The mainstreaming of extreme metal’s darker strains has occurred through divergent means. Death metal has found embrace by the exploitation of its comic potential, from the sight of Jim Carrey boogying through a crowd at a Cannibal Corpse gig in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to the ongoing adventures of the animated Dethklok in Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse to nearly everything Brian Eschbach says in the Black Dahlia Murder’s Majesty documentary. The exaggerated violence of death metal was never something to take very seriously, and its marketing has increasingly trended towards the young men (and some women) who connect to the aggressive fantasies the music offers. It is not by accident that Cannibal Corpse’s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher goes on about World of Warcraft during interviews and onstage banter. This is a man who knows his audience. But comedy and teen “hot topics” aren’t such good vehicles for black metal — in its purest form, a grim subgenre fueled by despair. In recent years, the popularization of black metal has much to do with the appropriation of its musical and lyrical themes by other similarly solemn arts.
Critically acclaimed Sunn 0))) derives its none-more-black commitment directly from black metal artists, drawing Attila Csihar and Malefic into its fold and creating unrelentingly loud and despairing records. The band’s reach goes beyond music to include dark robes, amps stacked like the Tower of Babel, vocals recorded in caskets, and impeccable, often bleak art design, all of which contribute to its forceful identity. Less obviously connected to the black metal aesthetic, but using its thematic fixations to fantastic effect is a group like the Knife, whose paranoid pastorals on Silent Shout merge the black metal milieu with dance-pop. In the motion picture realm, director Lars von Trier’s latest provocation — an inverted Eden tale called Antichrist — is predicated at least in part on a theme of “Nature [as] Satan’s church”. Throughout these works, the influence of black metal is lateral rather than literal, but they open up to consumers that might not otherwise stomach the specific visceral assaults of pure black metal. In such non-black metal contexts, explorations of spiritual struggles find mainstream acceptance through comparative palatability.
These are the paths that have brought black metal to perhaps the most delicate, fickle and sensitive audience of all: fans of indie rock. John Darnielle might write about Marduk, but Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum, like Sunn 0))), intends to go deep into black metal, even if his variation isn’t quite as electric. On Wind’s Poem, Elverum explores man’s relationship to nature in a far more satisfying way than many black metal acts. In a 2005 interview with Chris Campion, Gorgoroth’s Gaahl — an Odinist — somewhat unintentionally revealed the self-defeating limitations of traditional (even foundational) black metal, saying “Black Metal was never meant to reach an audience … It was purely for our own satisfaction … The shared goal was to become the true Satan; the elite human.” Of his relationship to nature, he said, “Love of nature is a big part of Black Metal. It’s easy to feel isolated in nature. And solitude and distance from everyone else is very important to us.” On Wind’s Poem Elverum is certainly not trying to be come the true Satan or an elite human. More than anything, he is sharing his wonder of the natural world in an appropriately rustic manner. Significantly, his expression of awe is open to the subjective interpretation of any listener’s spiritual station. Each invocation of “Wind” — and there are many — could be an appeal to a celestial Being.
In comments between last year’s metal waters-testing Black Wooden Ceiling Opening and this album, Elverum referred to his black metal tastes in general terms, usually citing the feeling the music inspires rather than its technical or lyrical properties. The rawness and non-specificity of those remarks are reflected in the music, which fully aligns with black metal’s focus on nature as a physical force and site of solitude and spiritual inquiry, despite not always sounding recognizably “metal”. While Elverum’s interpretation of the genre is to evoke its feeling rather than mimic its techniques, he does not entirely forego traditional metal sounds. On thunderous opening track “Wind’s Dark Poem”, in which the instruments converge in a ruthless wail, he proves a worthy contender to Burzum’s Varg Vikernes. Also present in the track is one signature metal element that translates mostly unchanged — the blast beat. Elverum’s variation of this technique was previously hinted at on the Microphones’ “I Want to Be Cold” and perfected on Mount Eerie’s Black Wooden Ceiling Opening tracks like “Appetite” and “In Moonlight”, the latter of which is a splendidly concise run through nearly every sonic impulse of this period of the band.
The chaotic “Wind’s Dark Poem” does not provide a full sonic premise for this album, as the following song — slow lamentation “Through The Trees” — drowsily crosses over eleven minutes, developing much like a Slowdive or Spiritualized number. Multi-tracked vocals ride atop hypnotic drones and the heartbeat of a bass drum. A gong and/or malleted cymbals that are present throughout much of the mix, eventually take over, creating the sound of wind more soothing than the cacophony they build to at the end of the opening track. Both songs’ conclusions bring to mind the kind of sounds David Lynch uses to enhance shots of fire and other elements in his films. By track three (“My Heart is Not at Peace”), which features malleted cymbals throughout, it is clear that they are vital to the atmosphere of decay that permeates the album. Such decay, embellished here, has always been a hallmark of Elverum’s work. Notes that accompany promotional copies of the album indicate a theme of “erosion/mortality”, but the listener hardly needs to have it spelled out.
Musically, what impresses about Wind’s Poem are its sonic variety and freshness, even as the lyrics often stick to the corporal fears of Elverum’s prior catalog. Each song has a more or less distinct mode, which leads to a range of effective aural contrasts and interactions. When listened to in order, everything fits together quite well. The slow pace and cavernous spaces of “My Heart is Not at Peace” recall Earth’s Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method. Sometimes, the music completely overwhelms the singing, rendering the lyrics almost unintelligible. For instance, the distorted guitars of “The Hidden Stone” create a resolute harshness that might be gratuitous if the song didn’t eventually give way to the clarity of “Wind Speaks”, on which Elverum takes on the voice of the Wind. The dynamic between “Stone” and “Wind” that develops over the course of the album is similar to the Liars’ “Drum” and “Mt. Heart Attack” from Drum’s Not Dead.
As Wind’s Poem moves into its second half, it reveals more fully an association with mythology and/or epic poetry. On “Summons”, Elverum calls upon the wind in a way that someone might beseech God: “Come Wind / Destroyer of worlds / Speak to me / Show me shapes in the swirling dust / Come Wind / Sayer of Names / Speak to me / Make me listen into the night / Come Wind”. This incantation sets up a roaring response by the Wind on next song “The Mouth of Sky”, another of the album’s more traditional “metal” sounding numbers. The call-and-response of those two songs brings attention to the focus and organizational intelligence Elverum uses throughout this album, perhaps to a higher degree than any other single album in his career.
Another example of this command of design is “Between Two Mysteries”, which fully pays off the Lynchian touches from earlier on the album by sampling Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic love theme from Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Also, the dark place the album has explored through repetitive imagery up to this point is further identified with the lyrics, “The town rests in the valley between twin peaks / Buried in space”. This bigger picture of the environment allows the listener to better visualize the atmosphere that inspired Elverum (probably the singer’s Anacortes, Washington surroundings). On “Ancient Questions”, that atmosphere seems to have overwhelmed his spirit. Appropriately, the song uses a “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair” guitar sound to echo the lyrics’ nihilism: “No sacredness now / What I called the spirit world blows into dust like me…Nothing means nothing.” The singer has lost his faith in the Wind and fears that he has imagined its words. But a reversal happens, quite literally, when “Something” answers the revelation of nothingness. “Something” is all oscillating noise and torment (like Wolf Eyes’ “Stabbed in the Face” minus the screaming).
Following this low point of hopelessness and gloom, Wind’s Poem reaches a climax with “Lost Wisdom pt. 2”. Although the song begins with the thrashing dynamics of “Wind’s Dark Poem”, it reaches a beautiful, emotional conversion wherein Elverum begins to hear nature call his name once again. This seeming restoration of belief might not be lasting, but the singer (and the listener) is allowed a glimpse. “Lost Wisdom pt. 2” fulfills the album’s story, but elegiac final track “Stone’s Ode” is nothing short of astonishing in the way it synthesizes (aurally, lyrically, with regard to genre) everything Elverum has expressed on Wind’s Poem. Reprising most of the compositional styles of previous songs, Elverum finally goes directly to the black metal songbook and quotes the lyrics from Burzum’s spellbinding “Dunkelheit” in full. Some black metal fans might cry foul that Mount Eerie makes Burzum sound so hopeful and melodious, but that would be stubborn nonsense. And Elverum remains totally focused on the “album experience” as he revisits the ascending vocal melody from “Between Two Mysteries” to bring Wind’s Poem to a close.
In conclusion, the true achievement of Mount Eerie’s Wind’s Poem is the redemptive arc Elverum finds within the black metal context. Many will argue that Wind’s Poem is not a metal album at all. I say any piece of music that can make a late night drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike feel like a death march to Mordor must be doing something right. Besides, extreme metal has so many warring factions these days that it is nearly impossible to keep a proper running count of how many variations and subgenres allegedly exist. Is Wind’s Poem too melodic? Not blackened enough? Not adherent to any existing -core? However it eventually becomes classified, and even if it is ignored, Wind’s Poem is complete in a way that few albums are.