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Cam’s Album Review #26: Celestial Lineage - Wolves in the Throne Room (2011)

In my review of Benjamin Dauer’s excellent 2010 album Burning of Wine, I talked about the way ambient music (at least, quality ambient offerings) can transport the listener away from everyday mundane existence. Ambient music can lend new meaning to commonplace experience and can be a way for the artist to draw the listener into a world of their devising while also being malleable enough for the listener to make connections with it based on their own feelings and experiences. This is one of the most intriguing things about the genre in my opinion and is a large reason why I’ve really started to delve into it more than I ever had before.

This world-building, escapist function of music has always influenced my tastes. I love certain artists and albums and songs that seem to perfectly reflect my life or current situations that I personally find myself in or that the we as a species find ourselves in, sure. But times arise when I just want to explore a different musical world, one where I can use my imagination like I would reading a book or watching a movie. I want the experience of the music to extend outward and stick with me after I’ve stopped listening, continuing to make me think and supplying me with fresh ideas and viewpoints. And this is why I have started listening to black metal.

Now, ambient music and black metal seem to be two genres at completely different ends of the musical spectrum. Ambient is usually calm, if not melodic, and generally has no vocals or percussion. Black metal is often harsh, with screamed vocals, frantic drumming, and loud guitars. But in the case of today’s band, Wolves in the Throne Room and their 2011 masterpiece, Celestial Lineage, the band manages to pear intense black metal with a folky, ambient sensibility to create beautiful music that brings the listener in and almost succeeds in convincing them that they don’t want to return. (I made that sound a lot grimmer than it is, I’m really just enthused about this album)

Heavier bands have actually been using elements of ambient music for years now. Bands like Isis, Rosetta, Old Man Gloom, Agalloch, and others routinely combine interesting ambient interludes which can range from simple palette cleansers to being songs that go toe-to-toe with the “main attraction” type songs. Wolves in the Throne Room, which is made up of brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver and hails from Olympia, Washington, the state that seems to be at the forefront of American metal, takes an approach similar to acts like Agalloch, by combining elements of folk and ambient with traditional black metal. The Agalloch comparison is an easy one to make, but WitTR sound a great deal more raw, often times moving at a much quicker pace (though they are also no strangers to the 10 minute+ song).

The album opens in a way that most don’t seem to expect, with Jessica Kenney’s operatic vocal stylings. It’s honestly a little bit fun to surprise people by talking up how Wolves in the Throne Room is a black metal band and then watching their reaction to the opening few minutes of “Thuja Magus Imperium.” Sure enough, Kenney’s hymn-like singing does give way to fuzzed out guitar and machine gun drumming. The lyrics of that song and of most of the others seem to have to do with pagan practices and nature mainly which does not detract from them being downright awesome, with subjects like fire and blood and beasts and battle and transcendence. They are pretty damn cool if you take the time to look into them. However, what truly makes Celestial Lineage _the first black metal album to really hook me in and smother me with its dark and brooding goodness is just how so damn _memorable it is. The production on the album usually seems to muddle the vocals, drums, guitars, and electronics together, creating a wall of sound that’s hypnotic and moving though not in the sense of creating a desire to smash your body into another person’s body at high velocity. Even amongst this wonderful din, the Weavers manage to craft memorable moments such as after the first verse of “Thuja Magus Imperium” when Nathan Weaver screams “Great firs, felled by the WIIIIIINNND” and the guitar picks up and sounds absolutely breathtaking. Or in “Subterranean Initiation” when at the 2 minute mark the music calms only to reignite with the sparks of Nathan Weaver’s wordless snarl and spiral far out into the galaxy. It’s breathtaking moments like these that make the music of WitTR so absolutely incredible. Hell, the first few minutes of “Astral Blood” are almost downright catchy. It’s really no wonder that the band has enjoyed great success outside of simply the black metal underground (which contrary to popular belief is, I don’t believe, located next to the mouth of hell).

I’m still working my way through the band’s back catalogue but _Celestial Lineage _feels like a magnum opus to me and is also a great entry point for black metal initiates or for fans of heavy music in general.

"The moon leads celestial legions/ To cast the stars from their ancient thrones/ Astral blood pours forth from their grievous wounds."- Astral Blood

Top 3:

  1. Subterranean Initiation

  2. Thuja Magus Imperium

  3. Astral Blood

Cam’s Album Review #25: Celestial-Isis (2001)

I awake to an alien setting. A desert stretches in all directions; I get the sense that this desert is more devoid of life than any I have known. Neither fauna nor flora, no matter how cleverly adapted could survive here. The air feels wrong; the sun appears much the same except that the heat it gives off is hostile, attempting to eradicate, to purify, rather than to cultivate. I feel hopeless and alone. As I look about I see a landmark that, rather than engendering any sort of recognition on my part renders me speechless through its awesome and terrible majesty. I sink to my knees fearful of the terrible tower of twisted, glittering metal I saw before me. And yet I must travel towards it! The odds of my survival seemed slim should I remain without sustenance in this environment so bent upon my destruction. I rose unsteadily to my feet and began moving one foot in front of the other, propelling myself inexorably towards my doom. I walked for what seemed like an hour, seeming to barely make a dent in the distance between myself and the tower which I now saw was full of minute holes that as the rays of sunlight passed through caused a frightening aura, as if the structure was pierced by light like needles in a pincushion. Suddenly as I walked, a most terrible noise began at the very low-end of my hearing. A terrible buzzing. The sound slowly rose in pitch and volume and I found my vision beginning to fade. I stumbled, caught myself, attempted another a step but then fell once more. The buzzing filled my ears to the point where I could no longer hear my own screaming, though I must still have been because sand whipped by the wind filled my mouth. My vision fading, the last sight before I lost consciousness was a black, undulating swarm, pouring from the holes in the structure and coagulating above it. As the swarm began to pour towards me, I could only think to close my mouth lest I be drowned.

What does the above paragraph have to do with Isis’s first full-length album? Directly? Nothing at all. Several songs make mention of swarms and towers, but the rest of the ideas are my own (and influenced vaguely by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft). That paragraph, however, is part of a half-finished story that I wrote about Celestial, especially but not limited to the first three main tracks. Metal has often been a breeding ground for high-concept albums and while I have absolutely no idea what Aaron Turner was trying to communicate through his lyrics, the album succeeds brilliantly in firing up a listener’s imagination and conjuring up images that are both somewhat frightening but also full of majesty.

Isis (now unfortunately defunct) is a legendarily influential band both for me personally and for the metal community at-large. Celestial features Turner’s fearsome vocals, crushing riffs, the propulsive qualities of hardcore mixed with the dark, brooding, grandeur of heavy metal, and a keen eye for atmospherics. While later releases show an increased mastery of dynamics and a more lush and beautiful sound, it is the raw power energy that drew me to this album first among their others (Panopticon (2004) may actually have the first CD I purchased, but “Celestial (The Tower)” was the first song I fell in love with and had the local Best Buy had that in stock I would have purchased Celestial first).

“Celestial (The Tower)” encapsulates pretty much everything there is to the Isis sound on this album, with its hypnotic opening guitar lines and harsh electronics giving way to crushing riffs and Aaron Turner screaming like he’s being torn in half (in a good way). Isis is a lyrically strong band when you can make out what the words actually are, which can be challenge even for listeners who are well-conditioned to understand screaming because Turner doesn’t always enunciate in a typical fashion. The two tracks that follow “Celestial (The Tower)”, “Glisten” and “Swarm Reigns (Down)” find Turner seemingly reaching into his subconscious and pulling out images that feel psychological in nature. His delivery is short and rapid fire, which fits the ever undulating and propulsive music. Later Isis albums would find them relying more heavily on “clean” sections and Turner’s “clean” vocals as a contrast for the heavier parts, which usually worked well. However, I there is something about how absolutely straightforward and punishing Celestial is that makes it such a refreshing listen compared to many other “post-metal” albums.

Ultimately, I think that Celestial is one of the best metal albums of all time. It is fearless and dark and brooding and fierce, it will sweep you up and not let you go. One of my biggest regrets is that I never saw Isis live before they broke up. All of its members are still active in other worthy bands and I suppose there is always the possibility of a reunion tour. Regardless, if you want an album that will challenge your conception of what metal can do, look no further than Celestial.

Top 3:

  1. Celestial (The Tower)
  2. Gentle Time
  3. Deconstructing Towers

"Our inventions split their cocoons/And the whir of wings was deafening/Rain down/ And bring a gentle time"- Gentle Time