Wolves in the Throne Room
(Southern Lord; 2009)
By Christopher Alexander | 27 April 2009
It rains a lot in Olympia. I mention this because it rains during the first few seconds of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Black Cascade too, and it’s grounds for a pause. Chet mentioned in his review of Two Hunters (2007) that the band makes an effort to tap into their surroundings when creating their art. They use the well worn tropes of black metal as kind of elemental signifiers, to the degree that the blast beats and shredding aren’t really dissimilar—harmonically, structurally, or in mood—to the ambient and diaphanous passages. But the sound of the local rain is the real sound of Olympia, those elemental influences actually on record. There’s a lot about Wolves in the Throne Room that sets them apart from more famous Olympia bands: their volume and choice of genre, of course, but also their adherence to exacting musicianship, their insistence on taking themselves seriously, a sense that professionals are at the controls. But I hear Olympia all over the place. The band’s militant environmentalism, while out of place in the genre and the subject of much comment in the press, isn’t as far outside the mainstream in Washington’s capital city as other cities, as is their desire to remain as far off the grid as possible. More than that, they posses a striking singularity within their idiom, surely a product of the town’s willingness to nurture the idiosyncratic and odd rather than the pedestrian. And, while WITTR have certainly put in the sweat to get to this mountaintop, there’s the bed of their convictions to consider. It’s almost as if the band’s very beliefs in the socially transformational power of those convictions automatically makes art of such emotional transformation. With results like Black Cascade, one has to wonder.
I went to college in Olympia when WITTR were finding their feet, and while they were always pretty good, they weren’t this good. This shouldn’t be taken for a slight, because few of their peers can make a record as startling as Two Hunters was. A vision of black metal for a post-shoegaze world, it had crescendos recalling Godspeed You Black Emperor, unsettling ambient passages alongside female vocalists, and the requisite out-of-mind metal screeching. On the prog scale it definitely skewed wood-nymph, but it also completely destroyed. The subtler elements have been trimmed a bit on Black Cascade; not necessarily erased, just more thoroughly worked into the band’s aesthetic so their appearance doesn’t bring as much attention to themselves. Where Two Hunters began with six minutes of ethereal noodling, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (a title cribbed from a German Romantic painting) wastes no time staking out Black Cascade‘s territory: tremolo picking, blast beats, and screeched vocals. This is where the band is in their element, especially when it gives way to a tense, modular middle section with synthesizer overdubs and half-time beats. In fact, the synth-padding that occurs throughout this track (and most of the album) should give the listener a big clue that Wolves are much more interested in the hypnotic, trance-like properties of black metal than anything else. (As if song titles like “Ahrimanic Trance” didn’t already give that away.) Even when the band rages full speed ahead, the overall effect is cinematic and expansive, rather than punishing and violent.
Black Cascade is a much more accurate picture of Wolves in the Throne Room live than the digressions and sides found on their previous record. Funny, then, that it takes so many overdubs to achieve it. Aaron Weaver admitted as much in his interview with Clay, and while I’m not sure if there are literally “hundreds” of guitars on “Ahrmanic Trance” or “Crystal Ammunition,” it’s not so hard to believe given those tracks’ constant states of surging drama. To the band’s credit, their vision is complimented and amplified by the studio effects; rather than burying the songs, they open them up, keeping the mood of the album wide open and panoramic. If anything, the band sounds more raw and less calculated for the guitar squibble from nowhere underneath “Trance,” what passes for a guitar solo in this metal band, or for the echo effects on its shoegaze-y coda. Ditto the indomitable wall of low E’s that start “Ammunition,” and their acoustic cousins which come in at the halfway mark. That insanely beautiful passage, replete of high diminished arpeggiated chords, might also be the scariest piece of music to ever crop up on a black metal album filled with inhuman shrieking and angel-of-death beating-of-wings style guitar shredding, like children telling you their nightmares as you try to go back to sleep.
Weaver averred when asked if he felt Black Cascade was the most successful distillation of Wolves in the Throne Room’s vision. “It’s just one side of us,” he said modestly. Don’t believe it, no one makes a record this spectacular by accident. The fact is that Black Cascade is half victory lap and half turf statement: it hones in on their strengths without sacrificing originality; it pays off magnificently on all the chances they’ve taken in the past; it is fucking brutal; and it is another high water mark in the band’s catalogue for the New Wave of American Metal.