Agalloch – The Mantle (A Retrospective Review)

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With their disbandment in May 2016, we bid farewell to one of the most recognisable and renowned names in metal. Agalloch is a band whose influence and status in the scene cannot be understated, and no album in their discography stands out like 2002’s The Mantle; even fifteen years after its initial release, the ripples of this Portland, Oregon band’s sophomore record have not quite subsided. With their elegant fusion of black metal, folk and ambient music, Agalloch had one of the more influential legacies in extreme metal. Following their 1999 debut Pale Folklore – a rawer incarnation of the band’s sound – The Mantle draws upon its roots in black metal while also showcasing an eclectic mixture of influences from post-rock, neofolk and Scandinavian folk in what remains the band’s most cinematic release to date. Agalloch had already made their affinities for these styles known in their previous releases; the aforementioned debut Pale Folklore and subsequent EP Of Stone, Wind and Pillor, the latter being heavily neofolk-centric, but this synergy of sounds was even more polished and tasteful on The Mantle.

Agalloch The Mantle

It should not be assumed that Agalloch were the sole innovators of folk-tinged black metal; many of Agalloch’s earliest recordings reveal a clear inspiration from Norwegian act Ulver’s debut record Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler and neofolk acts like Death in June. Much like these artists, The Mantle demonstrates a clear appreciation for folk music, with the arrangements on this album often featuring a prominent acoustic guitar, and a heavy focus on atmosphere and mood as with many of Ulver’s Norwegian contemporaries. As well as this, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist John Haughm – and fellow guitarist Don Anderson – use their distorted guitars less as vessels for ‘riffs’, but as a supplementary layer of texture à la classic post-rock bands. As frontman John Haughm has noted in interviews before, said post-rock influence – particularly Godspeed You! Black Emperor – is especially prominent on this album, with Godspeed’s guitar techniques described by Anderson as “seemingly aligned with black metal.” [1] The solemn instrumental track, ‘Odal’, for instance, has all the build-ups and climaxes of a traditional post-rock piece, opening with a slowly arpeggiated chord that gradually finds accompaniment by bowed electric guitars before its eventual crescendo.

These dramatic elements of post-rock ultimately culminate in The Mantle being Agalloch’s most cinematic record in their discography. Only further accentuating this, the band make use of excellently placed field recordings and ambient passages, like the muffled sounds of wind beginning ‘Odal’ – which return during the lengthy instrumental ‘The Hawthorne Passage’, and on the closer ‘A Desolation Song’. Another prominent use of field recordings, too, comes from the beginning of the track ‘The Lodge’, with the crunch of snow under feet seamless with the percussive strikes on a deer skull – one of the more novel instruments used on this record – that echo like a gunshot through a forest. The way in which The Mantle is composed almost gives the impression that, first and foremost, the music must paint a landscape, bleak and desolate, in which Agalloch’s lyrical world resides in.

Though much of the album is dramatic and melancholic in tone, The Mantle leaves us on a considerably more grounded note. The final two tracks provide the album with a bleak epilogue; while the climactic ‘…And the Great Cold Death of the Earth’ is both defeatist in a personal sense (“Life is a clay urn on the mantle, and I am the fragments on the floor”) and in terms of humanity’s impact on the world (“We are the wounds and the great cold death of the earth”), Haughm’s melancholy musings on ‘A Desolation Song’ take a less esoteric turn. His lyrics delivered in what could almost be described as the frustrated rantings of one who’s romantic life has broken down, “Liquor’s bitter flames warm my languid soul / Here I drink alone and remember a graven life, the stain of her memory”, ‘A Desolation Song’ brings the listener back from Agalloch’s lyrical world with a more mundane – though perhaps more relatable – topic.

All throughout The Mantle these cinematic pieces are accompanied by Haughm’s musings on humanity’s place in the natural world, of ‘forgotten landscapes’; finding solace in the arms of nature, in pantheistic paganism and world mythology, while seemingly rejecting the contemporary world and all its pressures. This connection with paganism and nature continued to be a key component in Agalloch’s music throughout their career, and indeed in much of the subsequent pagan black metal acts inspired by Agalloch. Both the sonic and lyrical content of The Mantle is echoed in contemporary acts today; Agalloch’s descriptions of the beauty of nature are mirrored by Wolves in the Throne Room’s affection for the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, while post-rock-infused black metal continued with acts like Deafheaven and the (now deceased) Altar of Plagues, and Panopticon and Saor take a more personal twist on the folk instrumentation to create an image of their own natural world.

Agalloch’s The Mantle remains both an excellent listen and a seminal piece of atmospheric black metal, representing a huge turning point in the genre. Both its grounded, acoustic-centric instrumentation – while also cinematic and grand soundscapes – and simultaneous embrace of nature and cynicism towards contemporary society place the listener in a vivid world of Agalloch’s own making.

Footnotes:
1. Dick, Chris (November 2012). “Hall of Fame: Northwest Passage – The Making of Agalloch’s The Mantle”. Decibel Magazine (97): p58–66.

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Psychology graduate who enjoys a messy selection of musical styles (though he usually ends up writing about black metal)

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