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shoot at hurricane irma - 77%

RapeTheDead, September 6th, 2017

My anticipation for this album can only be described as "bittersweet". Agalloch is an all-time favorite band of mine and were extremely crucial in shaping my musical tastes as a teen, so I was obviously saddened by their less-than-amicable split. However, it was kind of like cutting off a hydra head in that two new bands spawned in the wake of the decapitation. The other three members formed Khorada, and Haughm recruited some American black metal aficionados to make Pillorian, Obsidian Arc being the resulting album. It's nice because we get some new music quicker than we would have if Agalloch had stayed together, but you also wonder if the offspring will lose the unique combination of elements that made the parent band special. John Haughm is one of my favorite musicians, but it seems like he really screwed over the other guys in splitting up the band (based on what I've read). There's just too many mixed messages going on here, and when you put it all together it makes it hard for me to listen to Obsidian Arc objectively. Just know that going into this.

All else set aside, you can tell that Pillorian is the kind of music Haughm has always wanted to make. The songs on Obsidian Arc are much more unitary and focused than anything Agalloch ever wrote and all seems to have a similar end goal. It seems like this is what Haughm would have always been doing if he had full creative control. That's not to downplay the contributions of the other two members; there's a sense of bite reminiscent of Uada and Mgla in the faster, more aggressive moments, and Trevor Matthews brings in his own smooth, rolling feel to black metal drumming. That being said, I'm assuming that Haughm has a bit more pull on the musical direction of Pillorian simply based on how immediately his melodic style shines through. His triumphant, wandering leads and rich, melancholic black metal riffing are often made to be the focal point. Also, he handles all vocals and lyrics, with the linear, narrative vocal style he's developed being brought over from his previous band without much change. The prominence of Haughm's influence is by no means a bad thing, but something about Obsidian Arc feels a little bit rushed. I mean, this did come out pretty soon after Agalloch's demise. Either the band managed to form, have chemistry and write together remarkably quickly, or Haughm had a lot of these ideas up his sleeve already. You can almost feel how badly he wanted to get some music out there before Khorada.

I'm trying my best not to let my perceptions of Agalloch's breakup color my judgement of Pillorian, but honestly, the songs on Obsidian Arc still lack diversity and rely on the same sort of tricks a lot even when taken on its own terms. There's too many lush, climactic moments and not as many of the huge, winding buildups that make those moments so special. After a while, it just forms an indistinguishable sea of drifting clean guitar melodies with a lot of delay occasionally breaking tension from a series of slick, rolling, melodic black metal riffs that sound...folky, without being folk metal. It's a cool style, one that I greatly enjoy, but at this point in time, that brand of black metal is more the norm than the exception. Fact of the matter is, even though Haughm played a huge part in pioneering American black/folk, it seems as though the teacher is becoming the student. Pillorian simply lacks the dynamics in songwriting and the extra little quirks to make them stand out from their peers...that is, until you get to "Dark is the River of Man". That song It utilizes a slower, cleaner approach to the band's sound, and I know Haughm was never the greatest clean singer, but somehow it all comes together on that one magical closer. It's a bit of a curveball comapred to the rest of the album, and it makes me long for Pillorian to change up their approach a little bit more often than they do. "Forged Iron Crucible" has a bit more going on in it, but those two songs are vastly superior in quality to the rest of the album. The remainder of Obsidian Arc isn't necessarily unlistenable. If anything, it's so easy on the ears that there isn't a whole lot that stands out.

I enjoy this album a fair deal, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by it at all. It's competent, well executed and even genuinely amazing in fits and starts, but it lacks that X-factor that staples songs into my brain. Aside from a couple of moments of shining glory, Haughm's unique muse can't carry the album on its own, and the fact remains that it just doesn't feel like there were as many cooks in the kitchen as you got in Agalloch's albums. Trevor Matthews is a great drummer, but he tends to follow the riffs a bit too closely. The drum patterns always seem to change at the same time the riffs change. I'm not too familiar with the other projects of Stephen Parker, but the rare moments where he seems to be showcased don't do much outside of Haughm's pre-approved mold of black metal. When Agalloch was still together, I found myself longing for them to incorporate more aggression and black metal into their music - I guess I shoulda been careful what I wished for.