AGALLOCH: THE MANTLE (2002)
1) A Celebration For The Death Of Man...; 2) In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion; 3) Odal; 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.
I take it as no coincidence that it is today, right on the very day that I set out to write about Agalloch's most acclaimed album, that we got our first serious winter snowfall, and it is still falling out of the murky grey skies right as I type out these words. Now all we need to do is replace the boring urban window view with pine forests on mid-size hills, populate them with a bunch of world-weary, disgruntled ghosts, and then the picture and the sound will be as one.
The Mantle is Agalloch at their very best simply because it is the one album, so far, in their career that has them doing their thing and their thing only. Death metal clichés are reduced to an absolute minimum, in fact, it may not even be correct to call this thing «metal» at all — very few songs have the required crunchy heavy riffs, being driven instead by loud acoustic strum, stern and morose, but still somewhat colorful electric leads, and, occasionally, pianos, accordeons, even mandolins. The growling vocals are still there, sometimes, but much more often give way to clean-sung lines or are presented as ominous, mood-setting whispering rather than the usual «hey, who let Ronnie James Dio gobble ten pounds of ice cream on a cold winter day?» variety.
One element of the band's schtick has by now crystallized to perfection, and it may not be to everyone's tastes: they display a strong passion for LAM(B?) — Long, Atmospheric, Monotonous (and Boring?). If an Agalloch composition crawls on for 10 or 15 minutes, do not expect an Abbey Road-style multi-part suite. There will be some key changes along the way, some alternations between quiet and loud, some traces of fade-outs and crescendos, but overall, what you get in the beginning is not too different from what you get in the middle, and almost absolutely the same as what you get in the end. This is an ambient approach, and you have to cope with it.
Not that it's unexpected. This is, after all, music for people who like taking long walks in snow-covered forests, and how is a snow-covered forest that much different at the start of your walk from the snow-covered forest at the end of it? (Unless you're lucky enough to end up swallowed by a grizzly bear, of course, which, I suspect, is like that particular ideal ending insinuated by Agalloch on each of their records, but always remaining unrealized at the end). It is one thing when a seventy-minute long album takes that much time only in order to mask the paucity of its ideas — but Agalloch found a great way out of it: sure, they do not have a lot of different ideas, but the ideas they do have are the ones that, by their very nature, require a lot of running time.
'In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion' is arguably the perfect Agalloch number, conveying the band's essence so damn well that everything else almost ends up sounding like last-minute variations on the magnum opus. There is a metallic roar running through its main melody, but it does not initiate the melody, which consists of a mournful electric drone, a simple acoustic accompaniment, and a minimalistic medieval mandolin pattern, woven together so carefully that Mother Nature could hardly wish for a more suitable mourning anthem for itself. Vocals come as growls, as dark quasi-Gregorian harmonies, as underground demon recitative, as half-spoken bardic poetry, whatever suits the moment best. Guitar solos start coming in no earlier than the tenth or eleventh minute, in the usual minimalist form. Harmonies are overdubbed with so much craft that it is hard to believe it is the same band that, just a few years ago, engaged in little vocal work other than just vomiting the words out into the microphone.
It's not all pure «fantasy world», either — like most of the album's tunes, the song is ecologically minded. On The Mantle, Agalloch seem to exert more care in making us believe this whole musical and lyrical approach is not just the result of reading too many third-rate fantasy novels and yearning for the innocence of an era in which you could fall upon your sword in the middle of a dark forest and have a beautiful ballad written about it. They want to merge that imagery and those values into the present. Think King Arthur, Siegfried, and Beowulf transported in a time machine into the 21st century — then, in the words of Jim Morrison, our first eco-minded bard, «look what they've done to the Earth, look what they've done to our fair sister» etc. etc.
That's one aspect that doesn't really work, but it makes great fodder for the press, who now has a legitimate reason for respecting the band and tolerating the intolerable, that is, the arrogant duration and similarity of their atmospheric pieces. Obviously, I cannot discuss them individually. If you yearn for a more openly metallic sound, 'I Am The Wooden Doors' and 'You Were But A Ghost In My Arms' will provide the heavy riffage you need, but the last twenty-five minutes are all solidly folk-based, particularly 'The Great Cold Death' with its near-gorgeous vocal part and 'A Desolation Song' with its accordeon-and-mandolin-led melody.
But then, honestly, it does not matter; Agalloch make a point of blurring the line between folk and metal, right down to where, at some point, you no longer feel like you are having a «folk» or «metal» experience at all, but are simply listening to some extreme form of a Requiem Mass — "Celebration For The Death Of Man", indeed. I am not going to pretend to being in some perverse love relation with The Mantle, or even to «getting» it the way we're supposed to get it. I am not going to say it fully justifies its length (had they cut out, for instance, the eleven minutes of 'Hawthorne Passage', the album would still retain its full potential). I certainly do not insist that it cannot be accused of cheesiness — some of the lyrics are generically cringeworthy, and some of the darkness, as befits this genre, feels artificially bloated. And it is rather obvious that if you fall upon this from a purely metal background, the technical accomplishment of John Haughm and company will seem puny next to their Scandinavian forefathers.
But The Mantle, much more so than Folklore, makes that somewhat primitive bluntness of the band's approach into their chief advantage. Many people can run up and down all sorts of scales; how many have thought of concentrating, instead, on enveloping your living quarters in an impenetrable atmosphere of folk-metallic ambience? 'In The Shadow...' is supposed to leave you mesmerized rather than aggressively overwhelmed, and I believe that it achieves its goal, along with most of the other songs on here. Well, it looks like it's finally stopped snowing, so I may as well just issue the expected thumbs up and let us move on from here.
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