Pillorian – “Archaean Divinity” (Premiere)
When I reviewed The Serpent and the Sphere, the final album by Portland black metal headliners Agalloch, I observed:
Natural imagery is as much a part of black metal’s aesthetic history as burning churches and vikings, and one of Agalloch’s big victories has been finding an American image to rival the Nordic winters that are so much a part of the genre’s roots. The strummed acoustic guitar, ever-present on The Mantle did its best to take the tremolo-picked minor chord out of the Fjords and into a landscape more inspired by Ansel Adams.
I bring that quote back up because there is no such lushness in Pillorian, guitarist John Haughm's follow-up to the Agalloch project following that groups contentious split. If The Serpent and the Sphere painted a sonic picture of evergreens reaching for rainy sky, then Obsidian Arc is those same trees stripped down to toothpicks and half buried under the ash of Mount St. Helens.
So much of the progressive layering and warm post rock-ish harmony that came to define Agalloch is completely gone, and with it, all the vaguely feel-good spiritual lyrics that accompanied them. The mid-paced vaguely dance rock grooves that made songs like "Not Unlike the Waves" hypnotic in a Killing Joke sort of way? Kiss them goodbye. The second track, "Archaean Divinity", opens with no-adjective doom metal footfalls, that eventually segue into steady, ascetic blast beats. Haughm refuses to sing, but spits bar after bar of raspy nastiness. He hasn't sounded this earnestly black metal ever.
Pillorian is mean. Pillorian feels spiteful rage. On the album's highpoint, Haughm snarls "I have been holding this bitterness for a lifetime." The vitriol is palpable enough to make listening to older Agalloch material a bit more threatening. While the projects sport different sentiment, it isn't as if all of the plucky arpeggiated riffs that gave Agalloch accessibility is gone. People that think The Mantle is frou-frou crunchy granola BS could easily find Pillorian likewise toothless, but even they will likely admit that in spirit this is a sharp —if logical —left turn.
In listening to Obsidian Arc, I am reminded most of Triptykon. Both bands coalesced in the aftermath of older and more storied projects self-destructing during career highs. Both double down on the most feral elements of their predecessors. Both came swinging out of the gate with, in a manner of speaking, breakup albums. Heartfelt breakup albums, often cast the songwriters as enjoyable, relatable, but unlovable antiheroes. Pillorian is Haughm's second round on the Westworld entrance train, going straight villain this time and, I must admit, it's a good look for him.