[27 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What polarizes many in the metal community about Wolves in the Throne Room isn’t necessarily their music but the band’s message. Traditionally a stubbornly apolitical musical form, black metal’s preoccupation with nihilist, misanthropic, pagan, anti-Christian and Satanic themes made it abundantly clear activism was best left to the hardcore punk crowd, with most artists focusing more on arresting, poetic imagery in their often introspective lyrics. When Wolves in the Throne Room came along in 2006, however, the trio of bearded musicians from Olympia, Washington ruffled a few feathers with their fierce environmentalism, tales of living a self-sufficient life on a farm and shockingly Romantic idea one can use this extremely dark, melancholic style of music to achieve a sort of spiritual transcendence. For some who choose to adhere to the idea that sticking rigidly within the structure of a specific metal subgenre can in itself be a form of liberation, the notion of these hipster-looking fellas from a liberal arts college town trying to stretch the boundaries of black metal was a little too much to bear.
Once you get past the band’s rosy-hued views, though (an easy thing to do considering their screamed vocals are indecipherable, and their lyrics are never provided), the impact of the actual music is undeniable. Continuing right where underground legends Weakling left off on their first and only full-length Dead as Dreams, Wolves in the Throne Room’s sprawling Diadem of 12 Stars was epic, atmospheric and hallucinatory; its extended, swirling jams of blastbeats and wave after wave of distortion proved to be as emotionally wrenching as they were viscerally powerful, resulting in one of the finest debuts of 2006. Released a year and a half later, Two Hunters illustrates a much bolder step, emphasizing dreamlike atmospherics more than aggression, its soaring passages overwhelming listeners with its densely layered melodies, achieving a shoegaze-like majesty.
Interestingly enough, with brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver (on guitars and drums, respectively) seemingly setting their sights on taking black metal into more expansive territory on those first two records, it comes as a bit of a surprise their third full-length sees the band doing away with much of the psychedelic and folk-inspired elements and returning to the black metal that’s always been at the core of their music. And not only is Black Cascade a continuation of the band’s dominance in American black metal, but resounding proof that a band this talented doesn’t need much in the way of bells and whistles to achieve the kind of sound they strive for.
Comprised of four lengthy tracks ranging between ten and 15 minutes each, it’s an album that rewards patience, but that said, the blistering “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” storms out of the gate, the wall of noise hitting us like a cold wind. That trancelike quality that the brothers Weaver and second guitarist Will Lindsay excel at quickly surfaces, though, the melodies slowly, gradually ascending until its climax sees the trio locking into a mid-paced groove provided by Aaron Weaver, his beats reining in the furious tremolo picking that’s gone into overdrive. The warm, analog recording (the album was tracked using vintage equipment and two-inch tape) greatly enhances “Ahrimanic Trance”, as guitars meld with subtle keyboard melodies, while the brutality of “Ex Cathedra” gets suddenly interrupted by a beautiful, dark ambient piece that carries on for a tantalizing two minutes before returning to the extreme metal at hand.
The dynamic “Crystal Ammunition” rounds out Black Cascade in triumphant fashion, in which all facets of Wolves in the Throne Room’s oeuvre are used to superb effect, Nathan Weaver’s harsh screams underscored by mournful melodies that give way to the extended, hypnotic instrumental sections and contemplative acoustic passages the band excels at. Those who loved the inclusion of soothing female vocals on Diadem of 12 Stars and Two Hunters might initially find its absence on Black Cascade to be a hindrance, but by keeping their vision simpler and more direct this time around, the new album sounds the better for it. In fact, so powerful has their music become that when all’s said and done, we could care less about the band’s tree-hugging tendencies, what the lyrics are, or just what the hell that dude in the leggings is in the album’s elaborate artwork; we’re far too busy being awestruck by the music.