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Better than Serpent and the Sphere, I Guess - 77%

Thumbman, March 18th, 2017

It seems that a lot of people were upset by Agalloch's messy public divorce, but if anything it got me excited. As far as break ups go, it could have been better; John being accused of some shady copyright shit by the rest of his bandmates, his now infamous "visionary" statement ect. While the breakup - largely fueled by John wanting to make the band a full time job and the other members being unable due to obligations with work and family - was not particularly amicable, the first thought in my head was great, the last Agalloch record showed the band in decline and now we'll get two good bands instead. While not horrible, The Serpent and the Sphere was hardly a triumphant swansong for Agalloch. Despite having a few excellent moments, it largely felt like the band was on autopilot and the chemistry between John and Don was clearly waning.

If you couldn't gather so much from my introductory paragraph, I find it impossible to view Pillorian (named after Absymal's towering slab of black/doom, The Pillorian Age) removed from the context of Agalloch. While John's "visionary" statement understandably rubbed people the wrong way, Agalloch was largely his brainchild and this really shows on Obsidian Arc. It would be wrongheaded to simply call this Agalloch 2.0 and leave it at that, but the similarities are there in spades. What he did was basically take the Agalloch sound and transpose it to a black metal setting. While Agalloch flirted with full on black metal with Marrow of the Spirit and leaped in headfirst with the Faustian Echoes EP, this goes further than "Faustian Echoes" or "Into the Painted Grey" ever did - even at their most black metal Agalloch incorporated an array of bells and whistles: prominent folk passages, post-rock sections, soaring guitar solos and the like. While Pillorian does flirt with folk elements it is much more in the background as opposed to an essential ingredient like with Agalloch. Although still somewhat melodic and atmospheric, Pillorian is a full on black metal band and is exponentially more riff-oriented than Agalloch ever were.

While Agalloch is unsurprisingly Pillorian's easiest point of comparison, there's more going on. One mildly unfortunate case is Uada, who drummer Trevor Matthews also plays in - who basically did a decent but not spectacular job at a friendlier and more streamlined Mgla (kind of wish Pillorian would just go directly to the source). There's a reasonable amount of homage to the second wave, even if it never gets as vicious. While much of the album is relatively samey, a few tracks do display a distinct flavour. "Stygian Pyre" subtly pays tribute to the dissonant faction of black metal and "Forged Iron Crucible" relies heavily on mid-era Immortal vibes. The one greatest standout is nine minute album closer "Dark is the River of Man". This is the only non-black metal song on the album (atmospheric interlude "The Sentient Arcanum" not withstanding) and is pure Agalloch. It effortlessly transplants a neo-folk aesthetic into a metal framework and also draws on the bittersweet romantic atmosphere of classic Peaceville death/doom. The songwriting towers above that of the rest of the album and even if this is clearly a nod to John's past in Agalloch, it stands up to some of their best work.

You know how I said I can't really view Pillorian outside of the context of Agalloch? That's one of the main reasons I view this as a minor disappointment. While it generally doesn't match the high points, it's much more consistent than The Serpent and the Sphere and ultimately a better album. But merely being a better album is faint praise seeing as Serpent was a massive disappointment. Obsidian Arc was released shortly after the breakup of Agalloch and if there's one thing to be said against it, it's that it feels a bit rushed. While it doesn't reach the same lows as "Vales Beyond Dimension" and "Plateau of the Ages", it suffers from the same major problem as Serpent - songwriting that's not particularly memorable. "Forged Iron Crucible" and "Dark is the River of Man" succeed in the songwriting department, but for the most part it feels like more effort could have gone into this facet of their sound. While still good, the rest of the songs don't have the same staying power as the two aforementioned highlights. The songwriting leads to another problem. Pillorian has demonstrated a much more limited scope than Agalloch, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. However, the songwriting isn't strong enough for them to truly shine with a more limited sound. While the occasional subtle leads were nice and all, I do have to admit I really miss the solos.

Since I don't want to come off as a complete curmudgeon, I'll touch on two more things I really dug about this. The production is fantastic. Recorded by Tad Doyle (an awesome musician in his own right), it is clear and organic enough for the subtle atmospheric touches to work their magic, but rough enough for the black metal to carry reasonable heft. The drum sound is particularly excellent, which brings me to my next point. Despite my grumblings about Uada, I'll be the first to say that Trevor is an excellent drummer. His playing in Uada was easily my favourite part of the debut, and he's even better here. He's not exactly Aesop Dekker, but honestly he's not particularly far behind. His playing is tight as fuck, displaying an excellent sense of rhythm and flow. He really knows how to work within the dynamics of the music and his fills are ungodly.

If this were a new band making their debut I'd be more or less impressed, but this still feels a bit weak for the one of the follow up bands of one of my favourite bands ever; the one who provided my gateway to black metal as a gangly teenager. John asserts that he unintentionally used awkward phrasing regarding the whole "visionary" fiasco, but this proves just how essential the rest of the guys were to Agalloch's finest moments - especially Don. If anything, this makes me think Don was the catalyst for a lot of Agalloch's more adventurous forays. Nevertheless, this is a solid first offering. I just hope the sophomore effort takes a few more risks and puts more effort into the songwriting.