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there are things i like better than this, yessir - 41%

Cheeses_Priced, October 7th, 2004

The End Records’ online catalog/website has spared both me, the reviewer, and you, the consumer a bit of trouble with their blurb about this album: “The Mantle is a grand multi-dimensional opus of 70 minutes featuring their melancholic metal with post rock and neo-folk elements. References range from Pink Floyd, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sol Invictus, Ulver, Dissection, Fields Of The Nephilim and more.”

No, I don’t know what a “multi-dimensional” opus is either, but the list of influences at least is pretty accurate (well, the Dissection mention does seem a little random). I wonder if the band provided that list or if it was just the copyist’s best guess?

Anyhow, as you may have gathered, this album hasn’t got an awful lot to do with metal, for the most part. It’s often not terribly difficult to guess what band or style of music Agalloch’s attempting to be influenced by at any particular point – at points it sounds like the band’s trying to namedrop purposely. They’re apparently above committing to any particular genre label, and yet… not so far above that they’re not deliberately mixing and matching genres. They take a pinch of this and a pinch of that, juxtapose it with something else, throw in a touch of dynamics, meanwhile presenting it all with as much of a sense of sophistication as they can manage and tying it all together with easy-on-the-ears hooks.

Even the harshest parts tend to resemble bands like Ulver (see above), In the Woods, Katatonia and the like – metal bands that were in turn very heavily influenced by rock music themselves (and incidentally, bands that I generally don’t care for). This is a couple of degrees of separation away from any sort of straight metal, in my opinion.

And what of it? Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing greater dynamic or aesthetic range on metal (or “post metal”) albums, so I appreciate the band’s efforts in that regard. I like acoustic guitars, for instance. Most neo-folk guitar playing I’ve heard tends to sound a little thin to me, but still, steering away from chainsaw distortion seems like a smart move to me. The psychedelic effects and ambient sounds are very much up my alley – I consider nearly any attempt to alter perception by a piece of music to be welcome. Lengthy track lengths are no grand innovation, of course, but still, it seems a logical choice for a band so concerned with atmosphere. I also like the way they’ve downplayed the vocals in favor of instrumental passages, and although the singer sounds a little weasely to my ears, I like the fact that the band’s thrown in some real singing alongside the rasps.

So, all of that’s well fine and good. Unfortunately, this all tends sound a great deal better on paper than it does coming out of my speakers.

Now, the music’s basically listenable, there’s nothing wrong with the musicianship and the production’s fine. But… it does remind me a little too much of the sort of music I got into underground metal to get away from in the first place. Not just underground metal, actually: pretty much every kind of music that I listen to (much of which is not loud, if you were wondering). This is “normal music”. It reminds me of why I can’t usually listen to post rock bands with a great deal enthusiasm… in spite of all the experimentation and knowingness and detached cleverness, they’re still stuck sounding like, well, like a rock band. And working inside a rock framework, with all the cleverness and knowingness in the world will give you maybe… Radiohead or Tool, on a good day. “Clever” as all hell, but musically inarticulate and ultimately empty. A dead end.

One of black metal’s better points was the way it managed to be both artistic in spite of being thoroughly nonacademic – it was primal as fuck and rather silly but nevertheless articulate, and managed to blow off or ignore most of what makes radio music sound like it was poured into a mold before release.

But it seems to be a continuing theme, especially recently, that the bands in the “metal scene” most frequently praised for their artistry and creativity are the ones who back away from the murkiness of underground metal and move back towards the mainstream’s idea of what artistic music sounds like. Personally, the “diverse influences” on this album are not in and of themselves worth a lot to me, nor is the putting on of sophisticated airs via acoustic guitars, whispered vocals et cetera. It’s all clever enough, but often my general impression is that depth and profundity are not so much qualities possessed by the music as veil it’s attempting to weave or a façade it’s attempting to put up. It has window dressing that evokes a sense of artistry. This is a quality commonly referred to as pretentiousness, I believe…

There’s really only one song on here that I really enjoy, that being the second track, “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion”. At 14:44, it’s the longest song on the album – I think a couple of reviews that I read mentioned Godspeed You Black Emperor! as a specific influence here, which seems fair. Not really a massive GYBE fan myself, but somehow this song just adds up right to me. It has more of a natural flow than the other songs on the album, with a somewhat multilayered feel in the way the various musical elements are introduced and the way that they play off of one another. It’s not quite all that I would hope for – it does feel a tad directionless to me at times, and I don’t like the singing – but there are some great melodies, and compared to the rest of the album it leans a good deal more towards my personal tastes.

There are echoes of what I like about that song all across the album, at various points, but never in a really high concentration. A great part will be set up, but instead of building on it the music will segue away into nothing, or the vocals or a rock solo will come in and cheapen the feel. And then there is some straight rock/black metal hybridization like “You Were but a Ghost in My Arms”, which I just have no love for at all. All over the place I find myself wishing they’d draw out the melodies a bit longer and quit segmenting the songwriting – you know, integrate everything a little more cohesively, because as it is, it often sounds like a series of related digressions, lined up one after the other.

But I’ll spare you any further rationalizations… the truth is that I like the idea of this album but when I put it on I forget I’m listening to it. It really seems like it ought to be better.