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Another of Agalloch's masterpieces - 97%

Unaslayer, April 22nd, 2008

I find it very hard to name a favorite band. I discover new things all the time, and music which I thought to be the crowning achievement of civilization in the end may inspire no more than yawns and a feeling of mediocrity. I must have listened to Agalloch’s “The Mantle” more than a hundred times, and this album has yet to bore me. If I can call any band “my favourite”, Agalloch is probably the top contender. Words can’t describe the originality and beauty of this band, you really do have to listen to it yourself, but I will try.

What makes them so special? Well, everything really. They’re most often referred to as “folk metal”, but that tag is so misleading I don’t like to use it, as Agalloch are in a category in their own. Folk metal evocates either the over-the-top, epic brand of Viking-inspired metal or a bunch of drunk guys slapping on their guitars with a fiddle or violin making up catchy melodies. Agalloch are neither, their sorrowful folk mixing excellently with slow, melancholic doom and black metal influences often appearing in some guitar riffs and the vocals. The music here is not about hooks and making the music stick in your head, it is about surrounding you in an atmosphere of sadness and magnificence, taking you through bleak, snowy forests, admiring and worshipping nature and escaping from the oppression of modern society. Nothing is a better testament to this than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote on the CD, “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”, and that is exactly what Agalloch are achieving here, strong imagery of rivers and forests coming through both in the lyrics and the music.

The music is essentially very similar throughout a song, the same strummed chord being played over and over, while other instruments slowly pile on to an epic climax. A certain passage may start with a simple acoustic guitar, and instruments will be added on top of it, first a drum beat, then an electric guitar and sometimes even a cello, slow enough to relax you but never enough to bore you. It will drag on for some time until the sound is released as the singing comes in, exploding into a huge chorus. Some of the songs, however, are relatively upbeat: “I Am the Wooden Doors” opens up with a fast double-bass drum before a sustained riff in the style of black metal kicks in, the song having much more prominent growled vocals, unlike the rest of the album which is mostly cleanly sung. One might thing such a heavy song after one of the calmest, “Odal”, would upset the flow of the music, but it manages to weave in extremely well, as does the rest of the album, flowing from track to track very seamlessly and there never being a moment in the music where the general atmosphere is disturbed.

One major improvement from their debut is the excellent production there is here. Long gone is the gritty, subdued sound from their “From Which of This Oak” demo, or even “Pale Folklore”, their debut LP, which is replaced with something worthy of the music: acoustic passages are clear and powerful, the distorted guitars are heavy but rich and full and the drums are loud enough to be heard but never end up overpowering the rest of the music. The vocals are excellently mixed as well, the black metal shrieks sounding natural but effectively showing the pain they are meant to display, while the clean singing is nothing short of epic and beautiful, oftentimes rising above the instruments and uplifting the listener. Lyrically, “The Mantle” is astounding, both the bleak and the vivid of nature coming through the lyrics. They lyrics are centered about nature, but through it Agalloch explore human nature, religion, death and depression. Thankfully, their lyrics are far from emo, showing a sophistication that would make emos commit suicide, imagery of nature being used as symbols for the feelings expressed. It’s extremely hard to put into words what the lyrics portray: it’s beauty, grief, melancholy, grandeur and whatever else you can think of.

“The Mantle”, in short, is a masterpiece of modern metal. I have yet to find a band which has a sound similar to Agalloch’s, since they take in influences from so many genres: black, folk and doom metal, drone, post-rock and shoegaze all find a way into this album without breaking it up. Inspiring, beautiful and majestic, this album represents Agalloch maturing into the innovative band they have become today.