The nature writer Robert McFarlane isn’t someone you might expect to see quoted in an extreme metal review, but when I read the line “those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion” in his book Mountains of the Mind I was instantly put in mind of black metal’s long running fascination with rocky outcrops.
From Ulver’s Bergtatt released in the early days of the genre’s second wave to Panopticon’s more recent love letters to the Appalachians, black metal has long felt an attraction to the bleakness and mystery inherent in inaccessible peaks and forlorn, isolated valleys. There is even an entire subgenre of bands whose sound is specifically associated with the Cascade mountain range (and its associated bioregion) in the pacific north-west of America. While ‘Cascadian black metal’ may seem niche even by black metal’s standards, it has produced one of the genre’s biggest names of the last two decades, the mighty Wolves in the Throne Room.
Formed in Olympia, Washington by Aaron and Nathan Weaver in 2003, Wolves in the Throne Room have been one of the trailblazers of the USBM scene ever since. Whether it’s Crafting their atmospheric, long-form Cascadian sound on albums like Diadem of 12 Stars and Two Hunters, branching into more death-like territory on Black Cascade (see what they did there) or even giving Tangerine Dream a run for their money on the ambient synth album Celestite, the band have always been a beacon of creativity. All of which leads to some pretty large expectations for their 7th studio album, Primordial Arcana.
The good news for longtime Wolves… fans is that their latest effort does not disappoint. Feeling like a natural progression from their 2017 effort Thrice Woven , Primordial Arcana may be the band’s most accessible piece of work yet. One reason for that is the more concise style of song writing on this album. While previously the band have tended to favour lengthier compositions, usually around the 10-minute mark, 5 of this record’s 7 songs are coming under 8 minutes, leading to an urgency in the music.
Opener ‘Mountain Magick’ is as powerful opening statement as you could ask for, with blistering black metal riffage complimented by melodic leads and a lilting synth line. The eerie ‘Spirit of Lightning’ swerves into a more melodic direction incorporating elements of folk, goth and doom-death, while ‘Through Eternal Fields’ sports some classic rock indebted guitar work. One thing that strikes you about this opening salvo of songs is just how infernally catchy they all are, the band’s refined approach to song writing really paying off.
That’s not to say Wolves… are now purely in the business of radio friendly (or at least the extreme metal equivalent) rockers. ‘Underworld Aurora’ see’s the band combining their new age/synth influences with Nemesis Divina era Satyricon, while the roiling epic ‘Masters of Rain and Storm’ gives us a taste of the classic Cascadian sound that only Wolves in the Throne Room can deliver. The brief synth outro ‘Eostre’ (named after a pagan goddess of spring) brings things to a surprisingly tranquil close, with the storm having passed the mountains at peace again.
Even after nearly 20 years Wolves in the Throne Room continue to deliver music of a quality many younger acts can only aspire to. While others languish in the foothills they are at the summit.
Primordial Arcana is out now via Relapse Records and can be ordered here.
Words: Dan Cadwallader