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Before The Mantle, before playing historic Romanian opera halls, and before the "Album of the Year" accolades, Agalloch guitarist Don Anderson founded a progressive metal act called Sculptured in 1996 and completed the band's debut two years later. For one of the first records released on The End Records (which licensed it from obscure Polish label Mad Lion Records), it was an impressive start for both band and label. For an album written by a guy in his late teens, it's far more sophisticated than it has any right to be.

The Spear of the Lily Is Aureoled is a Don Anderson project through and through. He is the lone songwriter and performer of everything but drums (John Schlegel), brass (Burke Harris) and clean vocals (Brian Yeager), and as a result, his distinctly expressive guitar playing is all over the album. Even compared to some of Agalloch's most bombastic moments, Anderson sounds absolutely Van Halen-esque when he lets loose. Chalk it up to a combination of youth and his first full length under what at the time was pretty much a solo project. Hell, if I could pull off the harmonic tapping on "Lit by the Light of Morning" or the precise string skipping that comprises "Fashioned by Blood and Tears"' intro, I'd flaunt my talent too.

Sure, it's flashy, but Anderson's playing never seems like overplaying because the album's thematics call for it. Spear is baroque, floral even: "Opethian" before that descriptor became the metal version of Floydian. Better yet is that Anderson captured all the gothic sorrow of the Peaceville Three while still crafting what is essentially a death metal record. In an interview with Ginnungagapmetal, he stated his main influences were the more technical acts of the Florida death metal scene, the "Tampa Three" if you will: Death, Cynic, and Atheist. It's an influence that can be felt on "Lit by the Light of Morning," where steady blasting transitions to a riff so meaty it could have been on Individual Thought Patterns and when rollicking double bass shares the stage with aggressively played classical guitar on "Her Silence."

Acoustic guitars make numerous appearances, which shouldn't surprise any fan of progressive metal in recent years. Spear's real "did that just happen?" moments start when a bleating trumpet interrupts the stunning leads of "Almond Beauty," continue on atonal intermission "Fulfillment in Tragedy (For Cello and Flute)," and culminate in a full-on jazz break led by walking piano lines, more brass and a steady backbeat in the middle of "Her Silence". And then Anderson launches into more fret board expeditions like these "intermissions" never happened.

The eclectic instrumentation and various musical indulgences are extensions of the romantic and expressive themes that stretch from Anderson's leads to the chillingly personal lyrics. If love is found in the spring, it's lost in the winter. On opener "Together with the Seasons", the birth and death of a year's phases is mirrored in the protagonist's tragedy:

"As winter fades, and summer begins
We lie embraced as light hits the
Garden entangled in green vegetation
Swallowed by the Earth's rich ground"

The narrator curses nature's predictability on "Her Silence", drawing parallels between the seasons' repetition to the monotony that can finish off a failing relationship:

"Trapped in this routine so shapeless
But I can't let myself speak nonsense
Such a trivial thing those first words
And who am I but a songless bird"

By Anderson's account, The End did its best to bring Spear to a somewhat larger audience, so it's anyone's guess why it and his future projects have yet to cement him among the likes of Mikael Åkerfeldt and Dan Swanö as household names in more prog-savvy metal homes. This is where the triumphant, melodic leads that weave in and out of Agalloch's best material originated, and they are played with passion and a complete lack of inhibition. As the sample from the film adaptation of 1984 professes in the waning seconds of closer "Our Illuminated Tomb": "It's not so much staying alive, it's staying human that's important".

— Greg Majewski

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Sculptured - "Almond Beauty"

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Sculptured - "A Moment of Uncertainty"

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Amazon (CD, MP3)

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