Agalloch’s fifth album, The Serpent & the Sphere, is an entrancing, inter-dimensional construction zone, a billowing tapestry of fog-shrouded gods and mystical pillars rising toward skies swirling with dark matter. An eccentric, poetic, shamelessly serious attempt at explaining life, death, and the multiverse, the album is an invitation to throw on your headphones, close your eyes, and ask, “What does it all mean, man?”
Incorporating elements of post-punk, prog rock, and classical, the reclusive Portland black-metal outfit creates high drama every time their feet hit the distortion pedals. This brand of metal isn’t about solos or crazy time signatures or thundering double-bass pedals; it’s about patience, beauty, and release. The band’s epics are built on a handful of huge, echoing power chords, delivered at a molasses tempo. These flat expanses of sound have a lulling effect, priming listeners for what looms ahead.
The journey commences with “Birth and Death and the Pillars of Creation,” a hilariously lofty title on the page, but one that suits the material perfectly. A 10-minute Lovecraftian Book of Genesis, the track begins with a minute of quiet foreboding: two simple minor chords from a clean electric guitar. When the massive wave of distortion crashes down, backed by a soft choral synth patch, the stage is set for some seriously heavy mythology.
Frontman John Haughm isn’t afraid to let things simmer though. It’s not until halfway through “Birth and Death…” that he swoops in, his chilling rasp doubling as the voice of a mysterious creator. “Towers, mercurial and flowing/My work is done,” he observes, his annunciation as nebulous as his visuals, leaving listeners to translate. After seven minutes of build-up, the cacophony starts to wither: the drums fall out and the faint, monk-like chorus and a softly strummed guitar are all that remain. And Haughm returns for one last, horrifying croak: “My work has begun.”
If The Serpent & the Sphere were just five slowly unfurling Gollum operas like that one, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but so much uncut grandiosity can get a tad suffocating. Agalloch largely avoids this problem by employing classical guitarist Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox; a third of the tracks here are devoted to his stunning, autumnal instrumentals. The early palate cleanser “(Serpens Caput)” lets us adrift on Larochette’s nimbly fingerpicked melodies for a moment, before being sucked in by the next stupefying black wormhole of a song.
The album’s preference for atmosphere over hooks, plus the paucity and snarling incomprehensibility of its vocals, makes it ideal for pondering whatever mystery that captures one’s fancy. But it also has a clear point of view. On “Vales Beyond Dimension,” Haughm reveals the secret of this shadowy world he’s built. “The past is a mirror/Aeons exist in a myriad cast,” he shares over the album’s most driving bit of riffage. “The vale before me/My own reflection.” The serpent eats itself. The past and present are one. Whoa.