The veteran black metal wanderers Wolves In The Throne Room formed in Olympia, a beautiful little college town that also happens to be Washington’s state capital. Olympia has a lot of thrift shops and seafood restaurants. It’s a bougie place with hippie signifiers and a vague sense of encroaching methiness. K Records and Kill Rock Stars are both based in Olympia, and Kurt Cobain lived there for a while. Rancid wrote one of their best songs about wanting to get back to Olympia. A lot of great indie and punk bands have called Olympia home over the years: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, Beat Happening, the Microphones, G.L.O.S.S. But as proud as that history may be, Wolves In The Throne Room are not a part of any Olympia tradition. They are part of something else.
Olympia is only about 60 miles from Seattle, but it feels like another world. If you go a little bit outside of Olympia, then it gets even more different. Five minutes out of town, you feel like you’re in thick, hungry wilderness. The trees are a deeper shade of green than you’ve ever seen. The mountains want to swallow you up. Out there, civilization feels like an obscenity, an invasion. The beauty of that area wants to conquer whatever bullshit chain stores that society might try to throw at it. That beauty is what Wolves In The Throne Room represent.
For the better part of two decades, Wolves In The Throne Room have been an important band in an international black metal underground. When they talk about their craft, WITTR do what metal bands do; they pay sharp and intricate homage to all the minute subgenres and obscure cult favorites that inspired them. They are of that culture. But what’s always set this band apart is the way that they seem to connect to something deep and ritualistic, something that thrums underneath black metal itself. WITTR’s music has always been atmospheric and immersive, showing little bits of folk or goth or drone through all the murk. That sound is heavy and raspy and intense, but there’s a soothing sense of tidal rhythm to it.
Wolves In The Throne Room never talk about themselves as an Olympia band or a Pacific Northwest band. Instead, they identify as Cascadian — natives of the bioregion that stretches up from Northern California all the way to Alaska, ignoring trivial and arbitrary borders between states and nations. Over the centuries, there have been calls for Cascadian independence, and in recent decades, those calls have often been environmental in nature. In a dying world, the logic goes, why shouldn’t this one beautiful and sustainable chunk of earth operate as its own closed system? (Thanks largely to Wolves In The Throne Room and Oregon’s Agalloch, “Cascadian black metal” briefly became a sort of subgenre shorthand for “stuff that sounds like Wolves In The Throne Room and Agalloch.”)
You can hear that sense of pride and frustration in Primordial Arcana, the monumental new Wolves In The Throne Room album. Primordial Arcana is concerned with things vast and epic, things beyond human civilization. It’s about deer gods and volcanoes swallowing glaciers. The album’s lyrics read like ancient prayers or incantations: “Travel past the borders of men/ Drink the rain/ Pass the gates of our shadow moon kingdom.” (You have to read those lyrics if you want to understand them. This is still black metal, and the vocals are still unholy roars.)
Brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver formed Wolves In The Throne Room in 2002. They’ve had a lot of different bandmates over the years, but right now, they just have one: Singer and guitarist Kody Keyworth, formerly of the funeral doom band Aldebaran and the shamanic black metallers Oakhelm, who formally joined up in 2017. Primordial Arcana is the first album that Keyworth had a hand in writing. The three members of the band built their own studio, and they produced and mixed the new album themselves. They also filmed their own videos — meditative deep-woods epics full of swords in fire and crystal staffs on snow-ridged mountaintops. The “Spirit Of Lightning” video is literally just a static shot of a deer skull resting on some rocks in a river. It’s seven minutes long, and nothing happens. It rules so hard.
Only two other musicians even play on Primordial Arcana: Infera Bruo’s Galen Baudhuin, who plays bass throughout, and ecologist Yianna Bekris, who makes music in the one-woman black metal project Vouna and who plays synth on one song and acoustic guitar on another. Baudhuin and Bekris add important layers to the textures on the album, but it’s pretty obvious that Primordial Arcana is Wolves In The Throne Room operating as a sui generis DIY entity, a closed-loop operation. They have cut themselves off from a decayed world and gone to work in the woods, and they have returned and brought us this.
Musically, Primordial Arcana exists very much within the zone of this band’s last six albums. Guitars clang like bells. Keyboards sound like whispery drones. Drums go into blastbeat overdrive, sometimes sounding less like a rhythmic instrument and more like the wingbeats of a giant hummingbird. But some things have changed. The ambient parts of Primordial Arcana are glassier, prettier, and more meditative than anything I can remember hearing from this band in years past. The album-ending instrumental “Eostre,” for instance, is all gasping glacial keyboards and tootling pan flutes and soothing river sounds. It’s lovely. And when they feel like it, this time out, Wolves In The Throne Room fucking rock. This feels new.
Consider the case of the single “Primal Chasm (Gift Of Fire),” which might possibly be the greatest song that Wolves In The Throne Room have ever written. This band has always liked to stretch out, to growl expansively into the trees. But “Primal Chasm (Gift Of Fire)” is hard and mean and compact — five minutes, no fucking around. Parts of the song are dizzily layered with thundering double-bass and sculpted guitar fuzz, but there are some absolute neckbreaker riffs in there, too — riffs that could’ve once upon a time come from Metallica or Slayer or Celtic Frost or Emperor. This song is not pure-moods pagan-bonfire music. You can bang your head to it.
In various climactic moments, you can also bang your head to “Mountain Magick” or “Through Eternal Fields” or, especially, the majestically punishing “Masters Of The Rain And Storm,” the one Primordial Arcana song that breaks the 10-minute barrier. These tracks are epic, just as Wolves In The Throne Room tracks have always been epic, but they’re also tough and intense and physical. It’s some sick shit. And as society continues to dissolve into bloodthirsty chaotic bedlam and the smartest among us flee for the greenest mountains we can find, we’re going to need some sick shit.
Primordial Arcana is out 8/20 on Relapse.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lorde’s Solar Power.
• Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite.
• Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita.
• Palmistry’s wyrdo.
• Nathan Salsburg’s Psalms.
• DARE’s Against All Odds.
• Chynna’s posthumous drug opera.
• Pile’s Songs Known Together, Alone.
• L.A. Exes’ Get Some.
• OhGeesy’s Geezyworld.
• The Joy Formidable’s Into The Blue.
• Shaun Ryder’s Visits From Future Technology.
• Wanda Jackson’s Encore.
• Trippie Redd’s Trip At Knight.
• Alien Boy’s Don’t Know What I Am.
• Tropical Fuck Storm’s Deep States.
• Shannon & The Clams’ Year Of The Spider.
• Villagers’ Fever Dreams.
• Blu, Mickey Factz, and Nottz’s The Narrative.
• Debbie Gibson’s The Body Remembers.
• Morly’s ‘Til I Start Speaking.
• quickly, quickly’s The Long And Short Of It.
• Vivien Goldman’s Next Is Now.
• Martha Wainwright’s Love Will Be Reborn.
• David Duchovny’s Gestureland.
• Kool And The Gang’s Perfect Union.
• Subway Sect’s Moments Like These.
• Switchfoot’s interrobang.
• Martin Gore’s The Third Chimpanzee Remixed.
• Mia Doi Todd’s Ten Views Of Music Life.
• The Bob’s Burgers Music Album Vol. 2.
• Angel Olsen’s Aisles EP.
• Nilüfer Yanya’s Feeling Lucky? Remix EP.