On Celestite, the fifth LP from Olympia, Washington’s atavistic warriors Wolves In The Throne Room, the Weaver brothers have done probably the least black metal thing imaginable, and released a record of modular synth soundscapes. And while the keepers of the trve kvlt flame are undoubtedly at home, sharpening their battle axes and planning a jihad, Celestite points out some interesting layers of the modern musical milieu, as well as simply being good music.Since the very beginning, Wolves In The Throne Room have been accused of being hipster metal — solely responsible for getting a generation of skinny jeans emo vegans into the blasphemous glory of black metal. For the grim hordes this is, of course, unforgivable, but it’s not entirely fair or accurate, either. I mean, come on, Thurston Moore and Julian Cope have been waxing eloquent about the guttural charms of BM since the ’80s.
Wolves In The Throne Room did not amend their sound, or sand down the rough edges (although I’m not entirely sure if they wear corpse paint on stage, or move around while performing; and their slightly higher-fidelity recordings automatically disqualify them for kvlt status. Instead, Wolves In The Throne Room’s ascent seems more closely tied to a case of being in the right place at the right time and tapping into a vein of the cultural subconscious. They say more about the types of people who dig black metal, and because of it, they actually have more interesting insights into the genres that they work in than the traditionalists.Celestite is the companion record to 2011’s Celestial Lineage. Surprisingly, there’s hardly any guitars, and it is entirely devoid of blastbeats. Instead, Celestite is a five-track odyssey of Vangelis-synth brass and Jupiter 8 meditations, like something from the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. So what’s the common denominator between black metal and sci-fi synth tweaking?
On the surface, there isn’t one, but if you dig through the rhizomatic latticework of both genres, as well as Wolves’ unique origin story, you’ll find a link. First of all, Wolves In The Throne Room are pretty much synonymous with their hometown of Olympia, Washington, and the small but devout movement known as Cascadian Black Metal, most of which rather unfairly gets tagged as hipster metal. When you consider Mount Eerie‘s Phil Elverum‘s quote for The Believer, about there being “a vague sense of nature worship” inherent to the American Pacific Northwest, an invisible narrative begins to weave itself, make itself known.Wolves In The Throne Room are notorious eco-activists and back-to-the-landers, so to see them adopting the very image of futurist technology is enough to arch an eyebrow. I have always had the sense with their music of colossal, epic battles between light and darkness, order and chaos being waged mid-air. Their brutality was the sound of the Earth rising up to defend itself, the primal howl of the atavistic return, as cyberpunk shamans gather in city parks and beneath underpasses to worship the old gods.
Actually, this is a decent lead-in to the subliminal messaging of Celestite. The overall impression I was left with was of a group of druids, some sort of Starry Wisdom cult, gathering at some stone circle or forest clearing to open a portal. It starts off earthen, but very quickly becomes entirely sci-fi, like the souls of the supplicants flying off to deep space and beyond, perhaps into the dilated pupil of their ancient blind god. There’s enough horrorscore dissonance and John Carpenter ambiance to suggest this wisdom is not softly won. There will be pain. There will be bloodshed. Some (most) may not even come back.This melding suggests, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the worlds of infernal black metal, retro horror and sci-fi, ancient electronic LPs and this turning to modular electronics is just another sign that electronic music and instruments are becoming part of the folklore, as can be seen in the battery-powered drum circles of the Jewelled Antler Collective, the rural electronics of Hacker Farm, even the on-location outdoor electronica of Forest Swords and his native Cornwall. This suggests a coming together, a dismissal of differences, a re-congealing, after the post-modern melting pot.
And speaking of druids, Celestite can’t help but bring to mind another group of heavy metal wizards: Sunn O))) and their Monoliths & Dimensions with its expansion into avant-classical territory. The sparkling, meteor shower synths are joined by French horn blasts and airy flutes, along with occasional tremors of tectonic guitars, like on “Initiation At Neudeg Alm.” The combination of classical music and powerful metal alone is worthy of celebration, pushing the folk forms of populist music into classical configurations, like raising a cathedral out of sticks. Its a little obnoxious that the underground has to rise up to established forms, like jazz or classical, to become applaudable (even though it seems most critics still hated this record), while the classical critics wouldn’t waste a pencil stub on a noise release, but that’s another story…Speaking of critics missing the point, when Pitchfork critic Grayson Currin claimed “isn’t it possible to see Celestite as a middling modular synthesizer record, where occasional moments of grace and power come swallowed by gyres of hesitation,” he overlooks some inherent qualities of this style of music. First, and foremost, it is DAMN HARD to get instruments to sound this good. Wolves In The Throne Room are using THE BEST analogue gear (a Serge Modular, in this case), easily on par with most classic film scores, and getting them to sit comfortably with metal guitars and orchestral instruments. It’s a stunning achievements, and one not even attempted by most straight practitioners of separate crafts. Celestite pushes each form up a notch, opens up possibilities and offers a challenge to each.
The second criticism of the criticism is where he questions the shuffling nature of the music, which also seems characteristic of modular electronics. The unpredictability is pretty much unavoidable, and is incorporated into “compositions”, which make more for journeys than songs. There is never a moment on Celestite that I found boring. But then again, I like new age synthesizer records, so what do i know?
Celestite is like an audio illustration of the hermetic axiom “as above, so below”, like William Blake seeing heaven in a grain of sand. If you were to stare into the dark heart of a sunflower close enough, you would begin to see the whirling of galaxies. In this, humanity finds their place, comfortably, within and part of nature. This is sci-fi paganism. This is futurist music. Ancient and modern — a new synth for the old ceremony. Music for stargazing, or for slowly dancing. And, of course, for inspiring.