Agalloch could have called it a day after the release of 2010’s phenomenal Marrow of the Spirit and nobody would have resented them for it. That record was a perfect distillation of their sound — black metal, neo-folk, post-rock — as they are ever likely to release.

The Serpent and the Sphere‘s songs are shorter, most no longer than six minutes, and there is a noticeable reduction in ambient excursions in favour of straight-up guitars (with acoustics provided by Nathanaël Larochette of Musk Ox), but this is the same Agalloch that blew minds wide open four years ago. Their progression isn’t as much musical as lyrical and, perhaps, spiritual. Marrow, like much of Agalloch’s back catalogue, was firmly situated in the natural world, while Serpent’s themes are cosmic in scope. The “human” element of their music, so strong on mournful early releases like The Mantle (itself almost a concept album about dejection and despair), now feels absent completely. That would be unforgivable in most musical genres, but in the niche that Agalloch have carved for themselves it seems like a logical progression. Music like this is limited by the scope of human experience. The early albums could only say so much — I’m sad. So very sad.

This isn’t a record for listeners who expect folk to retain its humanity, but Agalloch — poetic, philosophical, eternally self-serious — have always and always will be bigger than that.

By Gareth Watkins

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