Thrice Woven by Wolves In The Throne RoomRelease date: September 22, 2017
Label: Artemisia Records
Six years after their last full black metal album, after what appeared to be something like retirement punctuated by some live and ambient releases, after some slightly unexpected but stunning European performances earlier in the year, Wolves in the Throne Room return. The most important band in American black metal return with a new record Thrice Woven, together with a just-announced European tour which includes six UK dates plus one in Ireland.
The record comprises four long tracks (eight-and-a-half to eleven-and-a-half minutes), in addition to a brief atmospheric interlude ‘Mother Owl, Father Ocean’, which features droplets of harp and ethereal vocal shards, like slowing revolving tiny glass prisms over a trailing earthy hum. The rest is, as hoped, spectacular, frothing, rattling, cold and wild black metal, thick with the thumping of paws through moss and leaves, distant stars and breath rising in the night air, wild and gripping.
The opening riff, in ‘Born from the Serpent’s Eye’ is a meeting of glorious fury and dangerous edge, which then opens up to more spacious repetition. There are tinkling interludes of glittering ice tones (honestly, the best word that springs to mind to describe it is ‘Celestite’), with vocal contribution from Anna von Hauswolff, before snowmelt turns to torrents of whitewater in the returning riff.
A foreboding rattle begins ‘Angrboda’ which has great twin guitars sparring, underpinned with juddering skitters on the drumkit which extract a great opening vocal “EEUHHRRRRRKKKKGHHH”, finely balanced intensity and note-perfect rendition of a now classic black metal growl-screech style. Again, this track has a extremely well-judged mix of slower sections, atmospheric harmonics, energetic pummelling percussion and faster jagged bursts of riffs, and the occasional weightless lurch into brief trance periods of luminous weird sharp clearness. The guttural screams are appropriately fierce, but not too overwhelming in the mix, so they feel like they come from proper midnight forest beings that could just as readily melt back into the undergrowth, never to be seen again.
‘Fires Roar in the Palace of the Moon’ has a great tension-building shuddering, shivering section, all heavy wind against the panels with a hint of weird outsider otherness beneath it all (is that a low zoing of a jew’s harp under there?). This presages the arrival of the screeching storm vocals which then spirit everything away into a rain-stamped clearing of creaking sombre waiting, until again a few curling distortion-branches
The cover artwork is interesting, displaying a sort of shelter building amidst dark forest surroundings and lit torches… is it a house or temple or abandoned mystery structure? Is it made of brick or dragon or gingerbread? Around it are four figures, and on a closer look the dark shadow in the centre is revealed as an enormous wild wolflike monster. The kneeling king evokes Tyr placing his right hand in the mouth of Fenris wolf, that he might be bound by the magical fetter, as (presumably) the wolf’s mother Angrboda, to whom a track on the album is dedicated, looks on.
Given I said that Wolves in the Throne Room are the most crucial contributors to American black metal, I can’t help thinking; what does it mean, in this particular historical moment, for there to be a specifically American black metal? Notable in this respect is the second track, ‘The Old Ones are With Us’. Rather than a Cthulhu-along that the title might suggest, the track starts with a kind of ritual marking of the turning seasons, with charmed ploughs, melting snow, veneration of the ancients and an evocation of a pastoral, rural way of life which marks the rhythm of the year and so on, as narrated by noted farmer Steve von Till. So far so typical metal pagan nature reverence. But an interesting departure from the Nordic black metal orthodoxy (and swords and sorcery in the throne room tv shows) is that winter is neither approaching, nor is it Narnia-like eternal. The opening lines to the song tell the other side of the seasonal tale: “Winter is dying / The sun is returning / Ice is receding / Rivers are flowing / The ground will be fertile / The seeds they awake / the ploughs will be charmed / the fires are burning / the offerings are given/the old ones are with us / We are becoming.”
Actually, if you were an idiot unaware of Wolves in the Throne Rooms anarchist deep-ecology politics, or just an idiot, then you might feel like this could be some kind of a hymn heralding a new golden dawn of some fucking awful human tendencies as represented in current US government administration. And fair enough, elsewhere in black metal there have been those who have wandered the path from nature myth and Romanticism, through an ‘against the modern world’ forest mysticism towards blood and soil ethnic nationalism. And it’s true that the runes and the names of the pagan gods and the sense of connection to the depth of the natural world have actually often been used in service of hateful political ideology rather than as venerable systems and worlds in themselves.
But what differentiates Wolves in the Throne Room’s music from much black metal, including some of the ossified icons of the second wave, particularly the rightwing ideologues, is that theirs is black metal without fear. (This insight appeared, instantaneously indisputable in my highly intoxicated brain, during their sage-burning, ritually furious set at the Roundhouse in London earlier this year). Many folks don’t want to associate music with ideas, political or otherwise; fine, but that doesn’t make you or the music apolitical. And so, if there’s ideology here, then it feels like an ideology that refuses fear too. Maybe with grit and filth and dirt and pain and suffering along with the wildness and fires and smoke in night air, and yes, maybe blood too. But without the fear that underpins bullshit hatred and division.
Being honest, there’s a lot of fear, horror, disgust in black metal, directed in all kinds of imaginative directions, not least towards the self. And there’s a lot of that which contributes to some astonishingly powerful music. But fear is not the foundation here. It still has the gnarled tree root around your neck feel of the grim old spirit of black metal (which is only 35 years old at most, if you count it from Venom’s album of that name… but you know, the imaginary ancientness…). It is still raging to the core, both austere and excessive, but it is not a desperate, fearful kind of fury. Like the cover image, dark and unusual, open to interpretation and hinting at esoteric readings, this feels like music that refuses to ostracise or attack the weak, and instead steps up to challenge the beast.