First off, let me reiterate. I have little technical knowledge of music, songwriting, song structure, or any of that. I hope to still write a review that does this record justice.
I'm not going to lie. I'm incredibly biased. I love this band. They are probably my favorite band playing music right now. I've loved every single one of their records. I won't front, and claim to have been following their recording career from the beginning. I began listening to them with 2007's Two Hunters. I've had a long and complicated relationship with metal. It was the first music that really appealed to me as a kid growing up in the 80's. In the 90's, when I got into punk it was the burnt out metal heads that were beating me up for being punk and queer. In punk, it was suddenly very uncool to like metal. I imagine a lot of folks older than me have similar experiences. But I digress, Wolves In the throne Room. Their music brings a sense of Eco-spirituality to black metal. I'm sure they aren't the first band to do this. Romania's Negura Bunget come immediately to mind, as does Portland, Oregon's Agalloch Even bands from the original wave of Norwegian Black Metal held nature in a certain amount of awe. There are countless promo photos of Immortal thrashing away at their instruments in the snowy forests of Norway. One could write an entire other blog on the goofiness of Immortal alone, but we'll save that for another time.
Another simple fact of the matter is, I don't often see myself reflected in the music I listen to. I'm a pagan anarchist homo. I don't want to listen to Burzum or Emperor. There is no place for people like me in the world that those folks inhabit. Quite literally, in fact with some of the members of Emperor. Again, I could go on and on about the shady right wing/racist/homophobic tendencies in black metal. I don't want to talk about that here. I want to talk about what I like, which is this band, and this record.
The first track, Thuja Magus Imperium, starts off with previous collaborator Jessika Kinney's clean vocals, and lyrical contributions, ambient keyboards, and sparse notes plucked on guitar, evoking a clean, grey, Northwestern dawn. The calm before the storm, if you will.
"Redness in the east beyond the mountain
The Wheel begins to turn anew
Turning ever towards the Sun
Garlands adorn a chariot, aflame
Blood runs from the flank of a wounded stag
Turning inwards, all beings bow low
Unconcealed she flies
Then hidden by snow
Eyes pale voice of night"
Around the two minute mark the song thunders into full gear, the opening riff perhaps setting the tone for the rest of the record. The song is pupunctuated by moody riffing, and Nathan Weaver's desperate, rage filled, sorrowful vocals. Around the midpoint the song slows to an ambient break, with more keys, clean vocals, and chimes. It then kicks back in, but keeps the tempo slower for the remainder of the song.
"This bright thread so pure
Drawn through everything that is
Enslaved by ancient bonds
Beyond the mists and golden light
Beyond the darkness transcending time"
The second track Permanent Changes In Consciousness is to me, one of the stand out tracks of the record. It's not metal in a traditional way at all. It starts out with melodic chanting (by Aaron Turner of Isis fame.), faint drumming, and sparse keys, and some other sound I can't quite make out. It sounds sort of like a primitive axe gently grinding. The song fades out with a field recording of waves crashing, and seagulls calling, and blends seamlessly into the next track, Subterranean Initiation. This song is all killer, no filler. Fans of raw black metal, will not be disappointed, unless of course you are the type to prefer your records sound like they were recorded in a frozen Norwegian garbage can. If that's the case, maybe this blog isn't for you. This song simply soars to celestial heights (or dives to subterranean depths, if you will) the keyboards and guitar work blend seamlessly together setting an atmosphere of urgent dread, of trying desperately to reclaim spiritual light, in a culture that does it's best to ceaselessly grind that spark out of you.
"A temple of wet earth
And rough stones erected in haste
Don this garment of wolf skin
Drink deep from the sacred mead
Bathe in this fire kindled with living wood
Torn from sacred trees"
The next track, Rainbow Illness, blends so seamlessly between the songs it is in between, and has such a strange name, I often forget about it. It's short, and ambient, and has some of the reverb effect that is often present between songs at Wolves In The Throne Room's live shows.
Next is Woodland Cathedral with more vocals and lyrics from Jessika Kinney. This song evokes wooded spiritual reclamation in all it's glory, an earth based spirituality based procession, with sparse, droning guitars, chanting vocals, and chimes, all with the backdrop of majestic keyboards. This song was showcased on NPR a few weeks before the album was released and Drummer Aaron Weaver had this to say:
"It totally is a pagan hymn, in our eyes. We had the vision of a mass or a ceremony, but one that reflects our own personal experiences and dreams rather than something handed down from antiquity. And, of course, it is filtered through a black-metal sensibility. We always try to have a certain element of decay and melancholy, even in a song like this. But I think that ecstatic darkness is a part of a lot of ancient music — it's not unique to metal."
Next is Astral Blood, in my opinion one of the crowning moments of this record. All the moody riffing, desperation, and atmosphere come to a head right here. It's as if this song is a massive prayer, an offering to the themes of destruction and creation that are so present in their music. This song evokes the utter destruction of the established order of things, and a rebirth of a more just, and primitive cosmos. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to listen to this song.
Closing the record is Prayer Of Transformation, the record's dénouement. It begins with ambient noise, and droning guitar work, sparse drumming, and builds up to a crescendo of crashing riffs, seamless drum work, and keys. The last three minutes of the song are mostly ambient noise, fading guitar chords, and the last few lines of the lyrics. Aaron Weaver's strained vocals sound even more haunting and desperate amongst this backdrop. This song, too is perfect, although not traditionally structured at all for a black metal song. It works though, it is a perfect closer to a wonderful record.
"Lay your corpse upon a nest of oak leaves
Wrapped in a star shroud repent your flesh
A shadow child dissolves
Meditate in a den of skins and straight poles
A sacred fire of madrone burns eternally
In a circle of turquoise and serpentine
Whisper the prayer of transformation
Engulfed by clouds of thujone
Emerge purified clad in a golden fleece
A vessel awaits built from owl feathers and moss"