Virtually anyone who came into contact with Wolves in the Throne Room's 2005 long-player, Diadem of 12 Stars on Vendlus, fell in love with it, and for good reason. This Olympia, WA, underground black metal trio had its own take on the music; sure, it had blastbeats, screeching vocals, and furious riffs, but there is so much more to it than that. Oh yeah, no corpse paint, either (though an occasional hooded robe is worn in caves around campfires). For starters, their title track was 20 minutes long, and it changed constantly, layered through with heavy atmospherics, dark bewitching gloomy soundscapes that evoked the sound of the rain in the foggy forests of their hometown. The entire record -- even with its furious speeds alternating with funereal dirges, gorgeously paranoid ghostly keyboard passages, and a female vocal or two -- still had more than enough howling, buzzing guitars, and distorted crunch drums amid the blazing bass throb. Most importantly, so sophisticated was their approach to this rather bleak and primitive art form that they sounded as if they'd been recording together for decades. Two Hunters, the band's debut for Southern Lord, follows the same blueprint in some ways, but furthers it exponentially. Like its predecessor, there are only four cuts over 46 minutes, ranging from six minutes to just under 20. Wolves in the Throne Room are actually composers who understand how to assemble a suite of music that maximizes dynamics, tensions, moods, and textures without ever surrendering the flip-out unglued vibe that makes black metal so special.
Packaged in a gorgeous gatefold CD case, the disc starts innocently enough with the processional "Dea Artio," where the guitar and bass take a back seat to keyboards and drums, but it's nothing more than a long intro, as the following cut, "Vastness and Sorrow," attests. Pummeled drums and a single-note droning bassline usher in the wall-of-sound guitar riffs that also usher in the screaming vocals that are down enough in the mix to become another instrument. It starts fast and gets faster -- almost blurry -- without ever once tossing you into the dark or alienating you with simple metallic pyrotechnics or clichés. There is very little -- if any -- use of digital effects in this music's outrageously large wall of sound. It's played with passion as well as menace, with an ear toward the sad beauty at the end of the world, even as it celebrates it misanthropically. One can be forgiven -- at least initially -- for thinking that the northern Europeans hold sway over this music. True, it did come first and was born out of a physical landscape that was daunting, with very little natural sunlight year round -- not unlike the one inhabited by these three lads. But in a sense that's where the similarity ends. The blackness in this music is not merely savage anger, but utter bewildered disillusionment, grief, sorrow, and regret. Its misanthropy argues against itself at every turn -- there is a split between substance and subject, between the insane atmospheres this trio weaves and the complex yet warm hunted seeking for a way inside without bowing to anything or anyone.
When Jessica Kinney (of Eyvind Kang and Asva fame) enters the frame by lending her utterly lonesome yet crystalline voice to "Cleansing," it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary onslaught of the demon hordes, but something truly, menacingly special in that it is so completely human and achingly, hideously beautiful. Kinney also helps out on the closer, the magnum opus of this set, "I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots." Here, as she winds her own voice in the aftermath of the pained shriek that is Wolves in the Throne Room's music at its most unhinged, it is obvious that this band knows and understands something about emotions as they are revealed in music: first, they come in waves; and second, if they are to be recognized, they need to be put forth unfettered, no matter what they are. They juxtapose paradoxes in this tune and in everything they've cut thus far, like putting shapes together and not caring if they don't quite add up to a (black) (w)hole. They leave whole areas of quick, taut riffage alone to let primal rhythmic intensity, acoustic flow, and the majesty of the blackness come through without a filter, which is why it is so seductive -- it's empathetic to the hidden, disappointed, and even vengeful place in the heart that everyone carries, torn and rent, among the thorns of life's experience. The music these kids make understands that every person is capable of great and generous love while at the same time harboring the potential for the most terrifying kind of violence and pure hatred. Wolves in the Throne Room just let it all into the picture without attempting to prop up one side or suppress another. As the sound of a lone bird calls into the void unanswered at the end of this record, it is obvious that this music is so black, it shines blinded by pure light (which is absent of light) without any props. To commit a kind of musical p.c. heresy, if Joy Division had appeared some 30 years later as a black metal band, they would be Wolves in the Throne Room.