Hall of Fame Countdown: Agalloch’s The Mantle

The Mantle is a superb front-to-back mood piece, a turn-of-the-millennium meditation on thoroughly American frontier sensibilities with a metallic foil (please excuse that completely dumbass phrase; the shit pun was totally unintentional, but I don’t quite know how to accurately rephrase what I mean).  The album is, yet again, another study in how ranking the songscountdown-style breaks the spell a bit and hurls these tracks earthward from the heavenly stations they occupy when collected as a single piece.  In fact, song for song, there are probably some people (finger-guns-pointed-at-my-ears: “This guy!”) who favor the lightning-wielding Ashes Against the Grain when it comes to ranking separate pieces with their own individual power.

But Ashes isn’t in our Hall, The Mantle is (for proof, check out Issue #97), and it’s certainly worthy of a little more attention.  Here comes The Mantle’s Hall of Fame Countdown.  Got other ideas?  Tell us!

9.  “A Celebration for the Death of Man…”

Awesome intro.  Anticipation builds through the echoing percussion, the raw strum of acoustic chords and the chilly synth drone.  The stage for The Mantle’s great statement of intent could not have been set any more adeptly.  The menacing distortion that creeps in at the track’s halfway mark grabs the attention in a remarkably simple way.  Of course, it’s just an introductory piece…

8.  “A Desolation Song”

These are some serious lyrics.  Seriously good, seriously deep, seriously depressive.  Not the music, though.  There’s redemption here, the perfect note of finality that didn’t exist elsewhere on the record.  None of the heights reached in other moments of The Mantle are even attempted here, but that’s as it should be.  The action is falling, now, to the final darkness.  Ending here – and with that final rap of the wooden blocks from “The Lodge” – makes all the sense in the world.

7.  “The Hawthorne Passage”

The guitar work here is mmm-mmm tasty.  On its own, this song is folk metal gold and a thing of wonder.  On a collection as strong as The Mantle, it simply holds its place well and does its job before taking listeners to even more powerful vistas.  It’s easy to overlook “The Hawthorne Passage,” late as it falls in the album, but it certainly hums with its own charms.

6.  “I Am the Wooden Doors”

Holy shit!  A black metal song!  Here the band finally reaches toward the aggression of their musical roots and looses blast beats and metal riffs on ears that have become accustomed to gorgeousness.  Of course, it’s still folk metal, but it provides the fieriest moments on an album rife with cold beauty.

5.  “The Lodge”

After the ravaging “I Am the Wooden Doors,” this piece resituates listeners in the snowy pastoral landscape that dominates the album.  Its unique timekeeper echoes across the song (to rise again in the final second of “A Desolation Song”) while the contrabass adds a shadow to the acoustic strumming not felt earlier. 

4.  “Odal”

Here is yet another place where tone hounds can rejoice.  The song’s electric opening ushers in a sense of drama that guides everything that comes after.  Without Haughm’s vocals to provide a human/lyrical focus, the listener is given leave to wander through the rich instrumental landscape.  This opportunity is one of the elements that makes The Mantle a special album – rather than lock the audience into a single bleak vision, a multitude of paths open, each as valid as any other.

3.  “You Were But a Ghost in My Arms”

As the album’s second scorcher, “Ghost” benefits from expectations both by rising to them and by brazenly surpassing them.  Impressively, the song blends the power that metal offers with all the folkified thematic elements from earlier parts of the record.  On anyone else’s album, this would be the grand highlight.  By Agalloch standards, it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill Wednesday evening.  Fair?  Not even close.

2.  “… And the Great Cold Death of the Earth”

The poetry that leads this song gets stuck in my head and plays on a loop for days:  “Life is a clay urn on the mantle / And I am scattered on the floor.”  That the line is repeatedly adapted throughout the song only increases its potency.  As the companion to the album’s opening minutes, this track expands on those sonic ideas and shows us where they were all headed.  All the conceptual capital earned in the album’s first half has now been spent, and we are guided, finally, to the curtain’s close.

1.  “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion”

Somehow, the longest song on the album also appears to be the most focused and immediate of the bunch.  Melodies crop up all over the song.  John Haughm breaks out his black metal whisper/rasp for one of its rare appearances here.  Repetitive themes give way to leads that hint at broader themes and loftier melodies.  And after bypassing a double-digit runtime, the tension ratchets toward the album’s best single moment:  The 12:00 unleashing of an unmatched clean lead with a tone to die for.