It is 2002 and the words “post black metal” are still nowhere to be found. The reign of death metal, power metal and progressive metal is supreme, with each genre enjoying its own, separate and yet intertwined, Golden Age. Black metal isn’t “over” or “dead”, but it seems to be in deep, deep slumber. However, like a sleepwalker who mutters a sharp cry into the night that engulfs him, from the caves of its sleep comes a thunderclap. Agalloch had already released two albums by then, interesting pieces which came on the heels of the black metal movement of the late 80’s. They had bought them a place of interest in aficionado books, but their name was not yet wildly known. All of this was about to change, as their earlier, more experimental sounds coalesced into a mighty glacier, ready to carve out its own fjord within what black metal could accomplish.
The Mantle was to be their ushering into legendary status, into a band that countless other artists aspire to emulate. To date, it is one of the most complete and bone-chillingly powerful albums that metal has released. It’s an amazing marriage between folk, black metal and post rock, perhaps deserving of mention in two if not three emerging, musical scenes. Its charm is contained in a phenomenon we have pointed to several times before on the blog (and especially in my posts). More than that, it is perhaps the paragon of this phenomenon; it is the epitome of what happens when you love all your influences to an equal degree and afford them their equal share within the album. In what is by now a Heavy Blog/Eden cliche, we can ascertain this as the main quality that is so enthralling about The Mantle: it exists as one, folk, black, post, mixing together in a blizzard of emotions.
You really need only listen to the first, full track. It is by far one of the best Agalloch tracks ever recorded and one of the best folk black metal tracks ever. “A Celebration for the Death of Man”, the intro track, begins with acoustic guitars that immediately communicate to you what this is all about. Are you looking to feel empowered, refreshed, happy, upbeat? Then press “stop” right now. The haunting synth lines, the dolmen-like percussion and, above all, the faltering-in-snow guitars, all speak softly to you; this is about the end. This is about what happens when life stops and winter reigns supreme. As the intro track fades away, the main line of “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion” is introduced, a line that will walk with us throughout the album. It is deep and folded into itself, seemingly carrying with it much more than what is heard. The secret lies in the juxtaposition of electric guitars over the acoustic ones, modern and folk influences blending into one. Add in the post rock lead which continues to chime in the background, and you have the Agalloch formula laid bare before you, in all its somber glory.
Except for one last element. Further along the track, just in case you haven’t gotten the message, shrieking, abrasive vocals are laid on top of the whole thing. Again, they’re not consigned to live only where the blastbeats live; they don’t speak only with the electric guitars. In a true conversation, all parts sound together and for each other. So too, here. The abrasive vocals have much to give to the acoustic guitars and vice versa and thus, they are allowed to converse. The album has some of the former as well, on “I Am the Wooden Doors” for example. This shows us that the earlier choices, to include the abrasive vocals alongside the folk elements, weren’t a mistake. Agalloch can do both; they simply choose to utilize each tool when it is most needed. This is another fact which lends the album its incredible strength; everything feels purposeful, fantastic tools wielded by expert hands which know exactly where to use each one. This clever balance makes sure that once the heavy parts do come to the front, they are even more powerful. They don’t feel like an escape conducted by a band fresh out of ideas; they feel like genuine expressions of the same emotional core.
By the way, even that description of the heavy parts doesn’t really do it justice. The folk elements are never completely exorcised, the heavy riffs and blastbeats never completely devoid of their acoustic touches. “I Am the Wooden Doors” is a fantastic example of that. On many of its heavier parts, an acoustic guitar rings true, adding a touch of sadness and melody to the otherwise pummeling, traditional black metal segments. Another great example is “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms”, with its deep, almost read vocal lines above furious, deep blastbeats. The entire track feeds off the tension between the fundamental, moving, main riff and the acoustic pulses which beat beneath it. All of this is, once again, crowned with amazing vocals, both clean and abrasive. The ways in which you can listen to this track, and the album in general, are many: a lament for nature, a cry against its cruelty, a promise of rebirth, an acceptance of death, a deep depression and unspeakable power, all at once.
This layering, both emotional and musical, is what makes The Mantle such an amazing album. I’ve been listening to it for close to ten years now and there are constantly new moments which I am discovering. Not only in the music but also in my emotional reaction to it. You can play it in the winter and dive into its frozen, depressing embrace. You can play it in the summer and tap into its rage, dismissal and misanthropic rebuke. You can play it in the spring and promise yourself a rebirth and a return to grandeur. You can play it in the autumn and contemplate your fate and the ending which awaits at the bottom of all things. But you can play it, always, and find something that speaks to you. It has remained somehow pristine, even in the face of countless homages, reiterations and a complete genre which was birthed from it. It remains aloof, cold, austere and powerful. Yet, somehow beckoning. A frozen hand outstretched from within the mists, a soft voice speaking into your ear even as the blizzard strips you of your flesh. And heart.
Oh god, the bells on “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms”. I forgot about those bells. Agalloch might be gone, but those bells will last forever.