Wolves in the Throne Room, an act resonating out of Olympia, Washington in the United States has been a unique and inspiring act to follow over the years. Since 2006 the Weaver brothers have been putting out powerful, emotive, sound-scapey black metal that both fits squarely into the genre of black metal while also being one of the most standout sounds of the last two decades (though apparently, the band does not like to identify as black metal themselves). The band has always shifted from album to album, sometimes almost imperceptibly, however, they never stick to the same formula or try the same trick twice.
While writing this review I found myself constantly deleting everything, listening to the discography again, and then sitting down to write once more. I did this because every time I tried to describe the band’s music, I could not find the words and felt I needed to do more research. I finally feel I can give their immense body of work a decent summary while also putting the old in context with the new. The band’s first two albums Diadem of 12 Stars (2006) and Two Hunters (2007) were so new in their time, a fresh blend of post-rock and black metal that incorporated beautifully clean, sonorous vocals in combination with the typical black metal barks and screams. The band has always incorporated synthesizers and this in part has given the band its psychedelic edge. These elements added together with expansive drones, doom-inspired tempos, heart-rending melodies, and lo-fi production had given us some of the most expressive metal music that we had ever heard at that time. The next album Black Cascade (2009) was a more raw black metal experience. Still lo-fi and somewhat spacious it was the most traditional of the albums the band had made at the time, using only guitar, drums, bass, and screamed vocals but was by no means a bad one.
We then get to the most obvious shift in sound, though not something I would call contrasting. Celestial Lineage (2011) has a higher fidelity and on this record the band starts to incorporate more ambient elements, and longer soundscapes. Some tracks are entirely synthesized. We hear ritualistic bells, chanting vocals combined with pulsing synths that decay slowly. Although the band has always had a naturalistic and mystical element to both their music and content this album exemplifies those traits the best of all the albums that came before. While I do have a penchant for lofi sounds I still love this album and it shows the growth of the band both on a production level and a compositional one. In 2014 they took an interesting turn with Celestite and produced an album made up entirely of synthesized sounds or otherwise ambient instrumental parts. At first this album caught me off guard and I wasn’t sure if I liked it but returning to it after many years, I found it to be an evocative work of ambient music and one that has been, and will be, listened to many times more.
This brings us to the 2017 release Thrice Woven which delves even further into the ambient space but in a slightly different way, adding more natural, folk elements to the music. The sound becomes warmer, more enveloping, and smoother on the ears. The album opens with beautiful harmonised acoustic guitar and instantly captures a sense of the magical, although it descends into blast beats quickly. Tonally all the instruments have a more palatable texture, following in the production footsteps of the last two albums. The album also includes beautiful, chanted vocals, spoken word, the sounds of fire and nature as well as all the hallmark blast beats and shredded riffs.
Now we are all caught up, time to talk about Primordial Arcana which came out more months ago than I care to mention. Well in summary, they have done it again. All in all it is a splendid record, but what sets it apart from the band’s previous work? Well let’s start with what is the same. It’s as vast and sorrowful as ever (see what I did there?), expansive, like being suspended in an endless pool of black water yet having no fear of drowning. Though something about this record feels colder than the previous few, oozing a bleak despair. While the last albums were dreamy or introduced warm folk elements, this album has seemingly gone the other way. The synth and samples also mimic this, the transition between track four and five the wind is audibly frigid while crows caw in the background, others bring rain and thunder. The synth sounds we hear would fit perfectly under a tab labelled ‘Winter’. Even the acoustic guitars sound icy compared to the ones on the previous album.
This is perfectly exhibited in the album’s opening track ‘Mountain Magick’. Pad-like synths resembling distant wind, crackling, water dropping, rumbling sub-bass, oscillating pitches as well as rattling sounds. The setup is ominous to say the least. Promptly we hear a striking of crash cymbals and toms. Distant tremolo picking comes to the forefront before a squealing pinched harmonic sends us tumbling into a blizzard of blast beats and shred. At 1:17 the feel changes, it becomes groovy, nostalgic guitar melodies support shrouded gurgling vocals. Nothing sticks too long in the full intro and at 1:41 we are hit with choked cymbal accents before returning to the first riff of the song though this time the drums shifting into double-kick patterns before launching back into the blast beats. We return to the groovier verse and after some more unintelligible screaming the song opens up, giving space for a fresh lead guitar melody, simple but lyrical, full of longing. Just before the three-minute mark the music evolves in a more dissonant, bridge-like section, still dominated by blast beats but now somehow drenched in even more misery and aggression. Just after 4:10 we return to one of the earlier parts but now stripped down, while thin, mysterious synths echo over the chugged rhythmic guitar parts. A more virtuosic solo follows, harmonized fiddly guitar licks seeping in from the background. We briefly return to the intro riff before the song ends abruptly. The last solo section was the part that resembled earlier Wolves in the Throne Room the most. One of the things that stood out as notably different were the short run-time of each song, the longest one only being ten minutes. Ten minutes is what I have come to expect as the average length of a WITTT track while some of them exceed twenty minutes. On this album most songs average at about five to six, half of what is usual for the band. This does lead to snappier, more form focused song writing which can be good or bad depending on your personal preference. I generally like longer, more expansive songs but the song writing being as engaging as it is, comes across as a refreshing evolution for this band rather than a detriment.
“Spirit Mountain” begins with the sound of plucked strings, most likely synthesized. The compound 6/8 time is apparent, giving the music a swung feel. The piece has a quintessential black metal quality to it, distant vocals, folksy lead guitar, open with a moderate tempo. At 1:40 the bass gets some airtime, we hear a muffled, walking part while guitars ring over it, drowning out most other sounds. The piece then shifts into melodic tremolo before once again devolving into frigid blasts. At the middle point of the song the tempo drops again and choir like synths wail and moan over the instruments. This is but a brief respite as the blasts return with a vengeance, building to a frenzied peak before the entire song comes to screeching halt and distortion fades to synths. The pizzicato strings sound from earlier return and the intro is repeated before slowly fading out leaving a lone synth that drifts off into the night air. Once again, the track is short (for this band) and features much more obvious repetition than previous albums but none of this is a bad thing.
Many of the ideas I have already laid out are carried across consistently across the rest of the album so to avoid repetition I will not break down each track in as much detail. This is not to say the tracks aren’t each good but rather that the album has a strong identity that carries across each track. The expansive, cold soundscapes and frantic brutality seem to be the pivot point that keeps the songs interesting, but also gives them a collective identity. The lack of clean vocals is interesting as this is a feature of the band that I had grown familiar with. I do miss them somewhat. Perhaps in creating this darker, colder piece of music more natural, human sounds had to be thrown out the window to enhance this quality.
To name a few last standout elements of the album. The introduction to ‘Aurora Underworld’ might be one of my favourite sections of the record, the sounds so piercing yet comforting. The ritualistic nature the music takes on when the drums and other percussive elements enter is entrancing. To my pleasure, this part also returns in the middle of the piece with extra layers introduced. ‘Masters of Rain and Storm’ emulates the quality of a raging, ocean. Beating and lashing at the environment like a callous, vindictive god. The song is the longest at the album clocking in at ten minutes but surprisingly not my favourite track of the album. The last track of the album is an obligatory ambient outro, important but nothing too different. There is also a bonus track included on the Spotify version of the album, ‘Skyclad Passage’ which is another ambient track, simple, dark, and beautiful.
Although the music is a slight departure from what the band usually does, I would not call the music particularly original in sound, but it is top notch black metal and thoroughly enjoyable. I always praised this band for evolving and changing and although shorter songs wouldn’t be what we call a ground-breaking decision, it is a big change for this band and they show how no matter the format, they excel at beautiful, evocative, textural song writing. Overall, I would not say this is my favourite WITTT album but as black metal albums goes it is in the higher percentile of ones I have heard released this year and would highly recommend checking it out.
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You can grab a digital copy of Primordial Arcana over on the Wolves in the Throne Room Bandcamp page as well as CDs, vinyl, tape, shirts and other such merch. You can also listen to it over on Spotify.