20 December 2010

2010 Albums: Agalloch, Belle and Sebastian

Marrow of the Spirit
Released November 23, 2010

Short Notes: More metal, more power and more everything leads to an instant classic.

So, as will be readily apparent, I’m not a metal guy. At best, I’m one of those indie kids with the Black Mountain and Mastodon records. At worst, I’d have to admit to enjoying Judas Priest’s first eight records far more than the vast majority of the new metal records Lin’s sent me over the years. That said, it was clear from the second track on (the first one is a compelling, if slight composition featuring cello playing over the top of the sound of a gurgling stream) that this is a major record. I may not be able to tell you how it fits in with the current metal trends, but I can tell you that Agalloch have made a deeply affecting record with tremendous musicality. I’ll leave the heavy philosophizing to Lin, but it’s my assertion that if you can get past the heavy metal vocals, there’s a lot that most indie rock fans with a foothold in heavier music (say, a teenage education in stoner rock and its classic rock antecedents, in my case) would find enjoyable and engaging. The musical twists and turns (it’s proggy, but in a way that never degenerates into virtuosity demonstrations) keep it engaging, and there’s top-notch guitar interplay for the headphone listeners. Highly recommended.

Lin: A+
Agalloch's 2006 album "Ashes Against The Grain" was my go-to choice for many of the long winter days and nights I spent in downstate Illinois. It's what I picked when I didn't know what I wanted, when in that indescribable mood brought on by unrelenting melancholy. So I wasn't particularly looking forward to this, their follow-up: 4 years later and the preemptive sense of disappointment that 'the one after the great one' usually brings? Still, there's always hope, right?

Marrow of the Spirit is better -- better than any previous Agalloch, better than almost every other metal I've heard and, it looks right now, better than any other album that came out this year. The appropriately (or ironically?) titled "And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness" opens the album with cello washed over an icy creek, sounding exactly like the album cover looks. If we have indeed escaped the darkness, Agalloch is here to tell us that the light doesn't hold any real promise: "Into the Painted Grey" incorporates the black metal that Agalloch lost circa their second album. It hits, and hits hard, but to call it 'black metal' ignores the complexity of...well, everything. This 12-minute tracks takes us a quarter of the way through the trip and I'm already blown away.

But then comes "The Watcher's Monolith," which is getting all the press. It's good, for sure, great even. But it's followed by "Black Lake Nidstang" which is -- let's just admit it -- epic. At over 17 minutes, "Black Lake" is the temporal and emotional centerpiece of the album. I've only listened to this piece a dozen times, so I don't yet have the words to adequately describe it, but it's already made the short list of my favorite metal songs ever.

If there's a knock against this album, it's that the first four tracks are so exhaustingly good. I'm not sure I really paid that attention to the last two songs -- 20 minutes worth -- on my first listen through. I was catching my breath. But on subsequent listens, they're as rewarding as what came before it. "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" would be my favorite track on hundreds of other albums. "To Drown" closes things out the way they should be closed out, bringing back the opening cello in washes of electronic guitars and an increasingly tense circular figure.

It may not be the best place to start for metal or even within Agalloch's catalogue, but if you have any love or desire for the genre, Marrow of the Spirit is a must have.

Belle and Sebastian
Write About Love
Released October 11, 2010 (Rough Trade)

Short Notes: The Boy’s got no Arab Strap...(and yes, I know how dirty that sounds.)

Belle and Sebastian have been in a sort of quasi-hiatus since 2006’s outstanding The Life Pursuit. Sadly, this record, while going after a similar classic pop sound (replete with horns and a 60s vibe), is far inferior with regards to songwriting and hooks. I love the idea of a poppier, more hi-fi version of the band that gave me If You’re Feeling Sinister, but this record doesn’t reflect the breezy brilliance of the last one. This one’s only for the die-hard fans.

I've spent some time -- not a lot of time, but a significant amount -- trying to get into Belle & Sebastian. But, for some reason, I find it fairly difficult outside of a few songs scattered throughout their discography. I tend to, in general, find their music pleasant enough if completely boring. Their newest does little to alter my opinion. At best, Write About Love sounds restrained, leading to an odd 'tenseness' in the music that keeps it from reaching the level of easy-going contentment that I found intriguing -- if not always appealing, given my own proclivities -- in the sunshiny pop of earlier albums. Only really worth picking up if you're a Belle & Sebastian completist.

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