THERE WAS A BIT of an outcry, among those who care about these sorts of things, when Agalloch's new album Marrow of the Spirit earned a lofty 8.5 rating on Pitchfork, but failed to earn that website's coveted "Best New Music" tag. Yet another marginalization of metal, was the common complaint—a pop music website's inability to elevate what is possibly the year's best metal record (Decibel magazine deemed it their top album of the year) to the same status they afford more mainstream acts. Labels like "Best New Music" certainly don't mean a damn thing to Agalloch's intensely devoted audience, but what's amazing about Marrow of the Spirit is that it is quite possibly the metal album of recent years most likely to convert non-metal listeners to the genre.
Which is something to be said for an album that is utterly relentless and uncompromising in almost every way, in which all but one song approaches 10 minutes in length. Its heaviest moments are as black as metal gets, but Marrow is masterfully paced; epics like "The Watcher's Monolith" and "Black Lake Nidstång" have near-symphonic constructions, with simple melodic through-lines repeated and varied to allow light and shade into the darkness.
Marrow begins with the sound of a rolling brook, accompanied by the sound of a forlorn cello. "That had a lot to do with the cover art and the fact that the album itself is a journey," explains Agalloch frontman John Haughm. "It begins in a snowy forest by a river and ends a day and a half later at the ocean. That journey could certainly exist here in the Pacific Northwest so there is a local parallel going on within the album's concept."
Indeed, Cascadia plays an important role in the creation of Agalloch's music. "For us the nature and overall vibe of the Northwest has always been an essential pool of inspiration. Even long before this 'Cascadian' scene existed, we were drawing from the local natural influences and putting those influences into our dark-metal style."
As far as songwriting, Haughm says, "I just try to write what comes natural to me, depending on my mood. I usually create best in a reflective, nostalgic, or melancholic mindset. This can be brought on by a film, a trip to a gallery, a hike in the woods, a road trip, or by just sitting alone in my home studio in the dark. Often something as simple as playing around with some new gear will lead to several new ideas and riffs. I am a bit of a 'sound architect.'"
Haughm's meticulousness carries over into every element of Agalloch, which tours infrequently and almost never plays a show in Haughm's hometown Portland. A lot of this has to do with the current lineup of the band, with members strewn all across the US. "We have a system," explains Haughm. "It is not easy, it is not perfect, but it works well enough. Obviously, we don't play every weekend or jam together regularly. Usually we'll rehearse for a week straight before playing a string of dates and then not see each other until the next event."
Of the potential to make Agalloch a full-time endeavor, Haughm says, "For me, yes, of course that would be nice. However, it would require a lot of impossible compromises, which would lead to a completely different lineup. Then it simply wouldn't be the same band anymore. But who knows what the future will bring?"