Over the past decade Agalloch has established itself as one of the most important bands in extreme metal. Agalloch have achieved this status for many reasons: their willingness to fuse different genres, their constant reinvention, and their insistence on quality over quantity. Most importantly, Agalloch have the rare skill of creating albums that are holistic and unified works of art. An Agalloch album is an event. The artwork, the lyrics and music all explore the mysterious and strained relationship of humanity and nature. Each Agalloch record confronts this theme from a new perspective, allowing the band to constantly explore new sounds and styles, but yet maintain a thematic and aesthetic cohesiveness throughout their discography.
“Marrow of the Spirit,” the Oregonian quartet’s fourth full length release, is their darkest, coldest record to date. Vocalist John Haughm all but eliminates the use of clean vocals. There are far more sharp black metal riffs and drumming than on the last two albums. The production is raw in comparison to previous recordings, accentuating the primitive spirit of the album. Still, the production is full enough that all the instruments are clearly audible. This is crucial, because the composition is complex, with numerous layers of guitar. Most of the music contains three layers of guitar: sharp black metal riffs, lush acoustic guitar and melodious lead guitar. The leads deserve special praise. Don Anderson has developed into quite the guitarist, with a seemingly endless array awe inspiring leads and solos.
Agalloch do a phenomenal job of drawing all these sounds together to replicate the sounds of a vast, wild forest. The black metal riffs sound like frigid gusts of wind, the lead guitars sound like birdsongs, the tribal percussion like a stag walking through the snow. This naturalistic sound is accompanied by John Haughm’s image-laden lyrics. Written in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, the lyrics poetically interweave tales of ghosts with vivid descriptions of natural landscapes. The culminating sense is a solemn and reverent awe at the depth and complexity of the natural world.
The album contains five long metal songs, as well as an intro track—a mournful solo piece for cello. Each of the five metal tracks explores and masters a completely different sound and mood. It is like traveling through a forest, seeing it from the mountaintop, the valley floor and through the thick of the woods. Each perspective is distinct, yet the forest maintains its identity.
While every track is phenomenal, the 18 minute centerpiece, “Black Lake Nidstang” stands out. In Viking folklore, nidstangs are poles on which curses have been carved and a horse skull has been placed atop. When set into the earth, the nidstang disperses the spirits from the surrounding area, leaving a spiritual void. The first half of the song takes place in a funeral doom pace, with tribal percussion and trance inducing guitar. Haughm takes on two different voices. First, he takes on the voice of the dead, through a cold, thin whisper. Second, he reads the nidstang through a sharp hollow scream, similar to those found on early In the Woods recordings, cursing the lake in which the dead spirits dwell. In the second half of the song, the music shifts into a series of dissonant ambient passages before bursting out into a series of epic tremolo riffs and wailing guitar leads. The listener can practically feel the ghosts frantically dispersing in every which way, leaving a dead and empty landscape. The song captures the essence of Agalloch: it integrates so many genres—folk, funeral doom, ambient, black metal, post rock—but ultimately it sounds like nothing else.
Black and folk metal have long legacy of musically recreating natural landscapes. Certainly there have been some amazing accomplishments, from Ulver’s “Bergtatt” to Empyrium’s “Songs of Moors and Misty Fields” to Wolves in the Throne Room’s “Diadem of Twelve Stars”. However, “Marrow of the Spirit” surpasses those albums. Never before has a metal album achieved such an intricate, dynamic and holistic representation of a natural place. In conjunction with the high caliber of musicianship, lyricism and innovation, “Marrow of the Spirit” stands as the benchmark for nature inspired metal.