Living in a post-Agalloch world
by Jericho Cerrona
Forged from the ashes of black metal stalwarts Agalloch's recent demise, (a dissolution, by the way, stemming from intergroup conflict), Pillorian is a band who seeks to usher in the apocalypse by eschewing that former band's more ambient neo-folk tendencies and getting right to the heavy. Honestly, Agalloch vocalist/guitarist John Haughm took to propping himself up as the sole genius behind his band's grandiose mixture of layered riffs, shrieking vocals, and folksy post-rock textures, and subsequently, watched the entire enterprise collapse under the weight of sheer ego.
At once familiar to fans of Agalloch as well as a shift away from some of the more progressive metal signifiers, Obsidian Arc fully commits to Haughm's method of fast-picking tremolos and full-throated vocals. The results are an album which, aside from a spare acoustic intro and outro on "By the Light of a Black Sun", sees Haughm, drummer Trevor Matthews, and guitarist Stephen Parker forging ahead with symphonic intensity. On tracks like "Archean Divinity", which begins as a doom-laden series of escalating riffs and thunderous drumming before exploding into blast beats and demonic vocal shrieks, and the ferocious Scandinavian-tinged black metal ripper "A Stygian Pyre", Pillorian simply lay down the sonic gauntlet. There's even a brief ambient guitar solo near the end of the latter song which speaks to the band's desire to overlay heaviness with moments of atmospheric texture.
Obsidian Arc will inevitably be linked to Agalloch's past work and by extension, will suffer from such comparisons. Whereas records like 2010's Marrow of the Spirit and 2014's The Serpent & The Sphere are both unqualified triumphs, Haughm's latest effort doesn't have the expectation-defying shifts in tone which caused such controversy in the notoriously strict community of black metal enthusiasts. If Agalloch opened up the parameters of what could be allowed within the genre; (bands like Krallice and Falls of Rauros have openly benefited from their success), then there was an expectation that Pillorian would perhaps further reinvent the wheel in some respects. This is an unfair assessment, of course, but still a natural reaction given Haughm's central involvement, and the foreboding slow build of dread and obsession with nature and rebirth have been replaced here with more streamlined breakneck shredding. There are isolated moments, such as the proggy ambient guitar tones on "The Sentient Arcanum" and the drone of closer "Dark is the River of Man", where Pillorian come close to approximating a more nuanced mode of instrumentation. However, the majority of Obsidian Arc, no matter how skillfully executed, stays in one or two modes of dark/black metal onslaught.
Still, Pillorian's ability to change tempo, shift melodies, and throw in some blood-curdling screams with gargantuan hooks, are on full display throughout. Haughm's self-proclaimed status as a "visionary" may have been at least partially unfounded, glossing over the indispensable contributions of his former bandmates in order to elevate his own cult, but his presence is nevertheless all over Obsidian Arc. If this slightly different, though familiar, direction with a new band feels a bit more rushed (both in terms of the relentless driving force of the songs as well as the opaque conceptual framework of the album as a whole), then it's probably because Haughm felt pressured to conjure classic black metal melodies rather than noodling with ebb and flow. Whatever the case, Obsidian Arc marks a debut of considerable power and pummeling force, only hiding briefly behind Agalloch's formidable shadow before stepping out into the light for some sonorous riffs and crushing doom.