As any Agalloch fan might guess, Oak Pantheon seems to take its name from a phrase in Agalloch’s brilliant song, “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” (which contains some of my all-time favorite lyrics). This supposition is further cemented by the fact that Oak Pantheon sounds a whole lot like Agalloch. And “In Pieces,” the latest release from the Minneapolis duo, does little to deter that opinion. Which suits me just fine.
While the band has kept up a fairly steady stream of releases, “In Pieces” is only their second full-length album, packed with over 60 minutes of pagan black metal grandeur. The record risks blowing its wad too early by opening with the stunning “Dawn as a New Day,” quite possibly its finest track. The song gallops out of the gate at a steady pace, occasionally bursting into full-speed blasting, and always dripping with atmosphere. About two-thirds of the way in, it settles into an acoustic lull, then explodes into its zenith with a breathtaking melodic flourish. As hypnotic tremolo picking wells up in the background, the shrieking vocals reach a fever pitch. Lyrically, this song is about the author at his mother’s deathbed; and as the anguished vocals, gorgeous melodies, and powerful rhythmic shifts all coalesce, the emotion is palpable, raw, and intense. Gives me goosebumps every time.
“Climb” is more subdued, but rock solid and with an understated magnificence all its own. Melody and brilliant chord changes are key to perhaps all of these tracks, but here are used with an especially deft hand. “Float” is just plain fun, with a supercharged, rollicking intro which descends into chunky, ass-kicking riffs—suddenly dissolving into a sound like a record player being unplugged without lifting the needle. This lasts only a brief instant, before speed takes the reins again and drives the song nearly to completion—ultimately giving way to an acoustic outro.
“Enormity” is aptly named, clocking it at close to 12 minutes and wallowing in a slow build and steady burn. It hits upon various styles, at one point sounding like a dead ringer for mid-period Opeth. In the second half, it swells with cello—and oddly enough takes on a very distinct movie score quality, sort of a darkest-before-the-dawn, ominous-yet-hopeful vibe that precedes the hero’s return to triumph over adversity. Again, it’s odd, and yet I love the way it works. It gives way to enormous riffs, while more glorious tremolo guitar is painted across the backdrop and the phrase “in pieces” is sung repeatedly. This song definitely feels like the centerpiece/title track of the album.
“Grasp the Apparition” is strangely upbeat, containing largely major chords. It isn’t power metal, yet it almost has that character to it. Certainly, it brings in more traditional heavy metal elements, but veers into blackgaze or post-black metal for a moment, sounding like Alcest. Its placement in the order serves well to introduce variety, and it seamlessly bleeds into the subsequent “Pavor Nocturnus,” a monstrously powerful tune that is just pure Agalloch. As a whole it is seething and sublime, second only to “Dawn as a New Day” in sheer might.
“Burden of Growth” also has an apt title, as this song is a serious grower (And also a show-er). It has much in common with“Judgement”-era Anathema: the acoustic intro, the high guitar lines that stretch to the heavens, and even a proggy Pink Floyd aesthetic. There are shades of Agalloch, but this track very much distinguishes itself from the others, and that again helps diversify this record. Like “Grasp the Apparition,” it transitions into the next track, “Godson.”
The record’s finale,“Godson” maintains the Anathema feel for the first couple minutes, before becoming very much like Opeth in its use of melody, acoustics, and even the vocal approach. In its final two minutes, an Anathema quality reemerges, but with a definite black metal wash—essentially resulting in a spectacular Agalloch/Anathema fusion, uniting two of my favorite bands in one spellbinding attack. Total bliss.
Minneapolis has been nothing short of a hotbed for amazing metal in the past few years, and for black metal in particular. Oak Pantheon stands at the head of that pack, delivering flawless and stellar musicianship and songwriting. I can only hope they flesh out the band at some point with a third member, at least for touring, and bring their blackened, intoxicating genius to the stage.