The Winter of Our Content XII: Mankind’s Mantle

waterfall cropped

In my last year of compulsory school I borrowed Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty from a friend, the storyline of which (spoiler alert) culminates with the revelation that the USA is run by a group of 12 men called The Patriots, and that its democracy is a façade. Coming towards the end of an already–intricate storyline, this blew my mind. That’s a massive conspiracy. This changes everything. Then the weekend ended, it was back to school, and I began a module in astrophysics. My mind was blown, again. Everything changed, again. This was an even bigger conspiracy.

Listening to Agalloch’s The Mantle, and then listening to most other music, is comparable to this sensation of studying a module in astrophysics, and then studying a module in politics. The latter feels petty, unenlightened and ultimately insignificant, and leaving the squabbles of the world behind to stargaze, preferably whilst listening to The Mantle, beckons.

With time, these moments of enlightenment usually fade away, back to traffic jams, pet hates and slow computers, but while it lasts it’s everything. Similarly, so is listening to The Mantle. Continually referring to the connection between nature, death, and god, and the power of each over humanity, it is a paganistic and spiritual piece of music. Like looking out onto a dark, wild landscape, with the falling snow and growing night slowly obscuring the trees and rolling hills, a brooding force lurks just beneath the surface of The Mantle. Much has been said of how black metal’s cold atmosphere and trance–inducing repetition can inspire a sense of transcendence, and in theory this sounds like my cuppa rosie, but I’ve never gotten anything out of traditional black metal like Emperor, Bathory and Mayhem. But the moment I heard … And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth on a Cryogenic Husk mixtape (sadly no longer available), I have been intrigued by Agalloch.

The rhythm guitar is acoustic on seven out of The Mantle’s nine songs, there is recurring use of bowed double bass, and John Haughm’s black metal rasp is both intelligible and balanced with clean vocals. The recurring use of 3/4 time and medium–slow tempos lends much of it a stately feel, calling falling snow to mind. Contrasting layers are used to great effect, building and peeling away, with vocals snarling, rasping, whispering and chanting over acoustic plucking and strumming, which in turn is often played over distorted or watery guitar chords and rumbling double bass. This last feature brings a sense of grandeur to several tracks, most notably the expansive … And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth. Traditional black metal this is not. Rather, Agalloch blend it with soundscapes and an instinctive and organic folk influence, so thoroughly that it is more the sound of a disembodied soul than that of three people playing instruments.

The aforementioned frosty atmosphere is in part created by these soundscapes; The Lodge opens with approaching footsteps in the snow, and In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion closes with yowling wind and wind chimes. Continuous without being repetitive, The Mantle is very much an album for a complete listen, with recurring motifs and long instrumental sections. Even songs like the instrumental The Lodge, consisting of a repeated C major and A minor chord pattern for nearly four of its four minutes and 39 seconds, never stagnates; one foot is always being placed in front of the other on this snow–laden trek.

Lyrically, from beginning to end The Mantle embraces the mortality of the self and the temporary nature of everything. A lot of black metal bands and artists talk of nihilism and sadism, how life is pain, blah blah blah, but I reckon it’s safe to assume that they’re drawing the line outside their personal interests. Agalloch come across as far more philosophical, simultaneously gentle and sincere in their apocalyptic musings, like they’ve actually given some thought to the rationale underlying their music and lyrics, to the extent of placing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote (‘The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship’) on the CD artwork. … And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth contemplates the extinction of Earth, ending with the lines

We are the wounds and the great cold death of the earth
Darkness and silence, the light shall flicker out…’

The Mantle is a reminder that the world began, and the world will end. In the grand scheme of things, humanity is dust in the breeze, a wave in the ocean, and our most sacred institutions will come to nothing. When the earth dies, so will we, and it is this melancholic and distant vibe, sounding the antithesis of normal human sentiments and self–interest, that makes The Mantle the ultimate winter album.

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Review ‘Em All: Xibalba, Tierra y Libertad

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The song titles are in Spanish, the artwork shows futuristic tanks and soldiers fighting over Mesoamerican pyramids, and the album title translates to ‘Land and Liberty’. Have Xibalba (the name of the Mayan underworld, loosely translating as ‘Place of Fear’), the tough–sounding detuned hardcore–playing Californians of Mexican descent, who named their prior album Hasta La Muerta and have that destroy your living room whilst getting smashed vibe going on, gone political?

Several listens later, and no, I don’t think so. Hispanic culture, including its modern politics, clearly has an important place for Xibalba, but no more so than hardcore, sludge and Slayer. These influences all sour together to make an album in which the driving force is pain. Whether physical (Enimigo), emotional (En Pas Descanse), collective (Si Dios Quiere) or self–inflicted (Invierno), it sounds like the raison d’être of Xibalba’s distinctive if not groundbreaking sound. This consuming fury translates into equally consuming hardcore chugging, writhing tremolo picking, flights of double kick and grooves deeper than a half pipe. The vocals have that low, barking, imperative hardcore quality to them, with lots of gang vocals, all adding up to create a murderous mix. In the groovier moments I was reminded of Slayer at their slowest, as I was by the squawking guitar solos.

Tierra y Liberatad is noticeably faster than Hasta La Muerta, and with a few exceptions, non–stop mosh material.  It is not a massively varied listen, but the versatile pacing, always pushing and pulling, grips like a vice. In doing so this makes Xibalba the curdled cream of the hardcore crop. Politics may raise its head a couple of times, but Xibalba’s driving force is that of pain that won’t fade.

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Review ‘em All: Martyn Bennett, Grit

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I wasn’t sure whether to review Grit when I got my copy a couple of weeks ago. Besides it first being released 12 years ago, and even the reissue coming out last May, it’s like nothing else I listen to or that I’ve written about for this website. Although I appreciate that anyone who reads this blog has wandered far enough down the left hand musical path to worship at a broad church (even you Satanists out there), a bit of focus is still important. I think what’s made me put crayon to paper is that I’ve been listening to it a couple of times a day, most days, over the last fortnight, and now I feel the need to spread the word.

While there is a lot to be said for slow–burning albums or songs that take a while to work their magic, I think the ones that come out their corners swinging end up being my favourites, and Grit is certainly one of the latter. Full of belting dance beats, electronica and flowing Scottish folk melodies, Bennett had already combined these two disparate worlds throughout his career, but on his final album Grit, too weak from cancer to play his instruments, he utilised samples far more heavily, creating a full–blooded record which melded these styles without compromise.

Bringing together a sound usually associated with the older world of remote Scotland and a sound considered to be futuristic and the trademark of an urbanised world, nearly everyone I have raved about this album to has raised an eyebrow; I suppose it comes across as a dubious mix, and maybe bagpipes are the Marmite of the instrument world (although by no means are they the only traditional instrument used on Grit) but really the right word for such a mix is innovative.

On paper (well, screen) this might sound like a formula bound to go stale; although folk music may age far more slowly than most genres of Western music due to a wide–spread understanding of its ties to the past, Bennett himself said that dance evolves almost too quickly to keep up with; listening to some ‘90s dance, or watching Trainspotting, confirms as much. An album based on a novelty, made and released 12 years ago, would probably sound dated from first listen today. To my ears, Grit could be a recently completed album, and it still sounds fresh after dozens of listens.

The most upbeat tracks are, unsurprisingly, the ones with the strongest dance influence; Move, Chanter, Nae Regrets and Ale House all start with a sound associated with folk, whether an acoustic guitar, bagpipes or crackly old singing, quickly elevating into explosive beats. Rant reverses this formula, starting with a jumping beat and choppy vocals before aged vocals and a fiddle enter. It’s not just bagpipes slapped on top of a four on the floor beat, although this is done to great effect on Chanter. The pace pushes and pulls throughout, with room for both elements to breathe and play their part. With its gin–clear vocal intro followed by a soaring string section and a thumping beat, Blackbird is a king of the valley song, with the wind whistling and the sun beaming all over the hills. Although Bennett was a prodigious piper (aged 19 here), he was clearly also a broad–minded musician with great song–writing abilities, mixing in bits of Arabic music and piano, as well as several spoken word sections derived from Celtic tradition. Storyteller is the most experimental track in some ways, comprised of a long spoken word story with Arabic chanting in the background, whilst Wedding serves as a kind of mid–album breather, led by some scratchy spoken word, tinkling improvised piano and gentle cello.

I don’t know if Bennett had decided to stop his treatment for cancer by the time he wrote the last track Mackay’s Memoirs, but I do know that he died only 15 months after the completion of Grit, and this lends its mellow nature an added poignancy, especially given his death at the age of 33. After building up into the aural equivalent of a rousing charge, it suddenly cuts, then steps back in with a solitary bagpipe. I like to hear this as a metaphor for the evolution of folk music, conjuring the image of a solitary piper wandering the hills. The bittersweet nature of this album, which Bennett described in the footnotes as ‘my story about triumph in the face of struggle’, is heightened by the closing quote of Verse 6 of Psalm 121 over the cries of seagulls

The Lord is the shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night.

I came to know of Bennett’s existence over ten years after his death, and I’ve never met anyone who knew him, yet when I found out he was dead, my heart sank. One of his remarks I’ve come across a couple of times is ‘It’s not how long you live, it’s what you do with the time you’ve got’. So, for what it’s worth, I think it’s been worth my time to try to write about Grit, and listen to it a lot more in the process of doing so. I hope that whoever reads this will do so too.

A short but excellent documentary on the making of Grit can be found here.

The history of the music and of the samples used can also be found at Bennett’s website and at Real World Records, the music label which released Grit.

Bolding Grit

Photo credited to Steve Bolding

  The old and the new.