Wolves in the Throne Room
12/27/2012 - Review by: Etiam
Now nearly a decade into their career, Wolves in The Throne Room can no longer be considered newcomers, tyros, or upstarts of any kind, despite lingering skepticism amongst the American old guard. Their acronymic abbreviation, WITTR, is perhaps second only to BTBAM in ubiquity within American circles, and 'Celestial Lineage', their fourth LP, has the depth, patience, and hairy atmosphere of a veteran ensemble to prove it.
On this record, more so than any before, WITTR are able to achieve a sense of regal, sprawling majesty without striving for it too obviously. Their breakout sophomore record 'Two Hunters' was transformative for American black metal and occasionally genius, but it smacked of a manufactured naturalism that is absent on 'Celestial Lineage'. Here, the atmosphere seems to flow effortlessly. Opener 'Thuja Magus Imperium' is a cavernous mid-tempo stomp through waves of tone-setting keyboards, percussion more 80s soundtrack than norsecore, fuzzy rhythm guitars so reverbed we can hardly hear a pick attack, barely contained wails of distorted leads, and a growing sonic density that, after nearly 12 minutes, wash out like the tide. It's as much a mission statement as a song, and the entire rest of the record strives to keep up to its standard.
This album also develops functional ambiance more successfully than in the past, and, despite having the most tracks of any WITTR LP to date, is still no longer than their average of not-quite-50 minutes. Instead of smashing ceremonial and tempestuous episodes all together, the natural peaks and troughs are articulated and named. Honestly, this is hardly a feat to celebrate, but given how many artists in this style throw out 20-minute tracks that really ought to be three, it's encouraging to see WITTR bucking the trend they themselves helped start (or revive). After one such interlude in 'Permanent Changes...', the tempo picks back up with 'Subterranean Initiation', where another point of progress becomes clear: Aaron Weaver's percussion. Although songwriting is naturally the biggest contributor to WITTR's new atmosphere, Aaron's playing is considerably more nuanced than in the past (and certainly better produced). Fewer passages are pure blasts or stereotypical doom marches with snare hits on three; instead, Aaron varies his beats more deliberately in response to the momentum of Nathan's bristling guitar soundscapes, and the cymbals are smashed like ceremonial gongs instead of hissy metronomes.
Jessika Kenney returns on this record after an absence on 'Black Cascade', again supplying ritualistic clean vocals during reflective interludes. But her role is more pronounced and a little bolder this time around: instead of playing the ethereal woodland nymph, here she is more eerie than soothing. For instance, after swaying delicately for the most of 'Woodland Cathedral' over a sea of Vangelis-style keyboards, a dissonant harmony punctuates our reverie and focuses our energies for the long voyage of 'Astral Blood', which grooves heavily on double bass and broadly strummed minor chords reminiscent of the mid-aughts Quebecois scene (Forteresse, Gris (nee Niflheim)). Its end is relatively unfocused, though, and closer 'Prayer of Transformation' is an even longer, wandering in circles through downtempo doldrums.
And so it seems that WITTR are still sampling broadly from their influences, yet also still packaging them in such a way as to be fresh and appealing, particularly to those who wouldn't seek out the 'Blade Runner' soundtrack and have never heard of the aforementioned Canucks, or the millennial American wave that paved the way for WITTR's existence. For it was after borrowing heavily from the still-underrated Weakling (whose 'Dead as Dreams' remains the Bible for West Coast atmospheric black metal) that WITTR spearheaded the States' new wave of commune-dwelling vegetarian copycats. They are thus partially responsible for the preeminence of the somewhat-silly 'Cascadian' denomination, which threatens to undermine the entire validity of the movement's origins, when the purity of the music was more important than its packaging (literally and figuratively).
But for all WITTR's baggage, 'Celestial Lineage' marks an undeniable progress within their ouevre. By creating a broader sense of space and expansion, instead of purely dirt-dwelling atavism, it expands their horizons--maybe also ours. And none too soon. Economy still isn't WITTR's strong suit, and the flagging end of the record diminishes its impact somewhat, but 'Celestial Lineage' altogether reaffirms the band's eminent status within the genre and explains why virtually entire bands will take the stage wearing WITTR shirts (looking at you, Abigail Williams), WITTR beards, and WITTR flannel. Indeed, for a band so staunchly anti-consumer, WITTR has created a successful brand and marketed it doggedly. So far, their products are still worth the sticker price.
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