By Jonathan Smith
Four years since the release of their last full-length album, Oregon’s Agalloch have emerged from the woods to offer Marrow of the Spirit. 2006’s Ashes Against the Grain was a milestone demonstration of how heavy the band could be, a bombastic, mostly mid-tempo romp through the sublime aspects of nature. The White EP was composed of poignant solace centered around repeated references to and clips from Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, a moment of calm appreciation and nostalgic mourning for the natural world around us. In Marrow of the Spirit, on the other hand, quiet reflection is largely replaced by bursts of cathartic fury and over-wrought despair.
This is still Agalloch, however, and the band’s trademark mixing of elements from black metal, folk metal, post-black metal, and neo-folk, to name a few, is front and center. The opening instrumental, “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness,” acts as a sonic bridge that connects this new album with the “babbling brook” motif from The White. In and of itself it would be an almost disappointingly low-key beginning were it not for the fact that it serves merely as an inhalation for “Into The Painted Grey.” By far the most brutal song on the album, it’s in this second track that Agalloch show just how hard-hitting and biting they can be, and the song leaves one exhausted in its wake. Not since “Dia Artio” from Wolves In The Throne Room’s Two Hunters has a track so efficiently sucked me in and chewed me up. “The Watcher’s Monolith” slows things down considerably after “Into The Painted Grey,” and lumbers along like an extra track from Pale Folklore. “Black Lake Nidstång” is a slower track as well, but reaches a crescendo which features vocalist /guitarist John Haughm switching from his familiar shriek/growl to a more clean, pained rasp that almost sounds like singing. After a fake-out ending, the epic-length song moves into a spacey, keyboard-filled instrumental section that explodes into sharp tremolo riffs once more before moving towards “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” The latter is the album’s most interesting offering musically, reminding listeners of just how central drums are to Agalloch’s sound. If there is a disappointment to be found on Marrow of the Spirit, the last track, “To Drown,” drags a bit in its move from an acoustic skeletal structure to riffs filtered through increasing fuzz. Lacking the build-up of three-part album closer “Our Fortress Is Burning” from Ashes, it cannot help but feel a little anti-climatic compared to what has come before. This is not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable track; it’s just not as powerful as the others found here.
Marrow of the Spirit is not, personally, the musical paradigm shift that was Ashes Against The Grain. It is instead a welcome development of and contribution to Agalloch’s catalogue, an album that is a sure contender for the inevitable “best of” lists coming up. After all is said and done, I’m not sure I would offer Marrow of the Spirit to new listeners as an example of the group’s dynamics — that task still goes to The Mantle. The initiated, however, should not hesitate to fill their ears with the ebb and flow of the band’s continuing tribute to nature as filtered through metal music.