For how often Wolves in the Throne Room have flirted with the notion of being a black metal crossover act, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the material the group has put together over the past seven years. That’s not meant to be a dissatisfied criticism so much as one of the musings that came to mind as a result of listening to their incredible fourth record, Celestial Lineage, which arrives in 2011 as the third in a trilogy of albums released on indie-friendly avant metal label Southern Lord. As a part of a self-described trilogy, Celestial Lineage seems to conclude the motifs and themes that began on 2007’s excellent Two Hunters, and as such seems to finally solidify a sound the group has been chasing for four years.
That Celestial Lineage is such a revelation is made all the more so by how seemingly incremental WiTTR’s evolution has been since ’07. Vocal collaborator Jessika Kenney who made a memorable and show-stealing appearance on Two Hunters standout, “Cleansing,” opens Celestial Lineage on “Thuja Magus Imperium” with orchestral synth and tinkling bell accompaniment to create the same battle-worn medieval atmosphere. But when the cascade of distorted tremolo picking, sixteenth note drumming, and demonic growling invades the regretfully still landscape it feels like a logical extension of the track’s introduction rather than a rattled shift in the proceedings as the former song did. The more things change, the more they stay the same, etc.
Wolves in the Throne Room have always been indebted to post-rock’s emphasis on atmosphere as well as its instrumental tendencies toward the grandiose, lengthy, and orchestral, often times using the grandiosity of orchestration in place of varied and sophisticated songwriting. In that regard, WiTTR have simply become a markedly superior band, making good on post-rock’s imaginative and sizable potential with deeply affecting guitar melodies that match the size and intensity of the landscapes the group has always strove to create. There’s a more confident sense of direction within these songs, which stampede and ebb and march and explode more frequently across seven minutes than they ever did in eighteen. Atmospherically, there’s a fuller and more musical sense of ambiance, filling the blackness with woozily ascendant synthesizers and harshly percussive field recordings. The group manage to color the gigantic arrangements with a broader emotional pallet that tends equally to loss and religiosity. These disparate elements have always been an apparent and an inherent part of WiTTR, but here it finally feels like they’ve been fused seamlessly together across all fifty-minutes for a more immediate and varied listen.
For all of black metal’s postulation as a musical extreme and even with bands out there like Liturgy just as willing to tell as they are to show what the heights of the genre can be, on Celestial Lineage, Wolves in the Throne Room sound like they’ve stumbled across sonic territory that manages to make good on these aspirations (although, the Weaver brothers have always tried to distance themselves from typical black metal). WiTTR still have their own pretensions, which seem to fall in line with the less musically relevant and the more philosophical and political. Specifically, their pro-ecological vision seems intrinsically, if esoterically, tied to black metal. With Celestial Lineage I can’t quite make the claim that it manages to deliver on the ponderous and lyrical front, but it does manage to transcend “extreme” and “metal” as a handhold from which to cling to.
Overt musical brutality and intensity is less of a priority without losing any notion of power that come with these compositions. It’s really not a stretch to call Celestial Lineage lush or pretty even as its violently careening toward earth. “Subterranean Initiation” has moments where it leaves its charging downhill drumming and whole-note riffage behind as massive walls of melodic synths and guitars rise from beneath to consume the atmosphere. It has a massively naturalistic physicality that’s rarely identifiable as part of the group’s normal instrumental arsenal. It’s especially impactful at the finale of the track where a void of longing and defeat opens for vocalist Nathan Weaver to uninhibitedly shriek into. It’s not the only moment where WiTTR exceed the sum of their parts and manage to rip the lid off a place of transcendence they’ve been clambering for their entire lifespan. “Thuja Magus Imperium,” “Astral Blood,” and “Prayer of Transmation” all find stretches of blinding melodic hugeness that ring effortless and graceful as if WiTTR were already well worn to this kind of thing.
Then there are the more understated too-good-to-just-be-interlude interlude tracks. “Permanent Changes in Consciousness” settles into to what sounds like a broadsword being sharpened on a whetstone while a blackened wind drifts by carrying a mournful droning chorus of baritones and a foreboding drum of war. “Woodland Cathedral” sees the return of Kenney with a shimmering outstretched vocal over blustering guitars and funeral dirge percussion like some lament to souls long ago defeated. Between the lengthier workouts the group manage to fill in gaps of the sprawling organically overgrown imagistic canvas. With Celestial Lineage Wolves in the Throne Room have managed to craft a seamless and moving record as well as exceed the potential they’d previously left unfulfilled.