Where do you start with a record you can barely comprehend in its dense complexity? Where do you start to analyse unique art created by two brothers who live on a remote farm, adhering to a traditional life on the land and who claim to have avoided all forms of musical contact for 6 months? Where do you start with ‘Celestial Lineage’; a record forged from the very coal-front of black metal, yet furnished with majestic orchestral arrangements and cloaked with choir-esque female vocals? Let’s start here…
Having put out three blistering efforts since their inception in Olympia, Washington in 2002, Wolves in the Throne Room have taken USBM to a whole new set of dimensions. Aaron (drums) and Nathan (guitar, vocals) Weaver’s pledge to marry European black metal to the recurring thematic of the natural world’s beauty and pain, has brought them swift fame, deep-rooted respect and a sense of purpose to complete their trio of elemental albums. But behind their sonic spells lies an underlying rift of frustration with the way music is presented and performed.
Put simply, ‘Celestial Lineage’ is a towering monument to its creator’s visions and will remain a coal-encrusted diamond in the Southern Lord crown for many decades to come. Steeped in the grandiose prestige of the most classical of string arrangements, ‘Woodland Cathedral’ and ‘Thuja Magus Imperium’ are slow-burning fires which allow the operatic smoke billowing from Jessika Kenney’s vocal charm to rise and infiltrate our deep subconscious. The later is a perfected blend of colossal harmonies interwoven with Burzum-esque fury and primordial spirit. ‘Subterranean Initiation’ is a brutal assault on the ears and mind; wave after crushing wave of metallic scythes topple down to prompt a feeling of spite not heard since early 90s churches were burnt in Scandinavian forests.
‘Permanent Changes in Consciousness’ and ‘Rainbow Illness’ are succinct and neatly-placed intro tracks; the former calmly echoing the crackling fires, blacksmithian clinkings and the winds whistling across the plains of the duo’s beloved homeland. Followed swiftly by the coarse and rampant ‘Subterranean Initiation’, the clashing textures are spell-bounding when given the correct listener’s attention.
‘Astral Blood’ is the real spine-tingler signalling greatness. A 10-minute gauntlet of emotions and ambitions, it does at times keep to more traditional esoteric metal geographies, annotating Aaron’s warrior-spirited drum performance with cavernous synthesised glory and acoustic subtleties delicate enough to make a neanderthal weep. It’s the coming together of all of WITTR’s ideals and forefrontal imagination as Nathan bellows out the closing passages of torment. Epic closer ‘Prayer of Transformation’ is utterly terrifying. Marrying gorge-deep synth harmonics with the background hiss of guitar amps and Nathan’s distant rasp sounding like a ghost lost in a secret dimension of space-time begging for release into the stratosphere.
It pains me to put this within a review, but this record really does have to be heard, or rather experienced, for true belief and meaning to sink in. It’s not a casual listen, and will almost be useless unless given undivided attention, but the rewards are rich: the calm of musicians comfortable in their art of blending the ugly with the beautiful and grafting a concept so steeped in their heritage and surroundings that you can almost hear the pride bursting through their chests. ‘Celestial Lineage’ is not just a sister album to both ‘Black Cascade’ (2009) and ‘Two Hunters’ (2007), it betters them, realises their goals and extends them in its 50-minute outpouring of emotions. This is mature, boundary-shunting, classical music directly tapped into pure imaginative thought.
Such a sonic boundary this is for the band, that speculation is rife (mostly driven by Nathan and Aaron themselves) that ‘Celestial Lineage’ is to be the final Wolves in the Throne Room studio album. Both the reaching of a monumental musical peak and ongoing frustrations around their artistic license to perform has led to the duo confronting their own future as a band in the current form.
Stating a clear desire to play shows exclusively within natural surroundings (forests, barns, outdoor clearings etc) and ongoing complaints with the nature of worldwide touring and festival appearances, the Weavers seem intent on not compromising artistic integrity at any cost. My feelings on this stance are mixed; on the one hand I fully respect that great art should have appropriate settings, lighting, acoustics and staging to provide a proper backdrop to the performance. WITTR are clearly done with years of playing to poorly-promoted nightclubs to crowds of mentally-diluted lager-louts the world over, and want back the control that comes with self-promotion.
On the flip side, their profession of choice is professional musicianship, and that comes with cons as well as pros, and a business environment must accompany an artistic one. Thousands of bands would give their left testicles to be signed to Southern Lord Records, tour the planet and be paid to create the performances they love. I also believe that great bands can bring the experience they want to create and share with their audience to ANY venue, and that there are ways that WITTR could give underground clubs more of a woodland theme and spirit on a one-off basis every night of a tour. Another option would be to switch to playing a different kind of venue, like symphony halls or theatre stages with great acoustics, to give something back to the music itself.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of one of the modern era’s great atmospheric bands. Whatever happens, ‘Celestial Lineage’ cannot be taken away from them and should remain a cornerstone for heavy music whatever the outcome of its creators. Buy it and make up your own mind on the arguments for and against WITTR’s continuation. Either way, this is absolute majesty and the Weaver brothers can sit on their thrones in triumph; whether they succumb to the wolves of the music industry only time will tell.
Scribed by: Pete Green