Every once in a while there comes along a band so unique, they almost transcend their respective genre. Such a band is Agalloch. Described as a "metal" band, sure, Agalloch comes at you with distortion and growling vocals, but their music goes so far beyond just that. Metal-archives.com describes the band as "Atmospheric folk/doom/gothic metal", which would definitely be a good place to start. Especially the term "atmospheric".
The Mantle, Agalloch's second full-length album, is a seamless 68 minute listening experience that is full of atmosphere. Throughout the album the band blends acoustics, pianos, and the occassional sound effect to create what is basically summed up best as an audio depiction of the bleakness of a winter day. As I sit here right now, I am soothed by the album while watching the snow fall...It's a rather surreal experience.
Over half of The Mantle consists of instrumental passages, and they are absolutely amazing. They range in feel from folky to heavy, and carry along the album as it paints a beautiful picture that begins with a loud drum on "A Celebration for the Death of Man" and culminates with a very loud snap at the conclusion of "A Desolation Song." "The Hawthorne Passage" has some rather doomy passages, slowing down in some very mellow, but groovy moments that go hand in hand with some windy, bleak passages as well. "Odal" as well has an equally bleak feeling, and is rife with some beautiful acoustics that I find very soothing on a cold winter day like this. the piano ending is absolutely beautiful. The musical aspect of this album is breathtaking, on each and every song no less. 9 tracks are masterfully interwoven in such a way that listening to just a single song would truly take away from the entire experience.
That's not to say The Mantle doesn't have its standout tracks. "In the Shadow of our Pale Comparison" is an epic of nearly 15 minutes in length that does maintain a nice amount of heaviness around the soothing acoustics used as well on the album. There's just something about this song that is so powerful, and yet so soothing at the same time (yes, I know I've used the word "soothing" a couple of times already). Vocally this song is relatively harsh, as singer John Haughm uses a growling vocal style for a few parts of the song, but mixes it in with clean vocals throughout. His growling isn't even that harsh either, as it's almost a whispered growl. It works so perfectly with the music that those who may be turned off my harsh vocals will likely not mind - especially because there isn't even that much singing to begin with on the album.
The Mantle is definitely not an aggressive album, and the closest it gets would have to be "I Am the Wooden Doors" which relies heavily on double bass drumming to get through the beginning of the song. Things are relatively thrashy for about the first 2:30 before the acoustics take back over. They come in for a relaxing interlude, and then the song returns back to its heavy form relatively quickly, only with some acoustics layered in there for some added effect. At the very end acoustic strumming brings that song to a starting stop and kicks off "The Lodge", an acoustic instrumental that, of course, is an atmospheric, relaxing masterpiece.
The album's closer, "A Desolation Song" is another high point of the album, an outstanding acoustic (of course) piece with an accordian that really adds a whole new aspect to the song. The lyrics to this song speak for themselves, as there are times when I will just sit there in front of the fire and listen to this song...
Here I sit at the fire
Liquor's bitter flames warm my languid soul
Here I drink alone and remember
A graven life, the stain of her memory
In this cup, love's poison
For love is the poison of life
Tip the cup, feed the fire,
And forget about useless hope
(I originally intended on putting the entire song in, but that would've been a bit much)
As the song begins to fade out, in come howling winds that absolutely give me the chills. A nice little acoustic piece is played underneath, and as mentioned earlier, the album comes to a halt with a reverberating snap.
The Mantle can be a very tough album to describe due to the complexity of it. It may seem like just a bunch of acoustic guitars that sound all bleak and dreary, but there is just so much to this album that can not be accurately portrayed in words. The Mantle is one of those albums that truly goes above and beyond the limitations of "metal" and uses all sorts of ideas and concepts to create a piece of true beauty.
This is a truly beautiful album. It is atmospheric and moving, bleak and powerful, heavy and soft. Imagine a cold winter (or even autumn) day set to an acoustic metal album, and you'll begin to have an understanding of just what The Mantle is like. Watching the snow fall while listening to the album's first three tracks was just one of those experiences that really make you appreciate just what music can accomplish.