"The Mantle" is a fine masterpiece of Folk Metal.
Agalloch are one of those "progressive" metal bands that are sort of essential in any fan of the genre's library, even though they aren't a progressive metal band. "The Mantle" is the essential Agalloch album, the masterpiece of the band, for many people. I tend to believe it's only a tad better than the also wonderful "Ashes Against The Grain", but this last one doesn't have the importance of "The Mantle", historical and personal.
For whoever isn't familiar with the Folk Metal tag, this album is exactly what Folk Metal is: a mix between harsh metal riffs, Black Metal shrieking alternated with clean vocals, and folk elements, that in this case is the acoustic guitar, which is very much present. The production and sound of the album is a little muddy at times, especially in the drums and some guitars, but you obviously assume it was intentional, and it probably was. But in the end, it doesn't matter at all, because the songwriting is always excellent. Agalloch are band that likes it simple, the melodies are not too intricate and the musicianship is not at all virtuous. The structure of their lengthy pieces however is much more complex, and definitely gives a pretty strong progressive tone to the music. The acoustic guitars are the clue element for the album's sound, as they are the main thing for a lot of the songs: the electric guitar and the heavy riffs are simply giving aggression as a rich addiction to the nucleus.
However, Agalloch are like many Black Metal bands: it's not about being progressive, it's about being atmospheric. They point at atmosphere constantly, but that still isn't what this band is all about. Agalloch want to depress, they want to be extremely emotional in their music, and succeed in a way that only a few bands were able to. Every single note is extremely evocative, depressing, but also extremely beautiful and haunting. This is a band who wants to give it's audience the beauty and melancholy of bleak nature, they want to truly evoke a snowy landscape in the middle of a cold, but completely white forest,gazing at the nature in absolute silence, with such a heavy weight in the heart, that you would come to a point where you question your own existence, which, compared to such beauty, is nothing.
The structure of the album is solid, but very rigid and precise: there is a precise alternation between instrumentals and sung songs.Starting with the sung ones, "In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion" in it's epic fourteen minutes in length, is certainly the most evocative of all Agalloch songs, and absolute masterpiece that moves in a way that I never thought was possible. "You Were But A Ghost In My Arms" is another long, but still beautiful song, noticeably more aggressive and somewhat less depressing, but almost just as good and haunting.The half ballad "And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth" is another magically beatiful highlight, easily the most emotional and touching of all songs here. Among the instrumentals, we still have great, evocative moments: "The Lodge", with it's constant, strange sample echoing through the entire song, has become a classic for the band, and the epic eleven minute "The Hawthorne Passage" is a heavily progressive influenced piece, not because of the music itself but because of it's flow and different themes. The last song of the album breaks the rule of the alternation, and is a whispered song, "A Desolation Song", which is definitely the song that I liked the least, it never does anything to me.
"The Mantle" is the essential winter album, the essential Agalloch album, the essential Folk Metal album. This album under many points of view can be considered important, not really for being innovative, but for being extremely passionate.