing them in a sonic state that pulls black metal closer with one hand as it pushes the genre’s most well-worn tropes away with the other.
Given how much Agalloch have distanced themselves from black metal of late, both on record and in interviews, the impenetrable rush of blast beats and haunting minor key riffs in the majestic “Into the Painted Grey” is a surprisingly deep plunge back into the black. It’s a soaring and towering piece of power and fury, intense but graceful, hard-charging but melodic. And it merely reinforces the idea that Agalloch are responsible for some of the prettiest compositions in modern metal, not the least of which is the album’s delicate, cello-laden introduction, “They Escaped the Weight of the Darkness.”
In each of the five ten-plus minute compositions on Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch takes a decidedly different approach to fusing the elegant with the menacing. “The Watcher’s Monolith” is built on gorgeous acoustic guitars and vocalist John Haughm’s traversal between guttural rasp and cleaner, more ethereal vocal lines. Meanwhile, “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” is a stunning gothic rock epic, finding more sonic common ground with Disintegration-era Cure than Darkthrone, building a brooding progression from delay-heavy guitar riffs and a steady, mid-tempo 4/4 beat. Yet no other track can match 17-minute centerpiece “Black Lake Nidstång” for sheer ambition. A breathtaking journey of a track, containing nearly an album’s worth of movements and sonic formations of its own, the piece opens with a haunting acoustic guitar solo over ominous, booming drums, before easing into a whisper-heavy midsection and ultimately a pounding, fierce metal denouement.
There has never been anything traditional nor conservative about Agalloch, and so it remains with this latest achievement. Marrow of the Spirit is practically a genre unto itself, a spectacular meeting place between folk, goth, black metal and post-rock, without ever remaining faithful to any of them. It is the sound of innovation.
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