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As The Plates In The Mantle Shift... - 86%

rosewater7, September 5th, 2009

My rating of this album goes on a collective average of my ratings of all of the individual tracks on this album. While I could sit and compare the music on this album to other metal bands and rate it based on what traditional metal has been, I won’t. This is not about other metal bands or about tradition. This is about this album and this band.

It has been argued that Agalloch isn’t metal because it isn’t heavy enough, doesn’t express enough hatred, lacks testosterone, is only inspiring if you are looking for a career in taxes and accounting, and so on down the line. I actually find the statements written by one reviewer, about how anyone who likes this album should consider a career in accounting, to be quite humorous. I’m actually good with numbers, I hate taxes and accounting, but I still love this album.

Here’s why I like it. First, I live in Vancouver, Washington, which is right across the river from Portland, Oregon. Tigard, Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland, just happens to be where Agalloch is from. Incidentally, "The Hawthorne Passage” includes a recording of traffic over the Hawthorne Bridge, which runs from west to east Portland. This recording just happens to bridge part one and part two of the instrumental “The Hawthorne Passage.” I don’t know if Agalloch had this in mind, but the Hawthorne Bridge, as well as Hawthorne Boulevard, in Portland are named after the head doctor of a psychiatric institute for the mentally ill. Many other references in The Mantle and other Agalloch albums call up many glorious images of the Pacific Northwest. It is references to landmarks like these which make Agalloch feel like home.

Second, and more important, the music is phenomenal. Of the three full length Agalloch Albums, I find the acoustic guitar work on The Mantle to be most impressive. When I say acoustic guitar work, I mean everything you can do on the acoustic. The album begins with your standard display of acoustic chords in "A Celebration For The Death Of Man…", but there is more to come with "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion", where we hear acoustic finger picking harmonics, acoustic lead guitar, and more acoustic chords. Throughout the album, we hear the exploration of both melody and harmony on the acoustic guitar as well as the electric guitar. Of course, the electric guitar is only faintly audible in "A Celebration For The Death Of Man...". However, it gradually comes out of the woodwork as the album progresses. We hear some very good electric solos in "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion". Then, in "Odal", the electric guitar gradually overpowers the acoustic, becoming a driving force until about the middle of the song where the acoustic takes primary hold again up to the end when the piano creates a little musical finale, which is followed by a blowing wind sound-affect. "I Am The Wooden Doors" follows, crashing with pure metallic force. Well, as heavy as Agalloch ever gets anyway. "The Lodge" gives you a nice acoustic breather before hitting the metallic crash of "You Were But A Ghost In My Arms."

These first six pieces easily rate above 90% for me, because they capture both extreme musical talent and deep emotion. The beauty of the music is moving not just on an emotional level, but on a spiritual level. Listening to Agalloch is like listening to a band operating off of a higher spiritual plain, whose music is performed by a force beyond themselves, which uses the band members merely as a conduit. John Haughm is a vocalist of few words, but when he speaks, sings, whispers, or chants, it is as if he is speaking in tongues, and there is definitely more going on there than just a few words. There is a painting of phantom images, flames, nature, beauty, longing, fear, impending doom, and much more in each piece of music. This is expressed in both the music and the words. I use the term pieces as apposed to songs, because Agalloch’s songs do not begin or end, they are pieces of a greater masterpiece. I suppose this has its inspiration from classical, which consists of pieces of a greater composition as apposed to songs. More on this later.

The first problem I encountered with this album came on track 7, "The Hawthorne Passage". Here is an excellent acoustic and electric composition that would easily rate above 90% if it weren’t for the second half of the instrumental. The first half plays beautifully, and is followed by one of my favorite sections of the album, which is the recording of the Hawthorne Bridge I mentioned earlier. The problem begins when the Hawthorne Bridge gives way to the second section of the instrumental, which is the music itself. For some reason, the music in this section just doesn’t capture me the way that the rest of the instrumental does. This is purely opinion, but I think this is just an aspect of the composition that I don’t identify with in the same way as the rest of the album. I suspect there is an element of humor in this section of the piece, because the tone of this section is upbeat and at odds with the rest of the album. Humor is welcome, but in this case it somehow doesn’t fit. Whatever the case, despite the excellent composition of the first section of this piece, the second section brought my rating of "The Hawthorne Passage" down to 84%. Still, I am very fond of this piece and I highly recommend it to anyone who listens to the album.

Then, there is "...And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth", which is the continuation of "A Celebration Of The Death Of Man...". The acoustic chords in track 8 basically pick up where they left off from track 1 and what unfolds is a glorious piece foretelling the end of existence. The album title appears in the lyrics of this piece, which leads me to believe that this piece is not only the conclusion of the larger story of this album, but is also the piece that ties the album together. This track easily rates 92% for me, due to its excellent musical skill, artistic beauty, and its endless ability to capture my interest and emotion. I rate none of these tracks 100%, because there is room for improvement, Agalloch has done better, and because, as much as I love this album, I must give an honest review. However, the high ratings these pieces get from me are not ratings I hand out lightly. There are plenty of songs I love that don’t come anywhere close to the kind of ratings I give to Agalloch’s music.

All that said, let’s move on to the final track on the album, "A Desolation Song". This track is a song of its own and is entirely acoustic. It reminds me of "Half A World Away" by REM, which is one of my least favorite songs REM ever produced. "Half A World Away" reeks of self pity to an extreme that was nauseating. As a result, any song that sounds like "Half A World Away" has that same affect. "A Desolation Song" does just exactly that. For this reason, "A Desolation Song" rated 42% on my scale. This killed the average rating of this album for me. Without this final track, the album would have averaged a 92% rating from me.

As I said earlier, The Mantle is not Agalloch’s best album, but it isn’t its worst either. Further, despite the fact that it isn’t its best, it is still an outstanding piece of work. It is also the album that introduced me to the band. I was first captured by the music, then the unique vocals. Finally, I had to study the lyrics to get a bigger picture of what Agalloch is about. Truly, they are captured by the beauty of nature, the search for truth, and the warnings of mankind’s impending doom. However, Agalloch isn’t just a message of words, it is an experience that is powerful, moving, mind altering, and leaves me as a listener filled with awe. The first few times I listened to them, I would have described them as nice to listen to, but the deeper implications of the music took hold the more I immersed myself in their work. The layers of Agalloch are so thick, that I am still taking each piece of each album apart and studying the meanings and the musical talent. Creative is an understatement.

As for the statements that this is not metal, I beg to differ. While metal is not classical, it gets a great deal of inspiration from classical in its structure. It is one of the reasons that metal bands produce songs and pieces that last over ten minutes. Lead solos performed by metal guitarists are inspired by classical, as well. That said, there are more styles of classical than there are pairs of underwear in my drawer. Therefore, with the classical elements of inspiration that weave their way into metal, there are going to be multiple styles of metal, particularly progressive metal, that are going to sound entirely different from each other. Agalloch is merely demonstrating this by bringing new styles of metal to the table. Just as not all classical is from the dark ages, not all metal is driven by hatred, screaming, blood baths and machine gun guitar playing. Agalloch is a progressive metal band, which means they are evolving, and they make no secret that they employ other styles of music, such as neo classical, folk, and various forms of rock. This allows the band to demonstrate their abilities as genuine, because the listener gets to hear what Agalloch can do even without the boost of electronics. It is said that to master the guitar, you must first master the acoustic. Agalloch has more than demonstrated they can do this. They also demonstrate they can perform their music on any instrument put in their hands, which is more than I can say for a lot artists out there.

Agalloch has also been accused of lacking sincerity and lacking energy. I also disagree with this. I think the quality of the music speaks for itself in saying that this band is very sincere about what they do. Further, I think their music demonstrates that they could care less about what’s popular, and care more about the integrity of music as an art form. I also think their music demonstrates their hearts are genuinely in what they do, and what they produce is an honest representation of what these gentleman stand for.

Agalloch is not for everyone, but even if it isn’t the style you are looking for, they are undeniably good at what they do.