I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve had it up to my receding hairline with the genre-tag war, especially when applied incorrectly. The hot one these days is “post.” What does that even mean, “post”? I imagine some Andy Warhol-wannabe artist-type talking out of their ass: “Well, when all of art is like, over, there is nowhere else it can be taken, so it’s ‘post’ art, or music, or like whatever… we’re just retreading… [takes another Quaalude]” Yes, post-modernism was a legitimate era of Western history, but as far as music is concerned, the “post” tag is thrown about liberally and largely without justification. (Let’s try to ignore the fact, just for a second, that we-the-press probably added more flame to this classification fire than anyone.) Frankly, a good 75 percent of the metal being called post-something-or-other has nothing at all to do with the original British post-rock wave or even modern bands such as Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, but gets labeled as such because it contains some sense of dynamic composition.
One band that gets this incorrect tag possibly more than any other: Wolves in the Throne Room.
Not post-black metal. Really not at all, but because the Brothers Weaver employ sweeping dynamics and the occasional ebb-and-flow, they get lumped into some faux movement that I’m sure they’d love to just toss out the window. All that these newfangled-but-totally-won’t-stick tags do is undermine the brilliance of the cream-of-the-crop, causing trepidation amongst fans for albums as entrancing as Celestial Lineage, while also giving a foothold for mediocrity. It’s a shame that dynamic songwriting has become such a rare commodity (just look at the more polarizing “black” metal bands in the Brooklyn scene) that it warrants some ready-made label.
So yeah, Wolves in the Throne Room: not post-black metal. What are they? Caustic, atmospheric, majestic, expansive, raw, musical, and above all else dynamic. From day one, they have been all of these things, sometimes opting for more atmosphere (Two Hunters), and other times for a more straightforward approach (Black Cascade), but they have never lost sight of simultaneously paying homage to Burzum, Darkthrone, and Weakling in one fell swoop, adapting the voluminous vision of the latter to the bleaker, oppressive landscapes of the former. Celestial Lineage is no different, reaffirming all sides of the band’s sound (after Black Cascade and Malevolent Grain almost made an Opeth-ian sound-split), and providing a true spiritual successor to Two Hunters. (The way in which ambient piece “Woodland Cathedral” calls to mind “Dea Artio” really affirms this.) In doing so, the band has constructed their most complete album since their debut, and quite possibly the strongest work of their career to date.
It’s really Wolves in the Throne Room’s ability to shape dynamics (the thing that awards them all of those inaccurate labels) that has helped them to turn their compositions into truly riveting works. The fact that they are exceptional at all of the little things – writing riffs, forming chord progressions, and establishing a mood – only adds to the frameworks they have set up. Much of what you hear here is similar to the band’s past: buzzing tremolo riffs, soft-yet-incessant blast beats, harsh vocals, expansive songwriting, and a firm grasp for the subtle. Fresh elements, such as Wodensthrone-esque blanketing keys and a smartly-varying use of lead guitar (and bass) can be heard here and there, but it is mostly through the spot-on employment of established ideas that Celestial Lineage finds success. An impeccable and lush production treatment doesn’t hurt either.
Opener “Thuja Magus Imperium” sets the stage in true Wolves fashion with an intro of ambient noise and pure female vocals before giving way to raw-yet-warm black metal. Eleven minutes later a breather is given by an interlude track, undoubtedly to allow time for the crushing climax of the song to sink in. “Subterranean Imitation” works similarly, adding even more underlying vitriol over several movements before a pulsing second half builds to a cutting guitar line at the end. Neither song finale would be as effective without that which set it up, and neither song would work without the finale. Just massive stuff.
This sense of size is perhaps the most striking aspect of Celestial Lineage. The movements within songs, album structure, well-conceived codas, and ocean-sized depth to the production all work together to give this album both weight and space. It somehow feels bigger than its 50 minutes but passes by without distraction or much lag. (I say “much” because one might argue that there is a minute or three too much wispy ambience during the album’s middle. One might argue; I might not.) By the time “Astral Blood” reaches a half-psychedelic riff at about 2/3 of the way through, it is clear that the band has crafted yet another of these epic journeys, and the subsequent layering of tidal chords and keys delivers on this promise over the course of the four final minutes. So strong is this surge that Wolves in the Throne Room chose to end the album with “Prayer of Transformation,” a haunting but far less aggressive piece that closes Celestial Lineage with a very similar tone to which Agalloch closed Marrow of the Spirit. In no way does this blunt the edge of the rest of the album; instead, by being somewhat unsettling, it actually may leave the listener contemplating the rest of what he or she has heard, as opposed to feeling the compositional resolution that other tracks offer.
If all of that ranting at the beginning of this text had a purpose, it was to set up this point: Great music is great music, and it doesn’t matter how you choose to define it. Celestial Lineage is great music, style or historical context be damned. Wolves in the Throne Room has crafted yet another stunner, one that reaffirms their place as a truly special act after Black Cascade demoted them to merely really good. Non-believers who prefer their black metal in-your-face and compact will likely still not be converted, but established fans probably have a year-ender on their hands. More importantly, they’ll have otherworldly music that you can keep going back to, music that will continue to reward with fresh nuances, listen after listen.