Review Summary: The Mantle is everything that you just can’t find the words to describe, and that is what makes it one of the most intriguing albums of the past decade.
I have heard many music critics lament the difficulties of reviewing Agalloch’s The Mantle
. Their complaints are not unwarranted, as the album combines elements of black metal, acoustic folk, and atmospheric rock unlike anything I have ever heard. The Mantle
itself seems to personify that indescribable nature, with its overall mood hovering somewhere between the despair in each of John Haughm’s growls and the harmonic, beautifully sung verses that blend in with the record’s spectacular guitar work. There is a mysterious nature that accompanies Agalloch’s sophomore album, and it possesses the uncanny ability to stump even the most verbally adept writers. It is albums like this that make music worth reviewing, worth sharing, and ultimately, worth giving credit to as a benchmark of twentieth century folk and metal music.
One of the things that lends The Mantle
its element of mystique is its atmosphere. Not how they use synthesizers and ambience to produce an atmosphere, not how they shamelessly plug in a derivative concept to tie the songs together…no, Agalloch does not stoop that low. They do it the old-fashioned way: by utilizing each instrument to reflect their emotions. Throughout The Mantle
, the band creates something so unique yet so tangible that you have no choice but to sink into this thing
, whatever it is that they have crafted. At times you will be frightened by the sense that you are alone, wandering through desolate, snowy woodlands like the elk on the front cover…while other times, you will be rendered speechless by the waves and waves of stunningly gorgeous soundscapes that grace your ears. The Mantle
is all about the experience, and just like a journey through the wilderness, it is best to start from the beginning and see it through to the end.
Agalloch kicks things off with a flourishing acoustic instrumental, “A Celebration for the Death of Man”, which also features some imposing and slightly unnerving poundings of the drum. The resulting thunderous echoes announce that despite the song’s inviting nature, danger may be afoot. While the opening track isn’t a major highlight of the album, it certainly plays an integral role in The Mantle
’s atmospheric development. The serene-sounding guitars and crystal clear production coexist with the hint of a darker edge, much like the album’s whole. “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” is where Agalloch’s true genius begins to reveal itself, as the guitars transition from acoustic to electric, and the music gradually blends metal influences with the folk/indie elements that “A Celebration for the Death of Man” exuded with such great abundance. The first appearance of lead vocalist John Haughm doesn’t occur until just under five minutes into the album, and his growls are haunting and demonic sounding, but not overpowering. This blends in quite well with the meticulously crafted instrumental surroundings, allowing the vocals to serve as yet another contributor to the dense but surprisingly listenable atmosphere. Alternating between light screams, whispers, growls, and clean vocals, Haughm adds a whole new dimension to The Mantle
, including tragically poetic lyrics that seem to depict a loss of innocence: “Like every hope I've ever had, like every dream I've ever known. . .It washed away in a tide of longing, a longing for a better world.”
actually progresses in a similar, almost cyclical, fashion as the first two songs, as the entire album alternates between instrumental and vocal tracks. The instrumentals make up almost half of the album, which proves to be one of The Mantle
’s few potential downfalls: the recurring, continual nature of the music is only appealing for the album’s sixty-eight minute duration if you are astute enough to pick out the subtle differences and minor progressions made between each song. A casual listener may deem the record’s instrumental-vocal-instrumental-vocal
tracklisting to be redundant, which it can certainly be in the grand scheme of things and over its incredibly vast scope. However, the way that Agalloch refuses to abandon either style in pursuit of a singularly “heavy” or “soft” sound remains one of the most admirable traits of The Mantle
The alternation of song-styles actually works quite well for the most part. “Odal” possesses a post-rock sound that drops into a few slower, elegant valleys before climbing to a magnificent crescendo; and then like one collective exhale, the song unwinds to dazzling acoustic guitars and the sound of a bone-chilling wind. “I Am The Wooden Doors”, easily the heaviest song on The Mantle
, then quickly picks up the pace with fast, unrelenting drumming and some of Haughm’s most aggressive sounding growls and screams. The album’s defining moment, though, would have to be “You Were But a Ghost In My Arms”, which is ridiculously catchy and accessible in comparison to its bleak surroundings. The song features just about every style encompassed by The Mantle
, thus serving as something of a sampler plate of vocal and instrumental techniques utilized over the course of the album’s runtime. “A Desolation Song” eventually closes out the entire experience with what can best be described as an Irish folk tune featuring spoken, whispered vocals.
is a masterful combination of several different musical ideas and genres. The way that Agalloch ties them all together is nothing short of jaw-dropping, as they fuse everything into one melting pot type of atmosphere. At times, the album is reminiscent of Opeth’s Damnation
, with an acoustic driven atmosphere that is dreary but tremendously addicting. Other times, it treads the line between the bombast of a post rock record and the reserved, quaint nature of indie-folk. The lack of one album-defining genre lends The Mantle
an air of mystique, which serves to draw in fans of an entire wealth of musical styles. Here, Agalloch illustrates the difference between a musician
and an artist
. The Mantle
captivates us and keeps us spellbound in so many different ways, and that is what makes it so difficult for listeners to describe. But one thing is for sure….this is more than just music. This is art.