The Rickety Old Shack

Wolves In The Throne Room — Celestite

Wolves In The Throne Room - Celestite, cover

Although I consider myself relatively well informed when it comes to fringe music — especially as it pertains to the metal scene and all associated, obscure sub-genres — there are always acts here and there that elude me until finally I end up criminally late to the party. Such is the case with Olympia, Washington's Wolves in the Throne Room. This is a group whose name I have been hearing, both incidentally and in the form of direct recommendations for years; somehow, I just never got around to it. The process repeated itself for about a decade until, a few weeks ago, I finally broke down and went on a Bandcamp binge.

To say that I felt like a fool for having waited so long to delve into this band would be a massive understatement. The band's inception as a respectably "kvlt" and "necro" sounding black metal band yielded some really strong material in that vein of music, with even their demo recordings offering a precision and quality outstripping a great many of their peers. Since those formative offerings, the group has continued to expand upon their sound while keeping them in line with the harsh, nihilistic aesthetic of black metal. Celestite, however, marks an extreme shift in the group's sound and direction.

While I'm sure someone will correct me, I can't think of an ostensibly black metal band taking such a sharp left-turn since Ulver released Themes From William Blake's Heaven and Hell as a follow-up to their black metal trilogy. Celestial Lineage certainly gave a lot of hints that this sort of thing was possible, but releasing a completely instrumental, ambient record wasn't the first thought in mind.

Such a shift may be a disappointment to some or, at the very least, disorienting. Myself, I get really intrigued when bands do things like this — even if the results certainly vary from case-to-case. Aside from the fact both groups initially formed as strictly black metal bands, Wolves in the Throne Room and Ulver — even in their most primordial form — displayed a certain level of creativity, even within the strict precepts of black metal, that such craziness almost seems unsurprising in hindsight. Not that anyone expected a release like Ulver's Perdition City or — in our current case — Celestite, but the creative sparks were there from the start.

As one progresses through the discography of Wolves in the Throne Room, you see the black metal fused with more-and-more diverse elements like synths, strings, haunting female vocal passages and ambient soundscapes. All of this finally comes to a head on Celestite, an album which eschews the black metal — and traditional music concepts — entirely, while containing ~47 minutes of audio spread out across a mere 5 tracks. Gone are the buzzing guitars, muffled kick drums and wretched vocals; what few discernible guitar parts remain are sparse, sporadically appearing amidst ambient soundscapes and droning passages.

As a fan of groups like Sunn O)), and pretty much anything else Stephen O'Malley has ever done, I'm not the hardest guy to sell on the concept of an ambient drone record. I can see fans who have followed the band throughout the entirety of their career being a little miffed but that doesn't really mean anything — this is the music they want to create and their old records aren't going anywhere.

Celestite is very difficult to describe, as is the case with most music one would classify as "ambient." The record has a very cosmic feeling to it, drifting in and out of long drones and haunting, reverberating synths — sounding very much like the musical score to a science-fiction movie set in the distant future. Although the album is delineated into different tracks, each 'song' feels like a part of a greater whole and they flow seamlessly into one another — there also aren't any singles to speak of.

This is a very niche album, to be mild about things; this is the sort of record you need to listen to with a minimum of distractions — the first time, at least. As an exercise in building mood and ambiance without veering into pretentious and self-indulgent territory, I think Wolves in the Throne Room created a really interesting, highly listenable record. Albums like Celestite — and ambient music in general for that matter — are hard to break down by the song, as the entire effort spends 40-some minutes building to the heavy, distorted, glacial dirge that is the final portion of "Celestite Mirror" — and then fading back to a serene calm as "Sleeping Golden Storm" closes out the record.

Celestite is a bizarrely calming album, and the sort of thing that I will end up listening to as background music on a very regular basis. That may sound like a criticism more than a compliment, but a really well executed ambient record hits that sweet spot where you can passively listen and not be distracted from whatever task is at hand. While I remain a huge proponent of the band's black metal material, Celestite really impressed me once I got over the drastic shift in musical direction.

Summary

If the descriptions in this review didn't induce a reflexive eye-roll, then this album is very likely to be worth your time. Fans of Ulver and Sunn O))) would be especially well served by taking the time to give this record a chance, as it is evocative of the results of a collaboration between the two — a record called Extraterrestrials. This is great background music and, sonically, a very well executed effort. I hope Wolves In The Throne Room have not completely forsaken their black metal roots, but this diversion into ambient soundscapes was certainly interesting.

Album Information

Release date: July 18th, 2014
Record label: Artemesia Records

Aaron Weaver — synthesizers, guitar
Nathan Weaver — synthesizers, guitar

Track Listing

  1. Turning Ever Towards the Sun
  2. Initiation at Neudeg Alm
  3. Bridge of Leaves
  4. Celestite Mirror
  5. Sleeping Golden Storm

—by Derek

Published: September 29, 2015