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Inspirational and Innovative - 90%

SlumberOfSullenEyes, July 26th, 2006

Agalloch has accomplished what few bands who operate within the realm of "metal" are capable of doing. With "The Mantle," they've proven that it's possible to write a metal album that gets enormous praise without actually using that much typical metal aesthetic. It's surprising that save for two songs ("I Am The Wooden Doors" and "You Were But a Ghost in My Arms"), acoustic guitar is the dominant instrument here. The vocals, while occasionally loud and aggressive, are usually a subdued, whispered growl or a droning singing voice. It is important to note that nearly half this album is instrumental, yet for the most part remains equally interesting throughout. The post-rock and neo-folk influences are here, but contrary to what other reviewers have stated, I don't feel they are all that prominent. (It is in Agalloch's soon-to-be-released-but-widely-leaked album Ashes Against the Grain where these influences become very apparent). But on "The Mantle," it mostly sounds like they've listened to Ulver's "Bergtatt" quite a bit, and then decided to take it one step further in the acoustic direction.

For many bands this could a recipe for disaster, but for Agalloch it works. Everything that sounds odd and out of place at first eventually becomes beautiful and essential to the music. John Haughm's whispered growls have an eerie and mysterious quality to them, and his droning clean voice can be downright hypnotic on pieces like "...And the Great Cold Death of the Earth". In terms of the songwriting, layering seems to be the name of the game. Acoustics are often accompanied by subdued electrics to provide heft to the compositions, while a classical acoustic guitar is brilliantly used as a lead instrument (see the first 2 minutes of "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion"). The melodies are remarkably simple yet dazzingly effective throughout. In fact, for most of the album, the composition is based around one or two of the same chord progressions. It is pleasantly surprising that such simplicity rarely becomes overbearing or boring (although there is some occasional dragging). The lyrics are phenomenal, and "The Mantle" succeeds more than most albums in terms of the close atmospheric relation between the music and the words.

Despite the odd choices to achieve such an end, "The Mantle" comes across as a metal album in spirit and in atmosphere. The fascination with nature and paganism that is so common among Northern European bands is (finally) manifesting itself in American band successfully, albeit not to the point of ethno-fetishism like Finntroll. The few aggressive sections of the album sound refreshingly genuine and natural. One can feel the tension and anger of the "I Damn this Oak!" section of "You Were But a Ghost..." and in the spiteful whispering of the mandolin-and-accordion dominated closing piece, "A Desolation Song."

There are two main issues that prevent Agalloch from scoring a perfect 100. The first is something that is rarely touched upon by any review of "The Mantle" I've read so far, and that is the amateur-ish and messy drum work. While this issue was corrected on the latest Agalloch release, here it can be quite distracting at times ("The Hawthorne Passage" sounds a lot more stiff than it should, for instance). The second is that if one is not in the right mood, the instrumental songs on "The Mantle" may seem less interesting. This is not an album for those that value technical virtuosity over atmosphere and composition, nor is it for black metal traditionalists, even if that is ultimately what this music is based on.

In nearly all other respects, Agalloch's "The Mantle" is a solid exercise in uniqueness and innovation, and will likely prove to influence many metal bands in the future to push the creative envelope.