A soul-searching journey with the greatest Cascadian treasure of extreme sound.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
Dawn comes to Portland, and I awaken to a pale grey sky, gently misting, but not pouring. It's time to get up, and walk my trail to the Thompson Elk statue.
It's a journey that will take me two miles there, and back again, but it's worth it. I've come to the PNW in the bitter cold of January 2020 to pay tribute to The Mantle, my favorite album by legendary locals, Agalloch, in the hope that I'll find some spiritual clarity as I navigate the town where they wrote it. I'll pay in sweat, and misery, and as my fingers freeze in the relentless cold, the task of finding the locations from the booklet of the album is on my mind. The architecture, the statues, ans the iconic animal that adorns its cover will eventually find themselves before my lens, an instant exposure, my proof of discovery.
In doing so, I've tethered myself to the soundtrack I will follow on my phone. Directionally challenged by my trek on foot, I force myself to find some spiritual connection from my surroundings, to the music in my ears. It's not difficult. From the moment the timpani booms in the first second of A Celebration For the Death of Man, I'm entirely immersed in my Cascadian concrete. The smell of fresh donuts, the sounds of a busy market street crowding on a Sunday morning, and the constant buzzing of cyclists forces me to glance around me frequently. I'm mesmerized as acoustics laying the familiar melodic rhythm strum evenly in my background.
The city streets are relatively clear when I make it to the furthest Eastern point of Old Town. It's a quiet corner, that aligns new buildings among old architecture, red brick parallel to stone archways. In attempting to avoid the scaffolding that is an eyesore against Ankeny Plaza's pale pillars and their rust colored cornices, I am driven to bend the rules a little as a I climb over and under metal bars, leaning far along them to skew my photo as close to what I know as possible. In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion has begun its 2:11 onset of vocals for the first verse and chills have shot up my arm. It's a whispered growl, and though it's cold, my goosebumps are atmospheric. I'm standing in close proximity to both the Ankeny Arches with my back to the Skidmore Fountain — its protective arms standing with head bowed, a saucer balanced perilously over its tall form on two sides. With a backdrop of red clay and bone-hued pillars, I snap my shots and reflect momentarily on my surroundings.
These are the timeless images I've stared at in admiration for years. Though more recent buildings have sprung up amidst this old pocket of Portland, it's still unquestionably powerful and possesses an air of solemn asymmetry. I trudge on, the drum cadence of the second verse giving way to a chime, and a slow methodical three-note cycle that catches me as the wind off the Willamette whips angrily across my cheeks.
Bold plucking comes off serene and melancholic as I round the corner to the river, small pockets of morning joggers zipping past me at speeds I don't approach. The lyrics clearly state, "I walked down to a river, and sat in reflection of what had to be done." I do just that. Coming to a rest at my next station, I read the tablet that states with brevity its memorial message to those who suffered in captivity.
‘Black smoke rolls
Across the blue sky.
Winter chills our bones
This is Minidoka.’
It's a funeral march that bridges the final third of this song, and as I glance from the edges of the park, I can see with self-evidence that those who have fallen on hard times have clustered together beneath the bridges. It's a strange cousin to the captivity laid out in horror on these stones, but its victims are just as hidden. Our country's shame as it buries its problems just out of sight are on my mind, and though a whimsical solo takes an upper register exit to the final chorus, I leave the water's edge at head deeper into downtown.
Whether it's the imposing wind bouncing off my earbuds, or simply the thundering static intro of Odal, I'm drawn deeper through towers of stone and glass while a thrumming bass hums far in the distance. Its twinkling brother scales up and down in the foreground, all while more snares kick in step, a parade of one. A deep drum booms as I turn on to Broadway Ave., stray droplets catching me in the face as I take the next corner.
On my left, I come across the United States National Bank, its intricately designed support columns in round, and angular shapes lending a rather Grecian-Corinthian front door to a city where inspiration is taken from every civilization with gratitude and painstaking detail. A few drum kicks signal the end of this instrumental interlude, and as I lean into the first pillar on my left, I can see the barcode in the bottom left hand corner, and a spine that reads, "we are the wounds." They are words tied to an image, and this one in particular, they belong to.
Strewn about the city are various structures about half the size of a human, sporting green arms with golden saucers atop their limbs, a spout of water ever churning up and out of them. They are the ‘Benson Bubblers,’ a visual cue that water is for all who seek it. Though I find myself not thirsty, I shove a camera up close as tremolo picking from I Am the Wooden Doors zigzags in my head. It's the heaviest song of the album, which isn't to say the album lacks any apparent teeth. The album is a story told at the end of the Anthropocene, when the Earth takes hold once more and the winter comes mercilessly clawing at a civilized culture on the brink of collapse.
Three quick thrusts upon the strings are abruptly tailed by the percussive crack of a deer skull, the endless hand drawing up and down the body of the guitar to make a warm, and welcoming tone that is kept in pace by its bleached, sightless friend whose noises can be heard, even beyond its own demise.
I tread over old cobblestones and red brick that has weathered well. A wrought-iron fence shields a large building from its neighbor, a large marketplace with stadium seating in the heart of the city. The smell of food, coffee, and fresh bread emanate outwards into the town square, drawing in anyone fortunate to walk by as the scent of morning commerce entices them inside for a respite, and a mouth-watering start to their day. Having made my entrance, I exit quickly towards the old brick building dubbed the ‘Pioneer Courthouse’, as I keep to its Southern sidewalk. My next objective is close at-hand as a choral-pedal triplet intro begins for You Were But a Ghost in My Arms.
Laid out intermittently are several animal statuettes, all faded metals that have been moved, as well as their structural constitution tested over many winters. The tink-tink of cymbals taking a peppering fill my ears and I crouch to catch an eyeful of the face of the compact disc itself, the Otters from Animals in Pools — a piece of many laid out in bronze, by George Gerber. They were a gift to the city during their Light Rail construction era, but to me, they're a gift of visual aid to tell me when my music is close at-hand.
A riff chugs along with a choral two-step jaunting alongside, leading me to another drum cadence that takes up the halfway point of the track. Graffiti dots the concrete troughs, uneven and appalling in the measure of artwork that blankets this city street, but it does nothing to dampen my spirit. As the track builds to its conclusion, and the familiar triplets take over once more, the chimes sound and I sling my camera back into my bag as I chase a series of train cars East, back towards the river, and my final destination.
Larger drops of water begin tumbling over me; they come swiftly, without warning, and though I pull my umbrella to shield myself from both the damp, and the cold, I'm too excited to seek shelter. A deep reverberation sings behind an acoustic hook, the perfect hiking song for a long walk with much to think upon. It's The Hawthorne Passage, and as I pass down 6th Avenue, the puddles begin to form around my feet, a slick blues solo filling my senses with apprehension.
Those around me don't make eye contact. They seldom do. Those who live here keep their eyes low and their pace quick, often appearing lost within themselves. The lights hanging far over the lanes of traffic turn an oppressive bright green as I make my way to the corner of a park, it's tall trees stripped of their canopy, only naked bark and the jagged points of limbs caught in their temporary death.
Cars stream past in rows, all slowing as they enter the park —a beacon catching every eye as they pass — its presence notably unignored by all who wish to enter or exit. It's an unavoidable structure of tapered antlers and unmistakable Wapiti form.
With a craned neck, a thick coat, and an oversized scarf that drapes about its shoulders and down towards the pavement, the Thompson Elk statue stands triumphant over the gateway to the Hawthorne Bridge. I stop from a distance, realizing the prize I've stumbled upon, but the album has reached its climax along with my trip.
White lines on asphalt are the only barrier between traffic and myself, but I chance it for the opportunity. Between lights at the previous intersection, I begin to take photos from every angle of the fountain, the Elk itself, and its profile against the sky. I need the shot, and as the hard sliding of a hand against nylon heralds in the German voice of Max Von Sydow, I sit down on the sidewalk, a cluster of instant film in my hand, a drizzle coating my face, and the flushing of my cheeks.
Years ago, I vowed to visit this place, to hear the ‘Cascadian ode to joy’ (7:49) that the bridge of the seventh track represents to me, and a feeling of a failure I thought I'd never escape. I'm in the shadow of the face of The Mantle, over two-thousand miles from home, and I finally get it. Leaning into the chain-bound Stanchions that line the edges of Lownsdale Square and adjacent Chapman Square, I sink into its gravity.
I finish off the album with an uninterrupted playthrough of ...And the Great Cold Death of the Earth. It's the end of the journey, one meant to bring about the fulfillment of coming full circle, dust to dust, and though the ordeal has consumed my legs, and my exhaustion from the anticipation has set in, as I pack my camera away for the journey back to my hotel, I save A Desolation Song for the warmth of a fire, and the dry conditions of a lounge at ground level, with a drink in my hand. It's my epilogue, a bit of reflection to bask in after the Contrabass has faded and the Cherokee tale of Creation has ended.
One may ask: Why Jake, would you travel that far, to a city you've never been, just to cosplay the sightseeing of rather unremarkable things while listening to one album as your score?
The Mantle is a brave album. Throughout this retrospective, I've purposefully avoided using my copious arsenal of descriptors that I carry with me, and the frame of reference goes out the window entirely. Though I've heard Agalloch's masterpiece thousands of times from cover to cover, the idea of immersing oneself in the scenery, the atmosphere, the soundscapes that have seldom changed, and the souls who thrive in a bleak environment in the dead of January remind me what the 2002 album stood for. In an age of trite, safe, unremarkable groups that over-produced the same kind of modern music for a modern audience, John Haughm, Don Anderson, and Jason William Walton took a hard stance against the regurgitation of sound.
With an unorthodox percussion section, a slew of improvised sound tangents, a collection of timeless samples that speak to singular events, works of art, and ambient passages that are about specific time and place, they guided the world of extreme music onto a plateau that claimed that anything could belong in the sphere of influence, with a laser focus for something new, yet liminal in its presence.
There is a feeling of profound nostalgia tucked away betwixt those tracks. Comforting acoustics, endless bass echoes, the bird song of the choral melodies, a gentle ripple of snare, cymbal, and skull that show little concern for beginnings or endings all take a center stage for a jam session in the house of nature, an activity I've engaged in dozens of times now. Images that have become soulbound by experimental sections take the mind on a journey through its own fragility and limited existence. In a world once unnamed and untamed, standing tall among skyscrapers and trees, is a lone Elk, innocuous and ornamental in its form. On its own, it makes a wonderful decoration;
Through the sound of The Mantle, however — it, and the city it resides in, spring to life. Whether through Fimbulwinter conditions or grey on green landscapes, it's an album that takes fearless strides down untrodden paths through a genre that is built on creative weirdos distorting the traditional tone. Skating carefully around a pre-ordained soundscape, The Mantle is still as thoughtfully adjacent to its own musical domain as it was twenty years ago, and though it sways through gentler passages than its louder brethren, its soul is wild, its creation was cultured, and its influence is strong in the successors that have emerged since its inception. Caught between labels and between genres, these nine tracks represent the sound evolution of renaissance men who tried to get lost and became pioneers.
This is where they chose to tread.
...and stay tuned for part two, only at Heaviest of Art.