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Everything else is ashes on the floor... - 99%

CursedFuneral, May 27th, 2008

At this point it may be somewhat cumbersome to put forth more accolades unto this already highly acclaimed--both on this web site and throughout--masterpiece. Though, after being aurally ensconced for the umpteenth time while still being able to feel the power of this album no less than when the writer first heard "...and the Great Cold Death of the Earth," it is felt that a debt of gratitude is owed to this album.

Agalloch is a continuously developing band, but nothing they have released prior or after this album has recaptured the essence this album possesses. While similarities both obvious and subtle abound, this album is in it's own right far more than just a follow-up to the dark and brooding "Pale Folklore," as it is far more than just a very worthwhile predecessor to the heavier and more electric "Ashes Against The Grain." To release another album of this magnitude is a daunting task in and of itself, as perfection such as what is contained here has little room to expand, compounded by fact that four years separates this and "Ashes Against The Grain," which of course is ample time to allow a high degree of progression and style change. Of course, the aforementioned album was certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but "The Mantle" is, in the writer's opinion, unquestionably the zenith of their already astounding musical journey.

The album opens with the somber introduction "A Celebration for the Death of Man..." Having an introduction on an album is a gamble to begin with, because with a plethora of albums in this genre, the introduction is little more than a minute of "ambient" noises which do not serve the purpose(s) of giving the listener an idea of what is forthcoming or setting up an atmosphere which the following tracks will continually build on. Without accomplishing one of these, many times an introduction will be nothing more than an unneeded, isolated track which contributes little if anything to the overall quality of an album. Fortunately, "A Celebration for the Death of Man..." achieves both and quite superbly. This dreary little introduction begins with an acoustic passage interspersed with light yet immensely deep percussion. After a minute or so, an electric guitar enters the mix, striking a chord or two, as well as the percussion intervals shortening and a sound effect somewhat reminiscent of water flowing down a drain--though it is doubtful that was the intention--ensues. Overall, a brilliant introduction to set the melancholic, woodsy ambiance for the forthcoming epic gem "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion," as well as for the remainder of the album.

"In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion" is the next song, and clocking in at a bulky 14 minutes and 45 seconds, is the longest of the nine tracks on the album by over three minutes. Does this length at all detract from the overall quality of the song--or album? Certainly not, as this song undergoes numerous changes in the sound, and contains everything from a section involving nothing but the same 3 strings being plucked on an electric guitar, to a section where the snare drum is the only thing separating the track from complete silence, it even briefly revisits the passage of "A Celebration For The Death Of Man." Lyrically, this is not painstakingly complex, nor is it simple to where thought is not needed to make an attempt to understand them. In simple terms, this song deals with the relationship between nature and god, perhaps a central theme to this album. The result of the multitude of style changes as well as the sheer quality of each section of the song--both individually and as a cohesive unit--"In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion" could have been a three-part track, as was both on "Pale Folklore" with the magnificent "She Painted Fire Across the Skyline" trilogy, and on "Ashes Against The Grain" with the similarly high quality "Our Fortress Is Burning" triad. Just as well, this song would have been no less satisfactory were it a solid 30 minute track, as the use of repetition and change are both exemplary enough to allow it without it becoming a dull, droning and tedious nor becoming an inconsistent, direction-lacking mishmash of sound changes. Indeed, this track flows so smoothly, even to where the end of "Pale Companion" and the opening segment of "Odal" share the same thunder effect, thus rendering it as difficult to tell where the latter begins. Is this a bad thing? Most definitely not, as it is just one among many peculiarity that highlight just what a cohesive unit this album is.

"Odal" is the second of three instrumentals to be found on this album, though it sounds nothing like "A Celebration..." Where the aforementioned track served the purpose of establishing the forthcoming atmosphere, and basically just performing the basic duties of an introduction, "Odal," in contrast, completely submerges the listener in the already somewhat established atmosphere. There is still similarities with this and the opening track though, as "Odal" incorporates the same formula used in "A Celebration," with the guitar being significantly louder than the percussion, but the effects in this track are nearly at the volume of the guitar, rather than fading into the background. There are no lyrics to consider with this track, but the atmosphere speaks for itself. There is no hope or optimism whatsoever to be found in this track, with nearly eight minutes of majestic melancholy consuming the track, from the opening seconds of thunder to the finishing gusts of wind. Whereas in "In The Shadow..." there was considerable variation in the overall sound, "Odal" utilized repetition to a greater extent, but done in a satisfactory manner. This song, unlike the previous tracks, would not have the effect of a smooth transition into its forerunner, "I am The Wooden Doors." It becomes immediately clear that said track will not follow the formula the beginning of the album has used. This song contains far more percussion than what has been heard thus far, and the bass drum acts as a primary ingredient for the first time. Once again though, the use of repetition is exemplary, while there are enough sound changes to prevent this from becoming a burdening, unwieldy track. While early Ulver is clearly an influence to this band, it is none better displayed than on this track, as this is in the vein of one of the calmer songs on "Bergtatt," but needless to say, far from being a mindless derivative. "I am The Wooden Doors," just like "In The Shadow..." are the only two songs to be sandwiched in between instrumentals. Following the fourth track, the album steers away from the more heavy and instrument-laden sound and returns to what was established in the first two instrumentals. "The Lodge" opens with the sound of a person presumably walking toward a lodge somewhere in the woods, with the snow briskly crunching under said person's weight. Following that, a calming acoustic passage is played repeatedly, with a orchestral string sound complementing the passage. Another similar-sounding acoustic passage is then played, later to be interspersed with a cello, and ends with the same effect which the first passage contained. As with "Odal," this further serves to enhance the already established atmosphere, though this instrumental piece has an entrancing quality not so much possessed within the other two.

"You Were But A Ghost In My Arms" comes next, and is clearly another Ulver-influenced tune. The majestic, sad feeling that was culminated in prior tracks has been lost at the arrival of this track, as it contains far more of the electric guitar, percussion without the hollow tone experienced in previous songs, and a combination of vocal styles. Utilized within are Haughm's clean vocals, whispering vocals, black metal style shrieks and even spoken word. Variation abounds in this song, both in terms of the vocals and the instruments. As a result of this variation as compared to the other songs, this acts as more of a standout track, though a welcome one. While this song tends to deviate from the others, it is the lyrics which render this as an equally important segment of this powerful album, in particular:

Though tempted I am to caress her texture divine
And taste her pain sweet, sweet like brandy wine;
I must burn these halls, these corridors
And silence her shrill, tormenting voice
forever

While the overall subject could not be less ambiguous, it is the use of such metaphors, personification and other writing techniques that require the lyrics considerable attention. Absolutely brilliant, though I'd have preferred this particular section of lyrics to have been sung in Haughm's clean voice, rather than in the more spoken type voice he had chosen. The song continues to alternate from lighter to heavier sounds, as well was with the type of vocals used being alternated. Deviation or not, this song deserves praise on it's own merits. The next track, "The Hawthorne Passage," begins with a guitar passage similar to that of previous tracks, but as a result of the use of percussion and the increased speed at which the passage is played, the melancholy that was once conveyed is lost, but soon to return as the song changes direction. Rather than the Ulver influence though, this clearly displays the genius of Pink Floyd, at least during the beginning-middle section. Near the middle of the track, a wind gust sound effect acts as a separator, with the remainder of the track once again utilizing repetition in a notable manner, though with little difference from what has been done in earlier songs, though still as important. The track is, for the most part, an instrumental, only with two clips from films (the Swedish "The Seventh Seal" and the Mexican "Fando y Lis," to be specific) serving as the lyrics. After the nearly 12 satisfactory minutes contained in "The Hawthorne Passage," the true gem of this album awaits. "...And the Great Cold Death of the Earth" begins with an acoustic passage with less speed and upbeat quality than was found in the beginning of "The Hawthorne Passage," but with more ferocity than the numerous other acoustic passages found throughout the album. This passage is repeated through two of the three sections of the lyrics, at first only with the percussion accompaniment and then with more electric guitar sounds. Following the second section of lyrics, an interesting but well fitting guitar interlude dominates with electric strumming occupying the background. This then progresses into a section which consists of hollow sounding drums and string sounds, which does a very admirable job building up to the return of the passage, though the second time the passage contains more ferocity than the first time. Certainly a highlight of the album, let alone the song. Again, the lyrics deserve an honorable mention on their own merits. While lacking the complexity in which"The Hawthorne Passage" contained, the lyrics in the grand scheme of things may perhaps be the most fitting to accompany the atmosphere this album has evoked. The first section and third section are nearly the same, describing the same occurrence, only with a progression in time. The aforementioned sections are sung cleanly, whereas the verse in between them is stated in a whispered shriek. The last set of lyrics gives way to the same passage that "A Celebration..." and briefly "In The Shadow..." contained. The perfect way to end such a majestic song.

Even if the next track, "A Desolation Song," had been omitted entirely and the album began and ended with said passage, this album would still have been no short of perfection. Nonetheless, the final track acts as a fine closer. "A Desolation Song" begins with a feeling of despair felt throughout the album, but the feeling is heightened with the use of the mournful string sounds. The song continuous with a hopeless, strained whispering vocal style, as well as another acoustic/electric guitar interlude. The opening the line "Here I sit at the fire" gives this song a reminiscent quality which is maintained throughout the song, as it becomes clear the character is drinking and remembering what had happened in the past. What may briefly capture the listener's attention is the the line "...forget about useless fucking hope." Once again a gamble had been taken, as the use of such a word may give off the impression of angst-ridden juvenile bantering or nasal emo whining. Rather than that, the word slightly enhances the message of the song, adding a slight touch of anger to complement the prevailing depressive tone. The song takes that direction for the remainder of the song, up until the final seconds, when the only sound is another gust of wind and the wooden bang as heard in "The Lodge." An excellent way to close this musical journey through the cold, bleak, snow-covered forest.

Top 3:
1) "...And the Great Cold Death of the Earth"
2) "A Desolation Song"
3) "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion"

"Darkness and silence, the light shall flicker out."