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Flowers blooming upon a recent grave. - 81%

ConorFynes, April 27th, 2017

If you've ever lost someone dear to you and return to the gravesite often enough, it can be incredibly profound to come back and see something growing on the gravesite. A flowing blooming aside a gravestone doesn't salve the loss, but it does, if anything, prove there is beauty to behold in virtually any situation. Obsidian Arc is one such bloom.

It does not seem so long ago I woke up one morning to learn that Agalloch had broken up. I had been of the mind that The Serpent & the Sphere showed the band's creative momentum slowing down, but news of the loss was nonetheless tough to hear. This was a band I'd had so much to thank for. The summer days spent listening to The Mantle. The joy hearing Ashes Against the Grain and seeing them live for the first time. Most significantly of all, I'd arguably have Agalloch to thank for breaking me into the worlds of neofolk and post-industrial music. I interviewed Don Anderson a couple of years back the last time they toured through Vancouver. I remember Don making the remark that he considered it a tertiary gal of theirs to hopefully open up their metalcentrist fans to new pastures as it were. I can say with certainty that Agalloch offered that and far more to me.

It felt necessary to begin a review of John Haughm's new Pillorian project by eulogizing its antecedent. Of course, Pillorian is just one of two de facto continuations, and this schism has brought to mind a longstanding notion that Agalloch were so successful because they highlighted each member's personality and interests. In that sense, they really were the Beatles of dark metal. It may have been technically Haughm's band, insofar as legalities were concerned, but the real magic happened because everyone stood out. Haughm's brooding black metal was perfectly complimentary with Don's eclectic influences and JWW's predilection for the avant-garde. Even the late addition of Aesop Dekker's punkish energy livened up the band in a fresh, exciting way.

Keeping the Beatles analogy going, I guess Pillorian counts as Agalloch's Wings. In any case, I'm not sure why I had initially low expectations for this album. Even the news that Stephen Parker, and Trevor Matthews from Uada were rounding out this new incarnation didn't seem to stir me much. Looking back, I'm not sure why. Even if I hadn't been much into The Serpent & the Sphere, I knew not to expect that collaborative magic I heard on Agalloch. Indeed, Obsidian Arc seems much more the vision of John Haughm alone. To my surprise however, I actually like the Pillorian debut a lot more than the last Agalloch LP. It's not quite the monument needed to mend the loss, but hearing that signature sound in a darker, more grounded subtext has proved a real joy to behold.

Pillorian is best described as a purification of one of the visions that made Agalloch great. That's not to say that Obsidian Arc sounds particularly narrower in scope, but the style isn't all over the place like before. Darkly melodic black metal still finds wingmates in the expected Ulver folk trappings and doomy resonance. It's inevitably less challenging of a listen to be sure, but this consolidation more than makes up for it by the merit of its songwriting. Not since Ashes Against the Grain has Haughm's songwriting sounded so focused and sure of itself.

There were highlights here that instantly clambered their way to becoming some of my favourites of anything Haughm has touched. "By the Light of a Black Sun" sounds like a self-conscious nod to the days of Pale Folklore; I think I like it even more than anything on that album, and it's easily one of my most listened-to tracks of the year. The doom-fuelled "Archaen Divinity" impressed me just as much, but takes the opener's cinematic catharsis to far-darker drudges. "Dark is the River of Man" hit hard as well, rounding off the record with a slow, elegiac pulse befitting The Serpent & the Sphere's contemplative atmosphere. As the album ends, I get the resonant mental image of Pillorian observing the final rites as a pyre burns.

Obsidian Arc came into this world at a natural disadvantage. The obvious contexts and comparisons would have been unkind regardless of the album's quality. With the way a lot of people have been talking about Pillorian, it does appear like the wound of losing Agalloch hasn't had time to heal. With that said, I'm all the more excited that Pillorian happened so fast. It took this trio less than a year to follow a breakup with a new record. Despite that initial urge to see Pillorian like a Haughm solo project, Matthews and Parker have done a great job rounding out the band; with both having varied metal resumes, it's even hopeful we'll see a growing collaborative dynamic in future material.

Obsidian Arc came to be under less than cheerful circumstances, but it's only taken Pillorian this one album to convince me. If Agalloch were getting too creatively self-contained on the last album, maybe a schism did them good after all. I would never have predicted myself saying that, but the quality of this album makes it remarkably easy to feel optimistic. With equally excellent things soon to dawn from Pillorian's estranged sister band KhĂ´rada, I say we'll be in good hands musically for the coming while.