Pacific Northwest radical environmentalist subsistence farming. Throat-shredding, tooth-chattering black metal. To most, these might seem two irreconcilable lifestyles. No so for Olympia, Washington’s Wolves in the Throne Room. Self-describedly unifying “a Cascadian eco-spiritual awareness with the misanthropic Norwegian eruptions of the 90’s” [wittr.com], WITTR furthers its uncomprimising vision with this year’s Black Cascade.
Ostensibly named in honor of the mountain range in which the band makes its home (yes, they do in fact live in a mountain), Black Cascade focuses on the latter half of the band’s mission statement: this album is by far the most claustrophobic, blood-curdling slice of metal Wolves in the Throne Room has carved out since its earliest demo tapes. The band hammers out riffs and blastbeats with a vengeance–almost in a backlash against the near-universal blog acclaim that met 2007’s incredible Two Hunters. And while this tactic finds the band ripping through fifty minutes of nearly unadulterated thrash, Black Cascade attains its fearful might in exchange for the cohesion and diversity that distinguished Two Hunters from the rest of its metal brethren.
Not that this is entirely a negative point. Opener “Wanderer Across the Sea of Fog” cuts straight to the chase, forgoing the ambient intros that had heretofore been the band’s trademark. Just a few seconds of sampled rainfall, and then the band kicks off into tight unison riffs and clattering drums. After a droning break in the middle of the song augmented with a touch of vintage synthesizers, Wolves in the Throne Room revisit what made their initial demos so great: clattering drums and twisted, tremolo-picked harmony guitars, with a torrential intensity that recalls the doomy rain-soaked Northwest. Halfway through the track, drummer/lead farmer Aaron Weaver breaks off his hectic blastbeats in favor of a driving groove that transforms the song from a Category 5 thrashfest into a stirring epic, bringing the song to a close.
This simplified, bare-bones approach may have much to do with the addition of new guitarist Will Lindsay. Late of stoner rock trio Middian, Lindsay may have much to do with the band’s straightforward, pummeling sound on Black Cascade. Where Two Hunters featured synths, reverberant Ennio Morricone guitars, and haunting backup vocals from Jessica Kinney, Black Cascade goes straight for the throat with out-of-control guitar feedback, and a raw, under-produced aesthetic that pays tribute to the band’s roots in both early ’90s Scandinavian black metal and American crust punk. Even when later tracks like “Crystal Ammunition” do venture into gentler territory, with its gently picked acoustic middle section, it’s only a brief respite from WITTR’s metal assault, which comes on all the more crushing after the interruption.
While Black Cascade is a simpler, nastier record than Two Hunters, the band does little to forgo the former album’s marathon track lengths. Without the instrumental complexity and graceful dynamics of songs like “Cleansing”, Black Cascade sometimes gets lost under its own weight. The long, epic run times with which WITTR made its reputation seem redundant here–the 14-minute “Ahrimanic Trance”, for example, really only contains three different sections, which are hammered into infinity at full force with very little variation. Instead of seamlessly blending one composition into the next with moody transitions and recurring themes, Black Cascade’s songs wind up being difficult to distingush from one another: all four are built on scathing guitar chords which drift between jackhammer intensity and ominous drone, usually with a short change of pace.
On the other hand, it’s hardly fair to criticise Black Cascade for not being exactly like its predecessor. Instead of remaking their last album with different chords and calling it Three Hunters, Wolves in the Throne Room explores its own roots in the grittier realms of bands like Venom and Holy Mountain, while all the while carving out its own niche in the Southern Lord roster, marrying the charred black metal clatter of labelmates Xasthur and Striborg with the lethargic drones of SUNN 0))) and Earth. Black Cascade Wolves in the Throne Room makint an effort to keep its sound changing, despite the high acclaim won by Two Hunters–a move which takes no small amout of courage. The result is a very solid album from one of America’s top bands, within the realms of metal and without. While it may not be the WITTR’s definitive release, Black Cascade is an excellent addition to the band’s rapidly expanding canon.