American black folk metal act Agalloch’s fourth studio album Marrow of the Spirit was released in October of 2010, perfectly before the winter season hit Sweden. And yes, the music fits perfectly with winter – this album is especially gloomy and filled with despair even in comparison to 2002’s The Mantle and 2006’s Ashes Against the Grain. The listener is given a unique 65-minute experience, travelling through an unforgiving forest of despair and doom, revisiting the hands of a creator and drowning in the cold lake Niðstång again and again.
While the album technically starts with They Escaped the Weight of Darkness, I would lie if I counted is as anything but an intro. It is almost four minutes of setting the mood with sweet cellos contributed and apparantly also composed by cellist Jackie Perez Gratz. The intro works extremely well, even though I wouldn’t have minded it shortened by a minute or two, and it perfectly sets the mood when we are thrown back into the black metal abyss.
Into the Painted Grey (12:25)
On first listen, Into the Painted Grey was the weakest track to me, and checking through music sites (especially Last.fm), it seems most listeners agree. Black metal has never been my genre – while most heavy metal genres have spiked through me at one time or another, black metal has constantly stood out as meaninglessly dark and without any real emotion. Agalloch became the exception of this when I first heard Ashes Against the Grain, but only because it is so much more – it stands out with incorporating both harsh and clean vocals, and it features folk guitar seldom heard in the genre. Into the Painted Grey is on first listen obvious return to a much more simplistic black metal, and it is only on subsequent listens that I have realised that this is not the case.
Into the Painted Grey features a force and a darkness seldom seen in Agalloch’s music, alongside the high-pitched guitar melodies and the just slightly audible acoustic guitars. And while the first five minutes are of an incredible force of “let’s blow this shit up”, the remaining seven minutes or so feature a return to classical Agalloch, with sudden mode swings between electric and acoustic guitars, and perfect drum-guitar moments almost never heard in black metal. And as I hear vocalist John Haughm scream out “How long shall I suffer here?” just past the seven-minute mark, I can’t help but feel a chill over my body and a tear by my eye.
While the lyrics of Marrow of the Spirit are as cryptical as ever before (and as they should be), these are the lyrics I can understand the most. The loneliness and despair of this everlasting, immortal being (dare I say God?) is saddening beyond my understandig. If “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms” made me feel like running through a forest and “A Desolation Song” had me weeping with a bottle of vodka in a Lappi shelter, Into the Painted Grey makes me want to scream from the very top of Kebnekaise.
The Watcher’s Monolith (11:46)
When “Into the Painted Grey” ends so suddenly The Watcher’s Monolith picks up wonderfully with classic Agalloch acoustic-electric guitar composition. This is definitely the most folky of Marrow‘s six tracks, and it works greatly with many good hooks and riffs. Haughm varies greatly between harsh screams and clean, almost whispering vocals in this one, and the track creates a deceptive mood, quickly varying between mellow tranquility and piercing tensity. Both the music and the lyrics give me the feeling of this song being the one with the biggest story of the album, but I still can’t quite figure it out through the words.
From 8:40 and onwards is a beautifully excellent section, alongside the second half of “To Drown” my favorite of the album. A simplistic yet crushing guitar-drum-bass riff along a wonderful two-guitar solo melody leading into the sounds of an empty night and a two-minute piano outro reminiscent of Beethoven’s classic “Moonlight Sonata”.
Black Lake Niðstång (17:34)
Black Lake Niðstång is constantly seen as Agalloch’s finest work ever, and although I still can’t make up my mind I can surely say it is the best track on Marrow, alongside the yet-to-come final “To Drown”. It starts out with a two-minute keyboard-timpani-guitar intro, leading into a classic acoustic-electric guitar moment. The first four minutes are basically a long tribute to Scandinavian folk guitar, alongside the crushing keyboard-guitar lines and Haughm’s (?) whispering voice of agony.
By the four-minute mark, the actual song kicks in, and what the booklet calls “voice of the dead” begins a whispering verse. The later “voice of the niðstång” (a niðstång is also called a nithing pole in English), a crying yelp of Haughm’s, is incredible and really shows his varied talent as a vocalist. The song later moves into an almost four minute long keyboard interlude handled by a guest play from Sun O)))’s Nathan Carson. While these kind of things may go incredibly wrong, this one really works. The four minutes deliver an incredible emotion and every time it so suddenly falls back into the band I want to scream alongside Haughm. And the final few minutes before “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires”, the lyrics finally tells us the end of the story about the Black Lake Niðstång, and… well, why you should not drink from its waters.
Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires (9:39)
At almost ten minutes, Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires still stand out as the quickest and most sudden of all songs. A fierce explosion of riff after solo after riff, it manages to control itself and work incredibly well throughout it stages, from the high bass intro and interlude throughout running drum sections and on through screaming vocal lines, and understanding its lyrics it works really well together, including its suddenly oh so saddening finale, that moves into the final track…
To Drown (10:27)
On first listen, To Drowns was the first track to really stand out. I have always been especially fond of all its elements, really, from the ambient sounds to the folk guitar, from the cellos to the clean vocals and onward to the magnificent drone metal finale. I have little useful to say on this track, really, other than that it is an incredible experience, beating previous final tracks like “…And the Great Cold Death of the Earth” (The Mantle) and “Scars of the Shattered Sky (Our Fortress Has Burned to the Ground)” (Ashes to the Grain) incredibly.