Review: Wolves in the Throne Room “Black Cascade”

More than any other sub genre of metal, black metal is the most free and expansive.

Unlike thrash, hardcore, goth and even much death metal, black metal can exist outside of all musical restraints. There’s no requirement that songs have verses or choruses. Song structure (at least in the form of repeated, recognizable riffs) is often cast aside, and the vocal style prevents fist-pumping singalongs at live concerts. While some black metal bands, namely Immortal, create very effective music while using traditional song structures, the genre itself doesn’t demand that creators stick to a set formula.

That freedom can be a blessing or a curse. In the wrong hands, the lack of musical boundaries can lead to meandering noise. The success of a black metal album depends on how the songwriter uses that freedom to achieve the music’s goal.

That was a big wind-up, but here’s the pitch: Washington State’s Wolves in the Throne Room, a band already experienced in pushing black metal into its ambient, trance-like extremes, have again left musical convention behind and created a masterpiece with “Black Cascade.” It’s an album full of fierce longing, sadness, dark anger and, in places, beauty and redemption.

blackcascade

Understanding “Black Cascade” requires a grasp of what WITTR is attempting to accomplish. In an interview with Noise Pollution, drummer Aaron Weaver said the band wants to help listeners reach a “transcendent” state outside of the everyday world. To paraphrase, Wolves is attempting to reach a state, through music, that shamans and prophets achieved through ritual, rite and physical scourging. Perhaps all music is escapism of a sort, but the goal here is a true escape – from the mediocrity and blandness of modern life and the sterile confines of culture.  The goal WITTR sets for itself is nothing less than spiritual reconnection with the primal forces of planet, nature and stars.

Whether or not you call bull on that statement will largely determine your appreciation, or lack thereof, for “Black Cascade.” If throwaway pop-metal is what you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it on this album.

The music is almost tribal on the surface: The shortest track, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” is over 10 and a half minutes long, and the rhythmic double-bass drumming creates a trance-like drone. The vocals and guitars are equally balanced in the mix, so vocalist Nathan Weaver’s voice becomes simply another instrument. The guitars are muffled in a layer of fuzz. Again, on the surface, the music creates a hum – or perhaps an “om” – but like a seemingly still black pond, currents are swirling underneath.

While form and melody aren’t necessary in black metal, the band does layer both into “Black Cascade.” Hints of musical themes recur throughout the disc, with familiar motifs reappearing throughout each of the four songs. Considering the connections, it’s best to approach “Black Cascade” not as four individual songs, but as one piece in four movements.

There’s also more than a taste of the psychedelic here, particularly on “Ahrimanic Trance” and “Crystal Ammunition.” That makes sense. After all, the true hippies (when hippy-dom was a movement rather than a fashion statement) were trying to “free their heads,” to misquote Jefferson Airplane. The shared transcendental goal makes psychedelia a natural musical influence on black metal.

Despite all the talk of melody and psychedelic influences, there’s no doubt “Black Cascade” is black metal. Nathan Weaver’s vocal are as sharp as shards of glass. While U.S. black metal stands on its own, WITTR seem to have the most direct ancestry to the early Norwegian bands, particularly “Filosofem” era Burzum.

There are some differences here, compared to the band’s previous work. “Black Cascade” is less melodic than the band’s last album, “Two Hunters.” The acoustic interludes and female vocals on “Two Hunters” are entirely missing here, so that lack of overt melody might put off listeners who gravitated more toward Wolves’ less caustic side. But, again, the melodies are here on “Black Cascade.” They simply require the listener to focus a little harder and dig deeper into the music. I strongly suspect that is what the band wanted all along.

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