Agalloch – The Mantle (2002)
August would seem a strange time to release a record so steeped in the eerie beauty of winter as The Mantle. But released it was, and fans were treated to an ambitious 70-minute winter landscape set to metal music. Even the term “metal” is used very loosely here, so varied are the songs. Metal is definitely a part of it, but with generous sections of strummed acoustic guitars, folk instruments, soothing clean vocals and ambient sounds, Agalloch is sometimes deemed to be a progressive band. Even the most straightforward metal-type song here, “I Am the Wooden Doors,” still indulges in twin acoustic guitar backdrops and solos to go along with its double-bass drum attack and rasping black metal vocals.
To me, the doors symbolize the stoutness of the human spirit, a hidden passage among the wintry melancholy of The Mantle. It would be a perfect soundtrack to the movie “Insomnia,” which came out the same year. That Al Pacino mystery/thriller takes place in northern Alaska, where the sun either still shines at 10pm…or not at all.
A few listeners remark that they “can’t believe these guys are American.” Indeed…why should cold, bleak, beautiful music only be left to the Scandinavians?
1. A Celebration For the Death of Man…
2. In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion
4. I Am the Wooden Doors
5. The Lodge
6. You Were But A Ghost In My Arms
7. The Hawthorne Passage
8. …And the Great Cold Death of the Earth
9. A Desolation Song
Though the band quotes Emerson on the CD itself (“The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”) and uses its music to paint the natural beauty of the fall and winter, the album’s characters seem far removed from the 1960s “back to nature” optimism one might expect. The narrator of the bold 14-minute opener, “In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” offers himself in body and spirit to the natural world in a truly morbid way. In “You Were But A Ghost In My Arms,” the character is so haunted by a voice from the past that he burns down the lodge from the previous song, in whose walls the ghostly torments burn. And “The Great Cold Death of the Earth” tells of a Cherokee Indian legend, passed down through generations, of how the end of the world would come to pass.
So the intensity of the storytelling is a major draw here. But it’s the spacious melancholy of the music that renders these stories so stark. “Odal” is an atmospheric instrumental that interweaves acoustic guitars, wind chimes, piano, and a marching snare-drum for an unparalleled soundscape. A true highlight. The even longer “Hawthorne Passage” establishes a hypnotic groove and offers plenty of space for a couple of blues-tinged guitar solos to stretch out.
Agalloch brings both lightness and heaviness together in a cohesive whole for a smooth, outdoors-like listening experience. For only their second full-length, the Oregonian band displays a remarkable maturity in its songcraft. Although gloomy, The Mantle is a trip under a pale grey sky, surrounded by bare trees, drying and cracked wheat, and icy streams. And as you, the listener-traveler, emerge into a clearing in the woods, you’re invited to the fireside of a lone survivor, drinking away in the darkness and silence. This is “A Desolation Song.” This minimalist conclusion, with 6-string and accordion, sends you on your way after the cold day’s hike of The Mantle.
Unless, of course, you choose to stay by the fire a while longer and join him for one more drink.
Written by Matt P