Review Summary: Agalloch masterfully transport you into another world, The Mantle...
The Mantle, the second full length from Agalloch, is nothing short of a master class in atmospheric folk metal and indeed atmospheric music in general. This album transports the listener into another world full of desolation and disparity, a place close to death and void of life, The Mantle. The album artwork conjures up an image of a remote, forgotten tundra, and is perhaps the archetypal setting of the secluded wilderness that The Mantle is meant to represent.
The first thing to note about the album is that it is an experience you can fully immerse yourself in, with tracks blending into one another which helps sustain the incredible atmosphere this album creates. The atmosphere is defiantly tainted with strands of ancientness, and has a ritualistic and natural influence, but most prominently it would be the remoteness that fully stands out, and this can be confirmed with such lyrics as “forgotten landscapes” and “here on the edge of this world”. Album opener, “A Celebration For The Death Of Man…” starts the ball rolling in majestic style, with a grandiose acoustic riff featuring a beautiful chord arrangement. In many ways, this riff sums up The Mantle, as it returns as an outro to the second last song “…And The Great Cold Death of the Earth”, which smartly links the two tracks together, as does the use of ellipses in the song title. This emphasizes that The Mantle is a journey and has a start and an end. This riff is just one of many hauntingly beautiful acoustic passages that dominate the whole album. Most notably is the introduction to “The Hawthorne Passage”, the acoustic led “The Lodge” as well as the spine-tingling “Odal”.
“Odal” introduces a key point in that the album is very layered and dense as well as extremely diverse in the types of instruments used. For example, “The Lodge”, a great melancholic acoustic piece effectively implements a cello into the mix as well as the rather strange deer skull percussion which makes an extremely unique noise and helps bring the track closer to the natural world. Similarly, “A Desolation Song” uses the accordion and the mandolin to produce a reflective ending track that almost seems to look back at the events of the previous 8 songs and tie them all up. This leads into the lyrical side of the album which seems to be telling a story about the destruction of the earth and also a story about the “desolation of love”. The mixture of emotions portrayed in the delivery of the lyrics are exceptional, for when John Haughm, the vocalist cries “Why did you abandon me!” in the uplifting “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms” he says it with such vehemence that the lyrics instantly have another dimension to them in that they are believable. Furthermore, the clean vocals are monotonous and are chanted but perfectly compliment the music, and sometimes, dare I say it, have sing-along moments. This is shown especially with the opening vocals of “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms” and also the chorus of “…And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth” in which Haugm sings “life is a clay urn on the mantle, and I am shattered on the floor”, which also furthermore emphasizes the absence of life on The Mantle.
Powerful moments also litter the album. The intense build up and crescendo of “In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion” delivers head banging results and the little guitar flourish that ends this passage is one of the most beautiful moments in music. However, the most powerful moment of the whole album arrives with the song “The Hawthorne Passage” an 11 minute magnum opus which also showcases a tasteful influence in the form of the Pink Floyd-esque passage after the introduction, in which an odd drum beat is accompanied by a soaring solo. However, when the atmospheric soundscape appears towards the end of the song you know you’re in for something powerful. The soundscape is harsh and miserable, and is fully supportive of the song’s subtitle, “a song for a grey city” as shown in the liner notes. But then out of nowhere, hope appears in the form of a feeble guitar gently playing. It builds up, and up, before exploding into a miasma of heavy guitar, bass, drums, and joy. Such a moment is reminiscent of the ISIS track “In Fiction” where the guitar builds up into a moment of pure ecstasy and power. The same is prevalent here, and is a testament to the power of music.
The Mantle is one overall experience and does have its twists and turns. From the lively and double bass heavy “I Am The Wooden Doors” to the delicate and atmospheric “The Lodge” there is a wide range of dynamics coursing through the veins of this album. However, although dynamically different in some parts, The Mantle is still able to sustain its grip on the listener, as the desolate landscape it conjures up is always in the background of the listener’s mind, regardless of whether they are experiencing an uplifting passage. Through gentle acoustic work, full on powerful riffs, and moments of extraordinary beauty and power, The Mantle is a masterpiece in toying with extreme emotions of happiness and darkness, and all the while its tracks remain in unity, bound together as one.