The Weight of Darkness: Inside Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit
Agalloch has always created grand, sweeping sonic landscapes over the course of their career. Three members of the Portland, Oregon band take us deep inside their most ambitious album to date.
"The initial point of departure for this album was cinema," says Agalloch bassist Jason William Walton. "We had a specific feel, imagery and pace that we communicated with each other through cinematic references long before musical references. That has long been the case, but much more so with this album."
Reflecting on the majestic, 65-and-a-half-minute journey on Agalloch's fourth full-length album Marrow of the Spirit, one can't help but feel that it's been as much a cinematic experience as much as a musical one. The Portland, Oregon band has always created grand, sweeping sonic landscapes over the course of their career, but there's something about the new record that feels like it could lend itself brilliantly to the visual imagery of, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky or Werner Hezog. From the subdued overture of "They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness", to the vast, epic overtones of "Black Lake Nidstång", to the striking climax of "To Drown", Marrow of the Spirit would practically beg for a visual complement were it not already powerful enough for the listener to conjure mental images on his or her own.
"It wasn’t until we told [Steven Wray Lobdell, producer] that we were thinking of the album as a film that he understood immediately what we were often trying to do," adds guitarist Don Anderson. "Strange how a medium that is purely visual can communicate so perfectly. We would regularly reference Sergio Leone, or Bergman and everyone seemed to instantly know the necessary mood."
If there's one thing Agalloch knows how to do as well as any metal band, it's creating the perfect mood, which they've done with remarkable consistency over the last eleven years, starting with 1999's astonishing, Ulver-esque debut Pale Folklore, and continuing with the melancholy beauty of 2002's The Mantle and the devastating melodies of 2006's Ashes Against the Grain. Although the band steadily appeases their fans by putting out plenty of stopgap EPs, when it comes to Agalloch the actual albums are the real treasures, and when the long wait for the next record is finally over, it's always savored as one would a fine wine or a favorite book. You never know how long it'll take for the next album to come along, so you might as well take your own sweet time enjoying the new one. Besides, carefully drawing equally from Nordic folk, black and death metal, drone, dark ambient, and darkwave, Agalloch's music is a blend sumptuous enough to make a four year gap between albums feel worth the wait.
"It has also never been our interest to produce albums as fast as people or sometimes even ourselves would like," says Walton. "We take our time. We are methodical. We think of every detail musically, lyrically and visually to make the end product as satisfying as possible. We see no reason to rush art."
Adds Anderson, "We revise, edit, rewrite and completely go over everything with a fine-toothed comb. So, yes, we are incredibly meticulous and will continue to wonder if we did something right long after an album is out."
That attention to detail has paid off in a huge way, as Marrow of the Spirit is an easy choice as the best metal album of the year, and is every bit as accomplished as the past three full-lengths, if not more. In direct contrast to the gorgeous, languorous tones of Ashes Against the Grain, the new record is far grittier and less polished, yet at the same time displays so much more sonic richness than many expected. Not that Agalloch's previous work lacked depth, but rather there's a lot more going on this time around. There's more variation, not to mention a much more dynamic approach to the songwriting. The band's black metal influence comes to the fore on a good portion of the album, drummer Aesop Dekker (he of Ludicra notoriety) providing speed-riddled percussion on "Into the Painted Grey", but as the stately "The Watcher's Monolith" and the aching "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" prove, what makes this album so enthralling is not so much the added aggression but how gracefully both the insistent and pensive sides of the band's sound offset each other. "The texture of the music certainly adds a darker feel but I think the actual songs are much deeper and more bleak than Ashes," agrees guitarist/vocalist John Haughm. "I personally think the arrangements on the new album are much better as well."
While the band brought some superbly crafted songs into the studio, producer Steven Wray Lobdell deserves plenty of credit as well. A Portland-based musician/producer as well as a member of Krautrock legends Faust, Lobdell not only gives Agalloch a more well-rounded sound on record, but he also accentuates the band's more experimental side, contrary to Ronn Chick's more even-keeled approach on the previous record. "We felt that with the change in labels and finally achieving some independence it was time for a new chapter for Agalloch," Anderson explains. "We felt like we could risk changing some other things too and our first thought was, obviously, the studio and engineer. Ronn Chick is incredible and our main reason of switching to Steven had to do with starting fresh and was not in any way a criticism or reflection of Ronn. Steven also offered a wider array of equipment, but also, a different perspective on music generally. We’ve always been a band that carefully laid down each guitar meticulously. But, with some parts on this album you can hear John and I accented beats differently. Both he and I were a tad nervous about this because it isn’t common to Agalloch. But, the thing that Steven kept saying when we would express concern was 'it sounds like two guys playing guitar'—that seems so obvious and simple, but it wasn’t something that was part of our approach. I think because of this our songs on this album breathe more and we sound more like a band."
"It was really a different atmosphere in Steve's studio because that guy can be so vague and eccentric with his input," Haughm says. "One example was when I was tracking a guitar lead for 'Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires' and when I asked if he thought I should try another take, his response was, 'I dunno...I like Keith Richards.' At first I was like, 'What the fuck is that supposed to mean?!' But I eventually understood that he was, in his weird way, telling me to loosen up and not focus on perfection. Make it feel right instead."
The album's most strking moments come midway through and at the conclusion. The sprawling, 17 minute "Black Lake Nidstång" is Marrow's centerpiece, running the gamut stylistically – acoustic guitar, distortion, and spacey synths converge in fittingly Krautrock-like fashion - while at the same time serving as a damning indictment on the West's lack of an environmental conscience, told using Nordic imagery. "'Black Lake Nidstång' was one that I was unsure if it would actually work once put together," Haughm admits. "We did a lot of re-recording of the guitar parts, a lot of experimenting with different tools and sounds until we felt it was right. I think the most amazing piece of input was when it was suggested to me to detune my guitar just slightly for the lead under the 'suicidal' vocals. It added a really disturbing, almost warped quality which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be painful but haunting at the same time. Those are the kind of details that make a huge difference in the end."
Meanwhile, the closing suite "To Drown" is even more complex, an ambitious pastiche of folk and black metal accentuated by the scraping cello of Jackie Perez Gratz, before morphing into a chilling coda reminiscent of the Kronos Quartet. "This song was pretty much 'my' song and although I encouraged the rest of the band to please feel free to contribute to it, it wasn’t until it started to take shape in the studio that we began to really focus on it as a band, Anderson elaborates. "I had written a much longer version with a three minute bridge section. John was very resistant to this part. We were all concerned that the song was too long and dragged and I was too close to it to agree or disagree. Finally, I just said to John 'I want your fingerprints on this, I’m going to leave and you do whatever you want to it—edit it, do vocals, add more percussion, whatever.' I’m not someone who invests in the sacredness of art too much. This song wasn’t so personal to me that I couldn’t let someone else have their way with it. But, part of what makes Agalloch so functional, and what makes John and I complementary songwriters, is that I trust John. I know what he is capable of and I had no concern that he would do something to 'To Drown' that I wouldn’t like. So, I came back to the studio the next day to hear what he did and, of course, fell in love with song all over again. But this song was definitely the most ambiguous and unrealized song and we really had no idea how it would turn out. Steven was also valuable with regards to the percussion. At the end of the day, it was actually really fun to almost write this song in the studio. We had sheet metal and timpani and broken glass going on for percussion. It was a really rich and creative experience, but it was also a bit of an anxious moment because we knew it was a risky song in some respects."
"I was writing my bass lines remotely, and had absolutely no idea what to do for this track," adds Walton, "It was so different, so vague, so awkward in the beginning stages that it was impossible for me to write something beforehand. Jackie completely recontextualized the song with her cello work then Don and I revamped it again over the phone. This song had so many lives in pre-production that at times I lost track. It took being in the studio, and John taking the reigns last minute to finally make it work."
Anderson continues, "I specifically explained to Jackie that I didn’t want her to 'stick to the roots' or do arpeggios or anything like that. I didn’t want something that sounded like a Bach cello suite or that was supper melodic. I feel like that when metal bands use strings it’s often in a very clichéd, almost Baroque style. I told her I really wanted something that sounded more modern and she knew exactly what to do. I referenced composers to her like Pärt, Feldman, and Ligeti. I wanted that grinding sound of the bow on the strings. I wanted melodic lines that seemed ambiguous at first but slowly unveil themselves over more listens. By the seventh time I heard the intro she wrote, I could hum it back to myself. It isn’t immediately catchy (like most modern music), but there are distinguishable themes and variations. They just aren’t the kind that follow standard harmony. I was also going for a mild “drone” aspect to the song too. Again, I was really into the music of Morton Feldman at the time of writing this song and I wanted to achieve a similar kind of floating minimalism."
On "To Drown", Haughm's whispered lyrics are especially thought-provoking:
They escaped the weight of darkness
To forge a path into the marrow of the spirit
They chose to drown in a deeper vacancy
An emptiness that quells the null
A pool for the forgotten
They escaped the weight of darkness
To drown in another...
"[Marrow of the Spirit] evolved from a popular quote from Thoreau’s Walden where he writes, 'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,'" explains Anderson. "So, one of my first suggestions to the band was 'The Marrow of Life'—but, this line is so popular that it was used for many other things and we didn’t want to reference it so directly. For many weeks we were really into the word 'marrow' and knew we wanted to use it somehow. We did the whole 'marrow this' and “marrow that.” But, the simplest was the best… 'Marrow of the Spirit.' The phrase does not have a specific meaning—we didn’t want something that meant something directly and immediately. For me, this phrase is attractive because it places the abstract (spirit) against the concrete (marrow). But, also 'spirit' can mean so many things… 'spirit of the ages', a 'ghost', or one could simply say that someone has a lot of 'spirit.' So, there is not a singular meaning, but rather a collection of impressions and images."
Haughm, on the other hand, is a lot more succinct but just as metaphysical. "For me, this title adds further synchronicity to the lyrical content; much of which is about parallel universes, micro-cosmoses, and the fact that our existence, our beliefs, our gods... is all really damn meaningless once you reach the absolute core of space and time. We are nothing in the grand scheme of things and this title is as much a rhetorical black hole as any in the universe."
To Agalloch's devotees, Marrow feels like a turning point, a surprisingly audacious opus that opens up a new realm of possibilities for the band. From their perspective, although the fact that this is a significant record is not lost on them, having full creative control over their art for the first time is what they're relishing right now. According to Walton, "It is definitely a new chapter for us, but I think least of all musically. We are still fundamentally doing what we've always done musically; evolving, pushing boundaries, and making the best albums we can. Even though our music undoubtedly sounds different than it did 10 years ago, it is still undeniably Agalloch. I think the real change comes with taking over everything else having to do with the band. Becoming independent and having more control. If our output seems different somehow, it is most likely due to the fact that we are reenergized and overcome by the path that lies before us, and unhindered by obstacles that have weighed us down for so many years."
Anderson adds wryly, "Maybe Werner Herzog will read this and offer us a soundtrack."