Album Appreciation: Primordial Arcana by Wolves in the Throne Room

It’s not very often these days that a new release sends me on a near two decade trawl through a band’s back catalogue. However, the release of this album from Washington State’s Wolves in the Throne Room (WITTR) has done just that. Originally a duo the Weaver brothers have brought out a series of albums stretching back to their eponymous release in 2005, with three particularly notable releases for the extremely reliable Southern Lord label (Two Hunters (2007), Black Cascade (2009) and Celestial Lineage (2011)); all of which I appreciate as being exceptionally played, arranged and recorded (although I have to say that 2006’s ‘Diadem of 12 Stars’ is also pretty wonderfully full-on) . I also appreciate that the band stand away somewhat from European, and particularly Norwegian, black metal in the way that they commune with the vast forests of their home state. However, since this isn’t particularly my genre I am not going to delve too much into those deep and murky waters.

So while I have had a great deal of enjoyment going through these WITTR albums, things start to get really interesting for me at the point where they seem to get less interesting for a number of their previous fans. Here the Weaver brothers took a longer than usual time to release their next offering in which they took some of the work that was buried deep in ‘Celestial Lineage’ and worked with it in, what is for them, a wholly new and refreshing manner. In doing so they created ‘Celestite’, a largely electronic and instrumental album that is is rich and melancholic… massive while being strangely intimate, dramatic and yet chilled. For me it is something of a revelation in it’s own terms, let alone in the context of the duo’s previous work. And yet it still fits into their universe… well after all their context hasn’t changed. For me it is a brave step forward which was always going to alienate some of their fans, but in breaking the shackles of expectation it also seems to have somehow set them free too. This, then, is an absolutely incredible ambient album which feels innovative, perhaps because of where the band have come from. I heartily recommend it.

After that the duo became a trio with the addition of Kody Keyworth of guitar and vocals, the initial result being the release of 2017’s ‘Thrice Woven’; and while fans seemed to have welcomed the return to the black metal fold it is arguable that there is not as much that is new and fresh here as on their previous releases… solid without being spectacular to these non-expert ears.

Which brings me to WITTR’s new release, the album the took me down this rabbit-hole in the first place. Probably the first one that truly reflects the band as a trio, since Keyworth has been involved in this one right from the inception. Furthermore this is a set that it totally owned by the three of them, recorded in their self-built Owl Lodge studio in the woods of Washington State… while band members took the helm when it came to all elements of recording, mixing and production.

The result is something that seems to hit my own personal sweet-spot, whether it be through the natural spirituality that exudes this release; something which I can envision when away in my Little House in the Tall Grass… and probably is the first release where WITTR have most successfully fused the black metal and ambient elements of their music to deliver something that is, for me, both exciting and meditatively thoughtful. For the likes of me it probably acts as a good gateway album into what feels like quite an alien sonic place (and certainly it has got me interested in areas where my musical journey has not previously trod).

So then let’s pour a coffee and get up close and personal with this monster…

As the first track, ‘Mountain Magick’ begins you are immediately reminded of the ambience of ‘Celestine’ before the band break out in a frenzy of guitars and drum while then settling back into something that is more melodic and considered… and with that we slip into a cycle that is one minute like a thick mountain of sound before easing off as if you can suddenly see the wood from the trees. And straight away I begin to realise my earlier point about this being something of a gateway album. So while this is heavy and dense like an impenetrable thicket, it is also nuanced enough for you to see the individual branches that make it up… to consider them and realise the beauty in them.

After that ‘Spirit of Lightning’ feels a bit more ‘epic’… I put this in inverted commas because, unlike some metal of this and adjacent genres, this never feels overwrought… WITTR always seem, to my taste at least, to reign it in just when you need them too. In this sense you get a real feeling of meditation rather than overpowering emotion, a middle way that just hits that sweet spot that I mentioned earlier. That’s not to say that this track does not reach some pretty intense moments, especially in the middle third… however, this is brought home splendidly by the band at the end with the sort of bucolic melody that makes you start to get the forest milieu in which they are working… you begin to almost smell the moss.

‘Through Eternal Fields’ begins in a low key and sinister manner. Again it has a panoramic feel to it, with power that is controlled… this is not a frenzied sonic attack but a spirited guide… music to accompany you on your journey, not to just out at you from behind a tree… and as that growling vocal hits you you feel only calm… this is no malevolent spirit. Listening to this on vinyl in particular you are also struck by the production which manages to be clean despite the constituent parts that the band work with… it feels like it has been painstakingly done without losing the essence of the sound.

After that ‘Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire)’ somewhat exemplifies my feeling of the accessibility of this album… this might be something that diehard black metal fans may not appreciate (although the reviews for this seem to have been generally favourable) but from my point of view this is a pretty full-on track in which I can pick out so much as each listen seems to peel another layer of meaning back… as an ardent walker myself I can sense how constantly communing with nature would feed into the band’s psyche as the whole album process took place in a remote location.

As such I think I could have added this album to my piece on Sunn 0))) and Adrianne Lenker, had it been out at the time; certainly in terms of how they created their spaces in which to record. And like Sunn 0))) on ‘Life Metal’ and ‘Pyroclasts’ I can certainly envisage WITTR creating this sacred space as part of their creative process. This feels like the case in ‘Underworld Aurora’, which has more of an introverted feel to it… as if the band are communing rather than exploring… like most of the tracks here, the more you drill into it… the more intense the experience, but not in an oppressive way.. there is air underneath.. interstitial spaces in which to just be with the music.

Embarking on the ten minute epic that is ‘Masters of Rain and Storm’ gives you a sense of chaos for the first couple of minutes… out of which order emerges. This is a number that feels like it has a real mission… one that drives forward with real power and intensity. The use of keyboards at times is as evident as anywhere as this centrepiece almost drags you along before finding some rest, perhaps a clearing or the eye of the storm, which has a lovely gentleness and fragility to it… you feel as if you could stay here for ever… a moment of clarity… but that’s never going to happen as the band launch into the final tumult, and back to the chaos from whence we came, before a final glorious resolution. A stunning track!

The last track on many versions is ‘Eostre’… which definitely feels like the calm after the storm. Again you can almost smell the air… the freshness as nature exfoliates the atmosphere bringing a spiritual and physical cleansing to the proceedings. I imagine sitting outside my Little House in the Tall Grass reflecting on the storm that has just passed and marvelling at the rejuvenated surroundings… blissful!

A number of versions also have a bonus track (on my vinyl album it comes after ‘Underworld Aurora’, but is at the end on digital platforms). It acts as brooding presence in the set… a ying to the yang or ‘Eostre’… it is bleak and uncompromising… a slow moody number which I feel does add another element to the set… an interesting addition which I would not want to be without.

Well a week ago WITTR were not really in my orbit, but on the back of hearing ‘Primordial Arcana’ quite by chance I’ve been through their oeuvre and, in many ways, it has taken me out of my comfort zone by some considerable margin. I found an anchor in their ambient ‘Celestite’ album, which helped me make sense of why I like ‘Primordial Arcana’ and in so doing may well have opened up a vast cavern of music I have felt to have previously been outside my bailiwick. Of the album itself, it just seems to sit in some sort of ideal balance for me… of the heavy and the nuanced… of power and meaning… of active and passive. It is an album to accompany you on a journey… but not one that demands a destination: for me that is perfect.

‘Primordial Arcana’ is out now on Relapse Records



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