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A Bleak, Frostbitten Folksy-Metal Journey. - 100%

IcemanJ256, October 30th, 2004

If you happen to be looking for a CD with the best instrumentals you’ve ever heard (easily enough for an entire full length instrumental album), interesting soundscapes, unique vocals, and mixtures of genres, you found it. The Mantle is a mixture of so many different elements. Shoving it into a certain category would not possibly describe where it would take you. There are lots of acoustic and electric guitars at the same time, which makes for an interesting sound. In some parts of the album 3 guitars are used at once, and the use of upright bass is nice and something you don't hear too often. The guitar work seems very inspired by folk music but with a dark twist. The songs are quite long with mostly instrumentals that shroud you in the beautiful, haunting atmosphere. I usually think of snowy and cold landscapes often while listening to this CD, It is really more exciting to listen to it in late fall or winter. And prepare for a long CD - Over 70 minutes of music here. And it is definitely something to listen to all at once, listening to one song is more like hearing 1/9 of a song for this album. I can definitely see the comparison to Sol Invictus and Ulver, that’s where they get the folk inspirations and vocal style from. Godspeed you Black Emperor? Yes, some inspiration comes from them, the soft instrumentals and climatic points.

In this CD, the vocals are mostly clean unlike their first release. Haughm has one of the most unique and best singing voices I’ve ever heard, very dark and calm, yet powerful and majestic. There are still harsh raspy black-metal style vocals, which are also done well and fit the mood well, but this is not really black metal at all. When those types of vocals are juxtaposed to a soft acoustic strumming, it is a wonderfully unique experience that you won’t find it much other music.

The CD starts out with a nice introduction with acoustic guitars and transforms into the 15-minute epic "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion." This song’s vocal arrangements, singing and screeching overlapped right on top of one another, sounds quite good. The same acoustic strumming is repeated for a while and continues through the vocals and the first epic, frostbitten solo. There is a break in which another acoustic loop is played, which then slowly transforms into what I think of as the climax of the song. It’s kind of like the chorus but is only played once. The song quickly shifts into a different theme with adventurous, rudimental marching-band style drumming (it sounds perfect when you hear it) and continues on and on, until it slowly fades out.

Next comes the incredible instrumental track "Odal" which just sends shivers down my spine every time. This is probably the best instrumental song I’ve EVER encountered, in any CD, in my whole life. It is made with mostly crystal-clear strumming acoustic guitars and shifting, electric guitar riffing in the background. It has more rudimental drumming, layered, magnificent, enchanting guitar playing, majestic climaxes, an incredible, surreal, imaginational atmosphere, and a soft, echoed piano outro. This song could not be more perfect. The addition of vocals would possibly ruin it.

“Odal” slowly drifts away until the double bass of “I am the Wooden Doors" tears the atmosphere apart. This is probably the most aggressive song on the album. It has heavy drumming, fast and heavy guitars, and screeched vocals. If you’d like this CD more for the folksy acoustic guitars and breathtaking instrumentals, this will most likely be your least favorite song. But if you listen carefully there are still the folk-inspired acoustic guitars underneath all the chaos. Then the song suddenly falls apart into a short but marvelous acoustic solo with two guitars and nothing else, and goes right back to the heaviness like it never happened.

"The Lodge" really gives you the feeling of venturing through a snowy forest, with its "deer antler" percussion and sounds of someone trudging through deep snow. This is another chilling acoustic instrumental track and did I mention I love the use of the upright bass.

"You Were But a Ghost in My Arms" is an emotionally grim song with poetic lyrics and mostly harsh vocals. Haughm’s vocal melodies are mind-blowing and extremely powerful with the singing, yet dark and forbidding with the screeching. This song contains some of my favorite lyrics ever. They contain so much imagery and might as well be poetry. “Like snowfall, you cry a silent storm / Your tears paint rivers on this oaken wall... / Amber nectar, misery ichor... / cascading in streams of hallowed form...” This song is pretty heavy too, but surpasses almost every other metal band in terms of being inventive with the song structure and painting an amazing atmosphere.

That song fades out and "The Hawthorne Passage" begins with a short acoustic intro and then starts off quickly with the same melody with finger-tappingly good drumming. This is a 10-minute entirely instrumental track, and keeps shifting themes throughout the song countless times, with upbeat parts and more relaxed parts. It also includes some samples: some talking and some sound effects to add to the environment.

"And the Great Cold Death of the Earth" is probably the most accessible or most memorable song, and certainly more upbeat after hearing the vast song before it. It is catchy, has mostly singing, and a basic song structure, still with all the Agalloch goodness included, of course. The bridge in this song even has some trumpets, and also uses upright bass, which sounds spectacular. It contains the exact melodies found in the first short instrumental track, and ends with those melodies just like how it started with them. That would make a perfect ending for the album but there is still another song that establishes an even better ending.

And finally we have "A Desolation Song", a very sad song but a good way to close the album. It uses some unique instruments such as the mandarin and accordion, soft half-whispered vocals, and some straightforward acoustic strumming. For the rest of the album I usually think of being outside in a snowy or at least cold environment, maybe in a forest or a mountain at times, but for this song I picture going into a dark log cabin after a long day out in the cold and relaxing by the fire and drinking something hot. The ending has some cold wind blowing over a sad acoustic solo.

This CD could get you interested in a lot of other bands and is very interesting itself. I can't get enough of it. Everyone should give it a try if you like music with a unique feeling and a lot of talent. Most people would probably not even classify this as metal and I agree, it is quite far away from what most people think of as metal. There is a good combination of harsh and clean vocals, it has a nice variety, and combines many different genres together and forms them into the band's very own unique sound. I’ve had this since the day it came out (a bit before it came out actually), and I consider it my 3rd favorite album of all time, surpassed only by Agalloch’s other full length album and one Opeth album. Agalloch has really helped broaden my musical taste and shape it into what it is today. And after all this time there is still more in this album to discover.