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Agalloch - "Marrow of the Spirit" (CD)

Agalloch - "Marrow of the Spirit" CD cover image

"Marrow of the Spirit" track listing:

1. They Escaped The Weight Of Darkness
2. Into The Painted Grey
3. The Watcher’s Monolith
4. Black Lake Nidstang
5. Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires
6. To Drown

Reviewed by on November 10, 2010

"Expectations are high, and potentially a little too high, as the six songs featured here don’t quite reach the peak of the hype mountain that this fourth outing has been placed upon."

If there is anything that truly sends the metal underground into a ridiculous frenzy, it is the mere mention of a new album from Portland, Oregon’s Agalloch. As soon as news broke regarding the quartet’s fourth studio album, “Marrow of the Spirit,” discussion boards and metal forums lit up with endless speculation. To say “Marrow of the Spirit” is a highly anticipated release would be quite the understatement. Agalloch releases its albums in four year increments, with the previous “Ashes Against the Grain” having seen the light of day in 2006. Expectations are high, and potentially a little too high, as the six songs featured here don’t quite reach the peak of the hype mountain that this fourth outing has been placed upon.

“Marrow of the Spirit” begins with a slow and haunting instrumental. To be fair, “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness” isn’t even an Agalloch song. The song was composed by Jackie Perez-Gratz of Grayceon and performed exclusively by her on cello, while birds chirp in the background to the echo of running water. The song is beautiful, incredibly eerie, and a very fitting way to kick off such an album. Unfortunately once the long and draining four year wait comes to a close with the instrumental’s final seconds, the album begins a slow and steady hike back down the mountain of hype, for which it had been steadily climbing for so long.

“Into The Painted Grey” begins with a section that includes the most blatant of a black metal influence as humanly possible. Pummeling blast beats are rolled out in full force by Agalloch’s newest acquisition in drummer Aesop Dekker, alongside a wall of guitar fuzz; and guess what, it works and fits well into the grand scheme of things. But the blast beats do not last for long as the band’s melancholic take on dark metal soon pushes its way through the black metal noise. “Into The Painted Grey,” as a whole, makes a few transitions back and forth between the two stylistic elements, creating a rather decent listen. Current die-hard fans of the band will surely enjoy it, but those looking for something new from Portland’s premier underground metal act might be disappointed.

The trend of repeating oneself is practiced again with “The Watcher’s Monolith.” While it is another well written song, it's a mirror image of the band’s work on “The Mantle.” Acoustic guitar passages often find themselves fading in and out of a barren metal landscape, while the vocals are raspy one minute and clean another. Sound familiar? Both “Into the Painted Grey” and “The Watcher’s Monolith” are good songs and are above average in quality compared to what other bands are doing in the current metal scene, but when a band has a four year gap between records, it’s not unfair to expect something more than just a re-hash of past successes. Maybe I’m wrong and Agalloch has simply found “its sound” on this record.

“Black Lake Nidstang” is Agalloch’s darkest composition to date, although by no means is it the band’s best. For the majority of its bulky and overweight playing time, the song remains in the same realm; one governed by slow progression and quiet whispering with no “real” vocals making a presence. Some classic Agalloch elements are thrown in at intervals, but for the most part this song is an attempt at doom metal that misses the mark in terms of imagination. An interesting interlude is thrown in near the end to save itself from spilling over into the self-indulgent category, just barely. The musical interlude features, what seems to be, a xylophone solo/lead. But sadly, I get the impression it’s just a nifty, rad and "epic" setting on some dude’s keyboard.

The final two tracks on the album, “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” and “To Drown,” are as equally bland as the other songs on the disc. “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” does feature a unique guitar intro not heard on any existing Agalloch track and in all, is another decent listen from start to finish. “To Drown,” on the other hand, is by far the most disappointing song on the album. While not as audibly painful or annoying as “Our Fortress is Burning III - The Grain,” the closing track from “Ashes Against the Grain,” it is also no “A Desolation Song.” "To Drown" is caught somewhere in between the two. There is a lingering noise that hangs out around the back door somewhere, created by the layering of various samples and the distorted bass lines. There is also a nice string section and an acoustic guitar base for which everything is held together, but the end result is really just an underwhelming experience. For an album as anticipated as “Marrow of the Spirit,” one would hope for an absolute storm of musical genius to send it off, but in the end all you really get is a slow and churning groan.

In the end, while I may be sorely disappointed with this album and cannot see myself returning back to it, I'm sure others will love it just as much as I lament it. So as the saying goes, “to each his own.”

Highs: An amazing opening track performed on cello by Grayceon's Jackie Perez-Gratz.

Lows: Its "new" Agalloch, but songs you've already heard many times before on its past two albums.

Bottom line: Existing die-hard fans should enjoy it, but some will be left deeply disappointed by its blatant familiarity.

Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls
2.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)