Black Metal Essentials: Wolves in the Throne Room, “Two Hunters”

The problem with much of the black metal being produced today is that many bands sacrifice thought and substance on the altar of style.

Take Dimmu Borgir. While Dimmu is certainly a good, theatrical metal band, they’re not what I could honestly call black metal. They’re more of a black metalesque Kiss – with intricate songs and style out the wazoo, but with nothing to say and no ideas beyond presenting an “evil” veneer for the fans. While I actually enjoy listening to some of Dimmu Borgir’s albums and compositions, I don’t think they’re a band that requires the listener to think much or to do anything other than raise the horns and rock out.

But I can rock out with my you-know-what out with any number of thrash, death and classic NWOBHM albums … but from black metal I expect something a little more substantive. In the U.S. black metal scene, there are few bands quite as substantive and intellectually heavy as Wolves in the Throne Room.

WITTR hail from Washington State and are serious about the transformative, emotional power of black metal (you can read the band’s philosophy about black metal from a Noise Pollution interview with drummer Aaron Weaver here). Perhaps the best place for listeners new to the band to experience the Wolve’s ambitious goals is with their landmark 2007 release “Two Hunters.”

 “Dea Artio,” which is really a prolonged intro, starts with the sound of insects whirring quietly in the evening. A treble-picked wall of psychedelic fuzz overwhelms the woodland noises while heavily echoing drums beat slowly and solemnly. It’s melancholy and beautiful, yet filled with a deep-forest loneliness that envelopes the rest of the disc.

“Vastness and Sorrow” starts as traditional black metal, with treble-picked guitars slashing over a double-bass attack. Nathan Weaver’s vocals – shrieks, really – rage with an inhuman intensity. Then, the band begins adding undercurrents of melody to the mix. The song abruptly slows down and Nathan Weaver’s guitar lines etch out a separate composition on top of the overall distortion drone.

Yes, there are lyrics here, but the vocals are buried in the mix so most of the words are indistinguishable. But the actual lyrics are unimportant. The band’s goal is not to preach, but to elicit an emotional reaction — with the dominant emotions being sorrow and awe. Near the end, the song increases in tempo before collapsing into a fade.

“The Cleansing” shifts the mood back to the quiet, with soft waves of ambient keyboards, tribal drumming, a background of distortion fuzz and female vocals. The mood is mournful and quiet for several minutes, until a rumble of thunder brings on a barrage of black metal. Nathan Weaver’s shrieks are pure pain and the chord progressions are works of terrible beauty. The guitar lines mount melody over the bass and the final moments are obliterating, yet psychedelic.

“I will Lay Down My Bones Among The Rocks and Roots” begins with a few quiet notes of acoustic guitar before the band unleashes a wave of raw black metal. After perhaps 70 seconds, the band shifts into a dramatic, heavily reverbed riff and slow drumming. Nathan Weaver’s scream is chilling and hair-raising; it’s a fright — yet the atmosphere is one of solitary beauty. At 18 minutes long, “I Will Lay Down My Bones …” is challenging, terrifyingly sad and transcendental. If you’re looking for party music, keep searching. If you’re looking for a larger-than-life experience, you’ve found it.

In an excellent interview at Invisible Oranges (which you can read here) Aaron Weaver said black metal is “attempt to destroy the modern world … It means not a physical destruction, but it means stripping down your psyche to something very primal, very pure.” That’s about as ambitious an agenda as any band could create, but WITTR manage it with “Two Hunters.” This is music that reaches for a connection that is emotional and spiritual rather than intellectual. This is highly recommended music.

Black Metal Essentials: Mayhem “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”

It has been a long, bitter winter and the frostbitten weather and lack of sunlight has given me a seemingly endless craving for black metal. But, in my musical wanderings in the winter woods, I’ve discovered something important — a lot of what passes for contemporary black metal is utter crap.

I won’t name names here, but I recently received a copy of a well-known Swedish black metal band’s new album – and it was so unoriginal and contrived it immediately bored me senseless.

Meanwhile, while I enjoy Ihsahn’s new album “After” quite a bit, I’d have to say Ihsahn – lyrically and musically – has long since left the black metal formula behind. Frankly, good for him; there’s already a world full of pale Emperor clones out there, ripping off the sound Ihsahn helped create. Have you ever heard Abigail Williams? Ihsahn and Samoth ought to sue Abigail Williams for theft of style.

Now, there are more than a few high-quality contemporary black metal bands out there … but those bands are the ones that are largely blazing their own trails, rather than just copying something Emperor, Immortal or Burzum did 16 years ago. I’ll be talking about a few of those eventually in the future.

But today, I want to kick off my “Black Metal Essentials” column by recognizing an album that both you and I know is one of the best releases in black metal’s seedy sonic history – Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.”

You likely already know Mayhem’s back story – but if you don’t, I highly recommend you track down a copy of Ian Christe’s awesome, Sound of the Beast: The Complete, Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. Christe writes, after Mayhem singer Dead killed himself in 1991, guitarist/songwriter Euronymous, drummer Hellhammer and bassist Count Grisnackh (along with session second guitarist Blackthorn) recruited vocalist Atilla Csihar from Hungary for vocal duties on “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.” The album was recorded in 1993 and released after Euronymous’ untimely death.

Of course, Grisnackh – also known as Varg Vikernes – murdered Euronymous only a few months after the album was recorded, for reasons that are still unclear (Vikernes was sent prison for the crime and released in 2009). Death sometimes makes an artist more popular than he would’ve been if he hadn’t died young … so it’s legitimate to ask: Does “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” deserve its classic status?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” “Mysteriis” is a vicious, misanthropic, yet monumental masterpiece of blazing, nightmarishly twisting riffs, powerful drumming and vocals that cause skin to crawl. Dead’s lyrics are suitably sinister – but it’s the music and performances here that really make the album important to metal history.

“Funeral Fog” begins with hurricane rage, with Hellhammer smashing a speeding beat out of his drums while Euronymous’ guitar searches for the minor keys. The song shifts quickly into a thrash riff and Atilla’s first vocals are half-whispered, half-hissed. Atilla might be the most unique singer in metal; his voice lifts and reaches for high notes at moments that seem completely wrong, but manage to be devastatingly effective. “Funeral Fog” is a chaotically nasty piece of work. Unbelievably, the rest of the album is just as earth-shaking and intense.

“Freezing Moon” is sinister and slow at first, with a descending Euronymous riff and impressively intricate drumming from Hellhammer. Euronymous’s guitar work here deserves careful attention; the notes slide away and he fills his riffs with grace notes that are easy to miss if you’re not fully listening. The track also contains a discordant yet powerful guitar solo – a rarity in black metal, then and since. This is the music of pure winter isolation and evil.

“Cursed in Eternity” also features outstanding drumming by Hellhammer … but it’s Atilla’s performance that make the hair on my neck stand up. Atilla croaks out the lyrics like a man possessed. As Atilla tells Ian Christe in Sound of the Beast, getting the vocals just right was a high priority for Euronymous.

“I remember dedicating an entire day to recording ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, a most difficult song,” Christe quotes Atilla as saying of the recording session. “Euronymous explained to me how he wanted me to sing ‘a demon flies’ (on ‘Cursed in Eternity’). They were great musicians …”

“Pagan Fears” is a stomp to the head, with another great Atilla performance. It’s also the only song were Varg Vikernes’ bass playing is really noticable. After Euronymous’ murder, his family requested Vikernes’ playing be removed from the recording. It wasn’t removed, but was dialed way down in the mix.

“Life Eternal” has a great riff that Euronymous shifts, disfigures and finally accelerates into supersonic speeds. Atilla is great here, especially with his inhuman delivery at the six-minute mark – but it’s the bridge, after the dual guitar solos – that Hellhammer and Euronymous really turn on the power. It’s brutal and, believe it or not, beautiful. The “black metal” only comes at the very end, with a sudden launch into treble picking and double-bass pounding … and then the song gets faster in its final seconds. Brilliant.

“From The Dark Past” is simply a good song. It’s not the best track here – it’s probably the weakest, at least in the sense that it doesn’t break new ground like all that comes before it – but it’s certainly well-performed by Euronymous and the band, and Atilla growls his way through passionately.

“Buried by Time and Dust” is pure black metal – fast, with intricate riffs, merciless drumming from Hellhammer and unearthly barking, rumbling and screaming vocals from Atilla. It’s a song that barely gives you time to catch your breath.

The title track closes the album with epic style. Atilla swings from rabid growling to operatic yet unsettling high notes and the main riff is pummeling yet (again) filled with sonic treats for close listeners. At the three-minute mark, the tempo changes to a march. This is a classic song of the genre that hasn’t been surpassed.

Is “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” for everybody? Uh, no. It’s too challenging for people who want safe music and far too brutal and uncompromising to be adequate party music. This is music that Euronymous, Hellhammer and Atilla sweated and likely bled over during the course of the recording. Even if they didn’t bleed, they certainly gave considerable thought to every note and beat. This is music that deserves to be remembered.

Louisville gets screwed as rescheduled “American Carnage” tour dumps stop in city

Oh, some stupid tour manager needs his head stuck in a vice for this.

First, Slayer, Megadeth and Testament “postponed” the “American Carnage” tour because Slayer frontman Tom “my back hurts” Araya had to have back surgery.

I’d already bought tickets to the Feb. 2 show in Louisville, so I didn’t see why poor Tom couldn’t suck it up and play the dates anyway. I mean seriously; wussing out of the so-called biggest tour of the year for back pain is not very metal, Tom.

But they PROMISED to reschedule the tour dates, so I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. Keep your tickets, they said. Like a fool, I did.

Today, the record labels announced the reschedule tour and guess what? THEY COMPLETELY DROPPED LOUISVILLE FROM THE TOUR!

What the hell happened here? I suppose some greedy tour manager decided the bands could make a few more dollars of merch in another city. As for L’ville, too bad, so sad.

What. A. Bunch. Of. Crap.

Anyway, if you still give a damn about this tour, here are rescheduled tour dates. I still really like Megadeth’s new disc, “Endgame” … but for now, I think both of these bands can bite me.

Here are the new tour dates:

JULY

23 Pavillon de la Jeunesse, Quebec City, QC CANADA
24 Heavy MTL, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal, QC CANADA
26 Metro Centre, Halifax, NS CANADA
27 Moncton Coliseum, Moncton, NB CANADA
29 Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto, ONT CANADA
30 John Labatt Centre Center, London, ONT CANADA

AUGUST

11 Glens Falls Civic Center, Glens Falls, NY
12 Izod Center, East Rutherford, NJ
14 Tsongas Arena, Boston, MA
15 Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, NJ
16 Chevrolet Theatre, Wallingford, CT
18 Tower City Amphitheatre, Cleveland, OH
19 Joe Louis Arena, Detroit,MI
20 UIC Pavillon, Chicago, IL
21 Roy Wilkins Auditorium, Minneapolis, MN
23 Cap Fed Park @Sandstone, Kansas City, KS
25 Magness Arena, Denver, CO
26 Tingley Coliseum, Albuquerque, NM
27 Dodge Theatre, Phoenix, AZ
29 Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre, San Diego, CA
30 Long Beach Arena, Long Beach, CA
31 Cow Palace, San Francisco, CA

SEPTEMBER

1 Arco Arena, Sacramento, CA
3 Wamu Theatre, Seattle, WA
4 Washington County Fairgrounds, Portland, OR