At this point in their existence, a new release from Portland’s Agalloch generates near-Neurosis levels of anticipation. They take their time between albums—it’s been four years since Ashes Against the Grain came out. We know the new album will be good, but we don’t know what kind of good: which of the band’s many strengths will be emphasized, what new elements will come into play, what will the production reveal (or conceal)?
The cover depicts a bleak, impressionistic winter scene with ravaged trees and mottled snowfall. The Agalloch logo is drizzled in varnish across it. It’s in keeping with the classy and subtle presentation of their previous releases. They’re a greyscale kind of band. The first track (after the cello-based intro “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”) is called “Into the Painted Grey,” so we know for sure that we’re not in a Technicolor world. As the song takes off with (relatively) new drummer Aesop Dekker’s punishing blasts, it’s apparent that Agalloch are exploring darker climes than the more gaze-y, spectral Ashes… did. The lead guitar work is much more pronounced as well. Instead of hanging back and providing polite texture, the solos cut through. Guitarist Don Anderson’s work with Sculptured proves he can shred, and he’s doing it with Agalloch as well.
“The Watcher’s Monolith” continues these themes in a sparser, mid-paced fashion, with a piano coda that eases us into the album’s centrepiece “Black Lake Niđstång.” This track has gained a lot of praise as the “must hear” song on Marrow of the Spirit, and justifiably so. It’s the longest (I believe, at 18 minutes), most startling song Agalloch have tackled so far. It begins as a dirge, slowly piling on the drama with additional tympani and classical guitar. This is the album’s most post-rock passage, which is a sound they’ve steered successfully away from, on the whole, with Marrow of the Spirit. The track goes some remarkable places that I won’t describe here. I want music to surprise me, and I trust you do as well.
To close the album, there’s the more familiar folk metal feel of “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” “To Drown” smoulders on the embers of the fire that came before, acoustic guitars and cello to the fore, giving way to a chilling and forlorn squall of guitars. Marrow of the Spirit ends a triumphant year for Profound Lore and establishes Agalloch as one of the titans of modern metal. I bought this too late in 2010 to honestly claim this as my album of the year, but it’ll be the album of the rest of the winter anyway.