Album Review: Wolves In The Throne Room—”Celestite”

By James Li

Wolves in the Throne Room, an Olympia duo consisting of brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver, are a unique if polarizing black metal band. The band was conceived at an Earth First! rally, so it’s safe to say that they are committed to radical environmentalism. They even say that “if you listen to [black metal], but you don’t know what phase the moon is in, or what wild flowers are blooming then you have failed.” (Nocturnal Cult) You can think of them as more misanthropic versions of Bon Iver: the brothers live on a farm called Calliope, where they grow their own food and raise animals, and they play their concerts around campfires deep in the forests of the West Coast.

Even if you’re not a tree-hugger, you can make a strong argument that Wolves are presently one of the best black metal bands. Their out-of-print debut, Diadem of the 12 Stars hinted at great things to come, and their following efforts Two Hunters, Black Cascade, and Celestial Lineage form a thematically linked trilogy of black metal classics. But their latest album, Celestite, is not black metal at all: it is a synth-driven ambient album, featuring no vocals or drums.

The absence of vocals and drums, and the sparse use of guitar on Celestite, makes this Wolves’ airiest effort by far. While there are plenty of ambient albums with a dark aesthetic, Celestite is not one of them. If it weren’t for the rumbling guitar in the foreground in the ponderous “Initiation at Neudeg Alm,” the track wouldn’t sound out of place if played in a New Age bookstore. It might be because Wolves are taking cues from New Age music and philosophy; the band is vocal about their admiration of German krautrock and New Age band Popol Vuh and Celestite is named after a mineral that can supposedly open the crown chakra.

Some parts of Celestite wouldn’t sound out of place on a science fiction soundtrack either, especially given that the band tries to evoke the feeling of being in outer space. When the synths get punchier and start leading melodies, such as in the middle portion of “Celestite Mirror” or “Sleeping Golden Storm,” they sound ripped straight out of a Vangelis film score.

Album art for Celestite

Album art for Celestite

While Wolves change up their sound and include some interesting influences, Celestite never quite takes off. Celestite is big on atmosphere, but not much else. The synths are the most prominent feature on Celestite, but they drift and shimmer with little progression. Big climactic moments are sparingly used on the album, but when they do happen, like at the end of “Celestite Mirror,” they sound forced and awkward. The traces of influences like Popol Vuh and Vangelis are clear on the album too, but Celestite is less than the sum of its parts.

Despite the band’s assertions that Celestite was intended to be a companion record to their 2011 album, Celestial Lineage, three years is undoubtedly a long time to wait for a companion piece, and listening to Celestial Lineage makes Celestite sound even duller in comparison. Wolves were unafraid to use female vocalists, folk passages, and analog synths on Celestial Lineage, creating atmosphere that served the music; however, it is the other way around on Celestite.

Wolves could have learned a bit more from Vangelis. Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner is a worthy companion to the film: the score is a compelling standalone listen even for those who have never watched the movie. But Celestite is not very compelling as a standalone piece, and it pales in comparison to its sister album Celestial Lineage. It’s pleasantly unobtrusive – maybe you can listen to it while you’re reading. Or, if you want to align yourself with Wolves’ green philosophy, put this on while you’re meditating or doing yoga. It’s decent background music, but Wolves have proven themselves capable of bigger and better things before. As it turns out, Wolves are a great black metal band but uninspiring ambient musicians. (Artemisia)

Listen: “Initiation at Neudeg Alm”

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