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Agalloch - The Mantle

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Artist: Agalloch

Album: The Mantle

Label: The End

Review date: Sep. 2, 2002

Life is a Clay Urn on the Mantle

Sometime during the spring of 2001 I told my friend that I would not be surprised if Agalloch’s second full-length release would be acoustic. The point of reference for the prediction was Norway’s Ulver – whose legendary folk-inspired black metal debut of 1995, Bergtatt, was quickly followed next year by their solely acoustic Kveldssanger. Agalloch has indeed proven my predictions wrong, because The Mantle is anything but strictly acoustic music; nevertheless, it is the acoustics, or more accurately the non-metal elements, of this album that make it a success. The band has manifestly grown, allowing their music to stray further from the interesting sound of their debut Pale Folklore. The sound on that release and the EP Of Stone, Wind And Pillor (2001) was largely defined by the important, yet also difficult mixture of metal, folk and acoustic guitar elements in their instrumentation and the alternating somber clean vocals and the subdued black metal shrieks. On The Mantle the band not only improves on the fundamental constitution of its sound – it makes some subtle, but essential changes as well.

From the opening tracks, it is clear The Mantle focuses more on acoustic guitars, clean vocals and slower tempos than Agalloch’s earlier works. Accordingly, we find the compositions themselves to be longer, taking more time to develop the driving themes that ultimately lead to the anticipated climaxes. More often than not, this pays off: the nearly 15 minute second track, entitled “In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” plays its first eight and a half minutes out in the signature Agalloch style by mixing strummed classical and acoustic guitars as the driving force of the melody and touches of electric guitar for chord progression, only to unravel a climactic break that will lead into the final six minutes. On top of the diverse instrumentation, vocalist Haughm delivers with an above-average black metal shriek, complimenting his effulgent clean vocals. The instrumental Odal, according to Haughm “was a direct result of [him] listening to a lot of the Swans, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, The Cure, and such;” the song’s distant melody, introduced by a lonely guitar lead that opens into an epic electric chord-progression, gives way to a 60 second nostalgic piano passage that could very well be the best moment of the album.

“I Am The Wooden Doors” and “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms” are the two clearest examples of Agalloch’s debut sound. Whether this is an attempt by the band to cover its metallic bases, particularly because the album largely goes beyond the traditional boundaries of metal, is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, the faster tempos and more prominent and stronger electric guitar riffs allude to Pale Folklore’s opening track, “She Painted Fire Across the Skyline.” In these two songs, dashes of Bergtatt-era Ulver are still to be found, mainly in the manner in which tremolo guitar work interchanges with classical guitar passages. “I Am The Wooden Doors” is followed by the short acoustic instrumental “The Lodge,” which starts out with a “Trudging through deep snow” sample, which again, is an obvious Ulver reference. Soon, the contrabass and acoustic guitar start playing a familiar melody that a close listener of Agalloch should be able to identify: what sounds like an altered version of the main theme from Agalloch’s cover of Sol Invictus’ “Kneel to the Cross,” which was recorded for their EP Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor is in fact a theme that reoccurs at least three other times on the album. “The Hawthorne Passage”, at 11 minutes, is a fairly slow-tempo instrumental that builds the mood and prepares the listener for a very strong finish.

The Mantle’s last two songs, “…And The Great Cold Death of the Earth” and “A Desolation Song” are a fairly laid back listen. The former officially bookends the album opening with the same theme as “A Celebration for the Death of Man...;” in a recent interview with Wicked World, Haughm claimed that these two songs are intended as a “conceptual prolog/epilog piece which brings the entire album together in context. This was certainly intentional.” The reoccurring theme, which appears throughout the album in slightly altered versions—both in tempo and tone—gives it a sense of cohesion and totality that only reveals itself on a complete listen. “A Desolation Song” is precisely that, where Haughm delivers his formal resignation in a wonderfully whispered voice, knowing that neither his black metal shriek nor his radiant clean voice would have been appropriate: Haughm finds himself “Lost in the desolation of love,” and the apt combination of the acoustic guitars, accordion and mandolin creates a complimentary sound for his hopeless disposition.

All in all, this is an extremely satisfying listen, and another great album to be added to the collection of strong releases on the End Records. Nearly 70 minutes of peerless and thoughtful music from Portland, Oregon for listeners who are not satisfied with a quick metal fix, but instead are willing to dedicate a close listen to music worthy of a spot on the Mantle above the fireplace.

By Dusted Magazine

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