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.