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Where’s The Tonkatsu, Agalloch Sensei? - 19%

OzzyApu, November 23rd, 2010

This band was never full on black metal, or full on folk, or full on rock, but what they did manage to blend either formally or informally we took and accepted because they were good at it. I have no major issues with the previous three albums (I could give less than a fuck about their other releases) since they all have character, style, or some form of identity created by lush atmosphere and engrossing tunes, riffs, melodies, and so on. Hardly any of those apply here, as Marrow Of The Spirit to me is a self-hating album. It has two distinct forms – “black” metal and rock – both marred by mediocre songwriting and a dull production job. This job is so thin and lifeless that a speckle of snow would cause more emotions to stir within me. Listening to this isn’t an intimidating or enthralling session, and no song all the way through captures me in the moment or in any state aside from boredom. Not to mention that nearly all of these songs linger near or surpass ten minutes and clock this mess passed the hour mark, making this a grueling affair that eats away time as if it were a part of my body.

It’s almost as if these guys were working backwards, took a detour, and found themselves on the edge of a cliff with a limited number of resources to get them out of said rut. This is kind of a throwback to the debut album, but that album had a warming charm whereas this one keeps going and going without any lasting power. The elements exist, but whether leisurely moody or insistently incessant, there’s no vigor in any of it. Other times the band members just flat out suck at what they’re doing. Take lead figure John Haughm, whom I’ve never heard sound this bad and completely out of touch with how he kept me interest in his vocals. He sings in two styles (for newcomers or the unaware), one in an angry-teen hiss / scream, and another as airy-yet-yawning chanting. Although the former is a form of harsh vocals and the latter is a form of clean singing, this is his least motivated performance of the two; it might just be signs of me moving beyond the mentality that he’s a good vocalist. Seriously, the harsh vocals have hardly any supremacy whatsoever, and “hiss” is the closest I can describe it because he’s just harsh-talking while accentuating the end of sentences like he’s purring. The singing (or whispers, at times) is the same sort of relaxing yawns that were alluring on Ashes Against The Grain, but here he sounds desiccated and monotonous, especially when considering the extraordinarily bland (by Agalloch standards) background music going on.

Regarding this background music, and after hearing their last album, these guys know how to write some post-rock tunes. You can hear moments like this interspersed in “Black Lake Nidstång” and especially during the first and last three minutes of “Ghosts Of The Midwinter Fires”; to me it makes up the best parts of the album – it’s that good, and it’s what Agalloch were missing as the core of this album. The blissful, gloomy hum of the guitars and earthy rumble of bass with spirited drumming gets scolded by the brainless snare bonks, submerged bass grumbles, and static riffs during the heavier sections. The genuine post-rock moments are the minority (in the sense that the heavier moments are the focus of the album), yet they show the band most capable of actually playing something I can enjoy and get hooked on. Often I’ll skip through songs just to hear these moments. When it comes to everything else, it either sounds unexciting, half-assed, sloppy, or annoying (is all that blasting in “Into The Painted Grey” really necessary?) riff-wise, lead-wise, vocally, with the drumming, or structurally (abrupt or awkward transitions, poor use of certain instruments, etc.).

Hark! But the rock bits I love are actually featured more on this album, aren’t they? Even the last song, is nothing but a semi ambi-noise tune much like the last track from Ashes Against The Grain. Sure, but while that song was a sonic sleeper, this one is a meandering, overly-long, overly-uninteresting collage of shit. None of what’s played in that song is even remotely listenable as that thin lead rides a bunch of sluggish passages involving fireside acoustics, a useless cello, and a ruckus of noise (oh wait, let’s not forget the sound clip of ocean waves coming ashore at the end). What a horribly pointless track, much like the worthless intro trying to push the same concept at the start of the album. It doesn’t go on for ten minutes, but it’s still just tedious cello playing followed by a wave sound clip with absolutely no verve at all.

Lastly (to bring this full circle), that production is the one bringing everything down more than anything. Honestly, I can’t argue with the textured riffs and expansive tone protruded on Ashes Against The Grain, but here we get bisected, poorly amplified, wish-washy riffs or piercing leads, both of which sound off-key to me, even in the good moments I mentioned. The bass burps and grumbles somewhat, but it isn’t very coherent aside from the booms so don’t expect to follow it. Could it be the quality of the track that I have? Maybe, but I definitely don’t need vinyl to get that much of a difference. The drumming can go toward bouncy and dusty or pounding and charged, although they’re still stuck with the plastic (bass drum aside) mixing. I hear consistent drumming through some of the songs, though nothing fast or complicated, which is fine, too. Then again, what does it matter when the limp songwriting brings it down?

“To each his own” is a phrase with one meaning, yet Marrow Of The Spirit will be interpreted differently for every listener. A lot can happen in four years, and in music it becomes strictly numbers between albums without counting all the experiences that happen to everyone. In the Agalloch camp they went from a richly toned rock album to a bony, half-thought, impartial decommission of their established sound. They try to keep the metal which was small yet properly inserted last time, but the lack of really good songwriting and this dry production absolutely kill this labor-intensive effort. Better luck next time, boys?