Looking back now, even if the band knew The Serpent and the Sphere was going to be the final Agalloch album I don’t think they could have crafted a more full expression of what the band encompassed as a sonic entity. Rich and cold, bursting with full and lushly sculpted songs, it returns the band to its roots even as it points to how far the band pushed the limits of what you could do with a clear vision and unique perspective on how Black, neofolk, and post/progressive metal can blend while maintaining a singular identity.
“Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” spends a quarter of its time building layer after layer of evocative sounds, acoustic guitars chiming behind monolith power chords that ring for an eternity before the kick drives down for another hit. Listening now it feels like an elegy for what Agalloch achieved in their 20+ year career – the bass slides around the slow, mournful melody and I’m not even aware it’s over four and half minutes before the vocals kick in. “My work is done” ends each verse, a portent of the reality to come.
Things get much heavier on “The Astral Dialogue” bringing the band’s black metal roots to the foreground. But in typical Agalloch fashion, there’s so much more than just a return to black metal – the way the guitar melodies take their time over the blast beats, the acoustic interludes, the start and stops of the drums, and that great bass interlude toward the end: Jason William Walton might be the unsung hero of The Serpent and the Sphere. “Dark Matter Gods” continues in the same vein, and I remember it was here where I really started to get lost in how well Agalloch would mix their albums: for songs that were so dense, you can fall in and pick out notes, instruments and sections so clearly. It’s the contradiction of having such cold music come off so warm.
The Serpent and the Sphere is probably the Agalloch album I come back to the most; from front to back there’s not a weak moment. The acoustic interludes are all perfectly executed – not only in technique but in bridging together to heavier songs. When things get heavy they get wonderfully heavy, and finally here in “Plateau” of the Ages we have a massive song that doesn’t wear out its welcome or come with minor quibbles.
All the solos, please. All of them.
The reasons behind the split may not be fully known, and we’ve already sown the seeds of what came after (especially Khôrada’s Salt, reviewed in depth here for Nine Circles) but in The Serpent and the Sphere Agalloch have left behind a footprint too large to fully see, let alone fill.