Monday, August 13, 2012

Agalloch: The Mantle (2002)

Motion for Reconsideration
Tenth Anniversary

Ten years have passed since the release of Agalloch's second full-length, The Mantle. The record is not revolutionary in and of itself, exactly. But it does represent two radical changes in metal. After its release, those shifts slowly gained prominence. That is no coincidence.

The style is one that is still, to this day, difficult to define. It's been described as everything from post-metal, to black metal, to folk metal, to pagan metal, to doom metal. Others have suggested other genre names, like "gray metal" or "dark metal," descriptions that don't have much meaning. What it is, in fact, is neo-folk music with some black metal elements, rather than the other way around. The distorted tremolo riffing doesn't even begin until nearly a half-hour into the record, and never really takes center stage at any point. Metal that's barely even metal: That's the first shift.

The second shift is one away from individual songs and toward complete albums. Metalheads like to think that this has always been true of metal, but that's not really the case. Do all of the songs on Master of Reality fit together, and make a cohesive album? Absolutely. But it was still about the songs. You could make singles out of them, and they rocked in their own right. They were all built on the almighty riff, as was almost all metal. The Mantle, on the other hand, is cinematic. Its power is in the emotional tides of the whole, and is not built on riffs in quite the same way. There are rhythm chords, yes, but they don't serve the same purpose. It's the cello, the piano, the accordion, the clean vocals. The mood is paramount. The songwriting is brilliant not because of monster riffs, but because it creates atmosphere and holds it together with memorable melodies and musical themes. In that sense, it resembles classical music more than any kind of rock music.

The shift to a neo-folk-infused musical style and cinematic/classical songwriting did not originate with Agalloch. Ulver (and others) had been doing these things. But no one plying this trade had made such a strong statement as The Mantle. It brought the style much more recognition, and influenced many bands over the last decade. Primordial, Negură Bunget, Drudkh, Alcest, and countless others owe an enormous debt to the Oregonians. Pagan metal and post-black metal would be unrecognizable (or non-existent) today were it not for this record. By extension, the nation of Ireland would have zero presence on the international metal stage.

The proof of these statements came at the end of 2010. In a genre that should never have had broad appeal, that should have been a niche market within a niche market, the band’s fourth full-length Marrow of the Spirit became one of the most high-profile albums of the year, in short order receiving almost universally effusive praise.

To paraphrase, mangle, and distort the Billy Joel cliché, Agalloch didn't start the fire. But they did pour on enough gasoline to make sure no one could miss it.

The Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Buy The Mantle


  1. The only Agalloch album I revisit regularly... I could pretty much take or leave the rest of their discography at this point. I likes Marrow when it came out, but I couldn't even tell you when I listened to it last. The band really peaked w/ The Mantle.

  2. "The band really peaked w/ The Mantle."

    It's tough to say whether I agree with that... It is my favorite album of theirs, but Morrow of the Spirit is a close 2nd. I think a lot of it has to do with timing. Even though I'm aware of it, I tend to have an irrational tendency to prefer the first album I hear from a band. And The Mantle was the first album I heard from Agalloch.

    I'm not trying to take anything away from the Mantle b/c it's an amazing album, but if Morrow had come out in 2002, would we consider THAT to be Agalloch's peak?