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we are the wounds - 95%

TowardsMorthond, June 11th, 2012

The Scandinavian metal influences of past works (In The Woods..., Katatonia, Ulver) remain present in the sound, but The Mantle incorporate a greater degree of neo-folk elements evident in most songs as well as identifiable post-rock qualities that bring powerful emotional energy to "Odal", "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion", and "You Were But a Ghost in my Arms".

The sonic template here stretches beyond the surface monochromatic minimalism. A linear foundation does exist for much of this material, yet this factor does not set limitations for elaborate thematic or musical ideas. Lengthy instrumental passages are frequent, with vocals, although no less a significant component, less of a focal point. The album's first twenty-six minutes, in the shape of "A Celebration for the Death of Man", "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" and "Odal", is a movement that, upon the arrival of its finale, leaves the listener simultaneously mentally/emotionally/spiritually overwhelmed and cleansed. The acoustic intro, which includes distant ceremonial percussion, acts as a ritualistic portal into this dimension, setting a contemplative tone for the album. "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" is an epic journey of over fourteen minutes, wandering through bleak soundscapes and charged post-rock dynamics, and the transcendental, yearning guitar solos provide fading glimpses of a distant sunlit horizon. It's not so much a song as a revelation of profound existential awakening, but is equally life-affirming and despondently nihilistic. The nearly eight-minute instrumental, "Odal", removes the listener from these desolate wastelands, guiding him through tranquil pathways dividing the glorious splendor of dawn and the twilight caress of dusk. Excellent ambient guitar effects ignite into a cathartic release of earthly burden, a deliverance from cold despair into a calm abode of inner bliss, before drifting into scenes of plaintive serenity. The result is their most powerful musical statement.

Agalloch have delved deeper into a broader range of sonic elements to enrich their overall expression in a fascinating display of musical variety and stylistic diversity. The role of acoustic guitars has increased, not necessarily in abundance, but rather in their significance to not only individual tracks, but the album as a whole. The inclusion of wood chimes, ebow, trombone, contra bass, accordion, mandolin, and even found instruments such as the "grim cymbal bell" and "deer antler percussion" splendidly enhance the expressionist shades within Agalloch’s music. The metallic currents remain intact throughout, yet no longer can be recognized as the band’s definitive sonic foundation. "I Am the Wooden Doors" and "You Were But a Ghost in my Arms" exemplify these aspects, bitterness and melancholy entwined in cold distance, not in limitation of the music, yet also rendering itself vocally. Hauhgm’s predominately monotone "clean" vocals, used to greater effect here than on past works, portrays the more reflective and thoughtful, yet no less compelling features of Agalloch’s evolution as musicians and individuals. The wretchedness expressed through the bitter vocal shrieks present the agonized emotions vital to the essence of their sound and appeal. It’s a presentation of the struggle between harmony and chaos that is the occupation of human experience. At its core, this a melancholic and bitter work. It is music of autumnal essence and wintry isolation. Yet, unlike previous efforts, The Mantle recognizes tranquility as at least a momentary realistically achievable plateau. Interestingly, however, is that these moments remain relegated to instrumental passages, particularly "Odal", "The Lodge", "The Hawthorne Passage", the expansive instrumental passages of "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion", and "You Were But a Ghost in my Arms". This could symbolize more about the musicians developing as individuals; a reaching for tranquil horizons, yet the desire remains silent within by defenses crafted from worldly threats to the emotionally vulnerable, who are perhaps merely the painfully aware and therefore deeply sensitive and more alive members of a failed humanity.

"…we are the wounds…"

The Mantle is a stark artistic reaction to a soulless modern life within a culture that breeds emptiness and has developed an increasing disregard to the beauty and power of nature. Agalloch have observed in disenchantment the acts of humanity in such a climate and turned their gaze towards the within. In this form, the search for truth in personal meaning, striving for truth within one’s self in a world of deception, is directed towards the essence of the self. This is reflected in the lines "…it washed away in a tide of longing....a longing for a better world…" from "In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion" and "It is this grandeur that protects the spirit within, from the plight of this broken world." from "I Am the Wooden Doors". The expressive essence of The Mantle is a severe discontent with present cultural conditions of its time, and intellectually formulates itself against this virus in an emotionally powerful portrayal of the will to isolation. However, in the midst of this personal empowering through inner discovery, The Mantle succeeds not in escaping the often cruel effects of human interaction. Desperate and bitter responses to the usual factors of betrayal and abandonment lurk within "You Were But a Ghost in my Arms" and "A Desolation Song".

Indeed, the very existence of The Mantle, and Agalloch itself, depends upon these instances, yet the maturation of these individuals is strikingly clear throughout the duration of this album. No longer entirely consumed with emotional frustrations and misunderstood spiritual complexities, a search has begun for universal meaning while reluctantly acknowledging their existential burden. Consistent with previous works, Agalloch once again express through all facets of their expression a deep appreciation and reverence for nature. The elk statue that graces the cover symbolizes their affirmation in this regard. Through the beauty and splendor of nature, Agalloch have found something to believe in, a vindication for being. As this creature has become something of a mascot for the act, they have found truth and purity in the ways of nature, something to hold onto as humanity apathetically bring to ruin all that was once held sacred by a nobler and stronger people. As mankind continues to technologically progress and the ever-increasing emphasis on social status feeds superficial endeavors, nature has become the sufferer. Agalloch, in their plight to sever themselves from an afflicted species, have wholly embraced what mankind seemingly strives to destroy in pursuit of its own agenda. Thrust into this world on the condition of our ultimate death, we are left to question the meanings, or the existence of meanings, within everything that surrounds and moves within us. We ponder our purpose here and seek to develop higher understandings of ourselves and our environment. Reactions are developed towards the functions of the world, relations with other people and the humbling knowledge that we are ever one breath closer to our last.

Life in this world can be a cold, unforgiving, and bleak journey. We can take what we can from this place and utilize our methods for our own devices, or we can submit and fall in line with the spirit-draining structure of society until we meet our death afraid and alone, blinded in the mysterious facade of warmth and compassion. We can wallow in the misery of life, shroud ourselves in impenetrable darkness and await life's end, arms open as if to embrace the shadows of expiration as a gift of deliverance. We can free ourselves, escape the wretchedness, the pain of living, and the horrors of a new day. The Mantle, even through its grey-spirited dejection and distressed weight, portrays this quest for meaning. The often unbearable conditions of existence cannot be escaped entirely, but we can get through by discovering individual purpose and reaffirm existence through knowledge and affection for truth and beauty. On The Mantle, Agalloch have turned to self-affirmation through social withdrawal and reverence of nature’s grandeur.

The solemn, cold darkness that formed the core of Pale Folklore has expanded into a more panoptic expression. The irreverent storm of vexatious, hopeless pleadings to a pitiless majority are now channeled through sparse chromatic arrangements of a more seamless flow. The elaborate structural formations have been treated with an increased level of patience, giving the musical elements additional breathing capacity. The Mantle is an ambitious, penetrating work. It does not cater to the impatient or to those intimidated by emotionally-compelling, thought-provoking artistic expressions. This is music with genuine purpose, a prime display of a beautifully constructed album possessing the ability to dramatically alter the listener’s mental and emotional state during the listening experience. It is music delivered through a rich collection of visions and intentions, a complete package offering stimulation musically as well as lyrically and visually. The stark design of the package in shades of grey, silver, and black effectively reflects the spirit of this music and lyrics. Each phase of this work flows seamlessly into the next, creating a continuous and comprehensive stream of concept and musical flow which transcends the standard song by song album format. The Mantle is one of those rare musical experiences requiring elimination of surrounding or threatening distractions as well as a willingness on the part of its audience towards emotive and cerebral immersion for its entirety, such is the vast and rich quality of its presentation. It stands as this band's most accomplished and cohesive work.