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Agalloch's finest. - 100%

HypervioletMask, July 15th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2005, 2 12" vinyls, Infinite Vinyl (Limited edition, Grey vinyl)

The date is the 14th of July, 2014. The Serpent & The Sphere is the most recent release by Agalloch, and to this day they have never disappointed me with one of their releases. Always expansive, emotional and well-crafted, albums by this band never fail to hit the spot for me. Of course, I have my favourites. If I were to rank Agalloch's albums in order from least favourite to favourite, it would go Ashes Against The Grain, The Serpent & The Sphere (though due to the short time I've had with it, this is always subject to change), Marrow of the Spirit, Pale Folklore and then finally The Mantle. But like I already said, none of their albums have disappointed me, meaning I consider all of those albums to be quite fantastic in their own aspects. However, this is not a discussion of the band as a whole, merely a singular album. I will not go into the history of the band, or their stylistic musings, as to be honest I'm sick of people discussing what genre/style Agalloch play, or where they came from.

Those familiar with Agalloch, you need no explanation of their particular genre-blending/expanding tendencies. Those unfamiliar, it's actually probably best you go in blind, but remember to keep an open mind as this album belongs to no specific genre boundaries (also listen to the album before you read this review, because you might spoil some really amazing bits for yourself). The Mantle was my first exposure to Agalloch and it definitely made me clamour for the rest of their discography immediately. Coming of off the praise and success of their debut, Pale Folklore, Agalloch crafted a much more refined masterpiece with The Mantle. To date, clocking in at around 68 and a half minutes, The Mantle remains Agalloch's longest studio album (if you omit the 20 minute bonus track at the end of Ashes Against The Grain). This is not an album that feels like 68 minutes, however it does not fly by. When I listen to The Mantle I am utterly encapsulated by the music and the length is certainly justified, The Mantle never drags on. Additionally, I am an owner of the vinyl edition of the album and the artwork I feel is an excellent accompaniment to the music, grey, bleak and in touch with nature.

Musically, what The Mantle contains is ten tracks of cinematic ...fuck. I didn't want to have to mention genres because I think it creates too much stereotyping, but I guess I have to... Black metal (primarily, it lays the groundwork for the other genres to be placed on top of) and neo-folk. Traces of folk metal, progressive metal, doom metal and post-rock are also to be found... Goddammit. Doesn't that just sound like a clusterfuck when you lay out genres like that? It doesn't define the band at all. Especially considering how loose genres are anyway. Folk metal? There's not a trace of Finntroll to be found here. Doom metal? There's definitely no Electric Wizard tinge to the music on this album... But I digress, what Agalloch do here is genius. Imagine these genres were little balls of Play-Doh, Agalloch take all these different balls and mix them all together in their hands! But normally when you mix all the different colours of Play-Doh you end up getting a disgusting brown mess. What Agalloch do in the mixture process is they add their magic touch (metaphorically, that being their talent, dedication and aspiration) to the different coloured balls, and the end result is Play-Doh of a rather grey shade. Get it? What I'm trying to get at, is that while all those previously mentioned genres are present, I believe Agalloch to have blended them so seamlessly that it is difficult to pinpoint exact spots in the music where each of those genres apply. The only obvious example I present to you is the main riff of the song "I Am The Wooden Doors", that riff is pretty goddamn black metal.

Now, after that long paragraph that has made you question my reputability after I effectively did exactly what I said I would try to avoid doing in the introduction, let me attempt to redeem myself. One thing I sure do love about this album is the variety it entails. A pet-peeve of mine is albums of 40 minutes, containing 10 songs of 3-4 minutes with a traditional pop song structure. How much more uninspired can you get? It's like crafting songs with templates. Baking biscuits, cutting them out with boring square cutters... Agalloch take the dough and they craft with their hands lovely little deer-shaped biscuits ranging in shape and size. Much more creative and interesting. That's always a positive in my eyes. In fact, the shortest and longest songs on the album are placed next to each other right at the start of the album. I sure do love a juxtaposition. I can nerd-out about track listings and song placements forever. It's really cool! It allows for miniature interpretations between songs and what ties them together. In fact, I'm not entirely sure if The Mantle is meant to have an overarching story, but it does in my eyes.

Something else noteworthy about this album is the use of extra instrumentation. In addition to the typical metal band two guitars, bass, drums and vocals, you get a healthy dose of contrabass, cymbals, trombone, deer skulls being struck, synths, EBow, samples and much much more! Variety is the spice of life, and the album is thriving with musical ideas. However, Agalloch do not throw these in your face, all this extra instrumentation has a purpose and it certainly does not feel like one of the band members came into the studio and said "My dad's uncle's brother's daughter plays the electric triangle and wants to feature on our album, so where shall we put her?" For example, take the track "The Lodge", built entirely around a sample of somebody trudging through heavy snow with a deer skull being struck steadily in time once every cycle round the steady 4/4 beat. Genius. Entirely atmosphere building. Having been to the snowier parts of Austria in my time, this song is certainly fitting with the cold and always brings me back. To those of you who have never listened to this album, the deer skull returns again in the album later on. To those of you who have listened, isn't it incredibly chilling? I love it.

I do have to state, what makes this album stand out further is certainly John's vocal performance on the album. For those unfamiliar, John's typical style is a unique take on the traditional black metal vocal. It is semi-whispered, raspy and decipherable(!) There are also actual whispered vocals and breathtaking harmonised cleans that are unmistakably Haughm. Trust me, love it or hate it, John's voice is distinctive. Being the mastermind behind Agalloch he also plays guitars both electric and acoustic on the album, and I'm pretty sure he performed the drums too. I know he did on Pale Folklore. The instrumentation isn't overly flashy, but it's still absolutely top-notch. The guitar sweep in "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion" is still as pivotal to the song as the first time I heard it. Such a clever little thing to add. Furthermore, the lyrics (in the 5 songs that actually have them) are highly gripping and emotive. John Haughm writes all the lyrics to the album, barring a section in "... And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth", and in 2001, these lyrics illustrating man's connection to nature weren't at all overdone and were very original and thoughtful. Even to this day, with the amount of atmospheric black metal bands all simultaneously declaring their love for every single leaf in their back garden, The Mantle's lyrics have not diminished in their emotional resonance to me. Standout lyrics to me include the eery clean-sung harmonised sections in "You Were But A Ghost In My Arms" with the absolutely gorgeous line "Like snowfall, you cry a silent storm..." Haughm really knows how to tread the line between beauty and melancholy.

Notice how I mentioned that only 5 of the tracks have lyrics. Well, that's because this album contains 4 instrumental songs, those being "A Celebration For The Death Of Man...", "Odal", "The Lodge" and "The Hawthorne Passage", though the latter does contain a few samples from two foreign films, the first being Swedish and the second, Spanish. These tracks all add to the cinematic and progressive nature of the album. Any points raised as to the post-rock nature of the album most likely come from the tracks "Odal" and "The Hawthorne Passage", not entirely due to the instrumental nature of them both. Don Anderson has stated Godspeed You! Black Emperor were a large inspiration on his playing at the time, so such connections are highly reasonable.

The album concludes with the short (relative to some of the other songs) "A Desolation Song", a fantastic conclusion to a stunning album. The simple mix of hushed vocals, strummed acoustic guitar, accordion and the return of a previously featured instrument at the very end really completes the album in a very climactic way, but not in the traditional sense. It's the logical path that the music takes. The sorrow of the music perfectly matches the finality of the lyrics, a narrator sitting by the fire as they drink from a cup of poison. Haughm sings "Tip the cup, feed the fire, and forget about useless fucking hope." Considering in the lyrics, the word "fucking" is omitted, I get the idea that John simply improvised the use of it in the studio. It's the only swear word on the album, making it poignant and impactful, not like how I've sworn horribly throughout this whole review. It's just another little detail to love about this album.

My thoughts on this album... You've seen the score. You know what I think. The Mantle is a landmark release by one of the most important bands in the entire American music scene. Though my lists are constantly shifting, this is one of those releases that never leaves my top 10. It is one of those "perfect" albums that I would not change a single thing about. 12 years after the original release and the album does not feel one bit aged. The Mantle has undeniably left its impact on the flourishing American black metal scene, with neo-folk/acoustic elements now being almost required for you to qualify as an "atmospheric" black metal band. The contemporaries that followed however I still hold in high regard, but it is important to consider how much of a wider impact The Mantle has left on the scene. This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I absolutely love it. I highly implore you to purchase whatever format of this album you deem necessary and enjoy the exploration into a truly classic release.