Here's another album by a favourite band that I completely failed to notice in 2021, Wolves in the Throne Room being easily my favourite American black metal band of any description. Quite how we're supposed to describe them properly, I have no idea, because atmospheric black metal is an attempt at a start only, rather than a full definition of their genre. Whatever they play, they play it in original fashion and I've been a big fan ever since their second album, Two Hunters, blew me away in 2007.
Mountain Magick starts this one out as I'd expect from the band, not with the full on wall of sound black metal approach they do so well but with the generation of unique atmosphere that they do even better. Those are synths to kick off, assembled rather than played, and unusual rhythms and sounds that immediately take us outside and into the wilds. When Aaron Weaver's drums ramp up to full speed, the guitars find a much slower melody and we float intensely, a feeling I often get on Wolves in the Throne Room albums.
I liked this opener and I liked Spirit of Lightning more, especially with its rhythmic strings that are reminiscent of the koto, but neither song blew me away and nothing did until Underworld Aurora five tracks in. Sure, I dug the sheer power on offer in Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire), but I love Wolves in the Throne Room for their dynamics and the way they can find and mine grooves that turn into different grooves with such wildly different intensity that they boggle the mind. That shows up on Underworld Aurora.
I don't even know what's in play early in this piece—breaking glass? Native American flutes?—but the first couple of minutes could be taken from a Dead Can Dance album before, blink and you'll miss it, they suddenly flow into a black metal song. This is sonic weaving at its subtlest and it goes back and forth. As the piece builds, it also finds a majestic sweep, something that this band are a dab hand at. It's only seven minute long, hardly a lengthy piece for them, but it feels epic, furious drums frantic under a melody that soars free of every concern in the world, most of which seem to be packed into the final few moments.
There's only one true epic here and that's next, because Masters of Rain and Storm clocks in at an effortless eleven minutes. It actually gets really down and dirty, an old school proto-extreme riff I could imagine on an early Bathory album emerging from the frenzy, though it re-immerses itself pretty quickly. This one starts fast and stays there for a while, but it eventually finds that majestic sweep after a few minutes. It also drops down into an acoustic section and shifts gears again late. It does a lot of things, as Wolves in the Throne Room songs often do, though this one hasn't found its way under my skin yet. It may well do yet.
Oddly, I think my favourite piece here other than Underworld Aurora, which stands out more and more each time I listen through, is Eostre, and that's really just a three minute interlude after an epic to get us ready for the closer, Skyclad Passage. There's not much to Eostre but it's beautifully done, an enticing pastoral soundscape as much as Skyclad Passage is a warning of a soundscape, a soundtrack to a folk horror movie that's just entering the woods.
And so this is a good album but not a great one, I think. It has moments that show the magic that the Weaver brothers are known for, but it doesn't have as many as I'd like. It still has that sense of place that the band have always had, what they call Cascadian black metal but which is really just a blend of the older European styles with ambient and folk elements, along with a heck of a lot of patience. This still sounds like Wolves in the Throne Room above any other comparison and I'm up for any new material by this band. I wanted more from this one though.