Wolves in the Throne Room and WIFE Demonstrate How Not-Metal Still Isn’t the New Metal

  • Sammy O'Hagar

Black metal is weird and intensely personal music. Subsequently, you can find yourself with incredibly deep bonds to its records for reasons you can’t quite articulate. In that vein, I can’t think of many albums with which I have as profound a relationship as Wolves in the Throne Room’s Two Hunters and Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury. Both records dragged black metal to its outskirts, with WITTR hurling themselves past Weakling in terms of rambling song structures, and AoP weaving noise and electronic music as deeply into their DNA as raspy screaming and avalanche-grade blastbeats. Both records were basically fucking perfect. And unlike black metal’s founding fathers, they didn’t keep regurgitating the same material or have their sound “mature” (or blissfully devolve à la Darkthrone) into a different kind of metal over the next few decades. That is, unlike black metal’s founding fathers, except for Ulver. Wolves in the Throne Room and WIFE, the new project from Altar of Plagues’ James Kelly, have run off with the Ulver playbook and are reading from it willy-nilly. The results, unsurprisingly, are interesting.

Wolves in the Throne Room are the most faithful to Ulver’s legacy (which, duh, is making their most black metal record then gradually phasing out of black metal, then metal altogether. Catch up!) Celestite isn’t remotely close to metal as it isn’t even close to popular music. Theoretically contrary to the band’s woodsy eco-feminist roots, their latest is a 45-minute-long mist of synths. No drums, only occasional droning and ornamental guitars, no vocals. Axl Q. Rosenberg, Esq. compared it to Vangelis’ music (the Chariots of Fire guy who also did the music for Blade Runner), which is suitably apt. It also borrows heavily from Brian Eno’s more spare work and synthy prog dorks Tangerine Dream. Celestite sounds like a lot of things. But does it sound like Wolves in the Throne Room?

The answer is… sort of! Synths weren’t foreign to WITTR; in fact, that was one of my favorite parts of the band. Their keyboards always sounded deliberately artificial, like chopping down a tree then using a rusty chainsaw to cut up the trunk. Celestite seemingly takes the templates of Wolves in the Throne Room songs and fills them with nothing but the sparsest parts of the band. The spirit is still there: it sounds simultaneously beautiful, ominous, and spacious. But as with a lot of dark ambient music, the question isn’t whether it’s good, but whether it can hold your attention for an album’s length. And Celestite… mostly does. The 9-minute-and-counting swathes of time that take up all but two of the album’s tracks are a lot of formless space to explore. While the snarl and intensity of WITTR is mostly gone, its DNA remains. It emotionally occupies the same area, but with a wildly different approach. And while that makes for some interesting (and admittedly decent) music, it lacks the power Wolves in the Throne Room was once known for. An admirable experiment, but if this is the way of life for the band now… I’m not sure what to make of it.

Altar of Plagues spared themselves (more) “Is this even black metal???” questions by dissolving after releasing their most daring (and most bestest) record. But AoP mastermind James Kelly would draw comparisons no matter what he did next. And those comparisons aren’t necessarily uncalled for on What’s Between, the debut from WIFE. What’s missing from it is the harshness, the desperation, and the panoramic melancholy of Altar of Plagues. But like with WITTR’s Celestite, WIFE uses the once-auxiliary elements from AoP to create an entirely new entity. The difference is that What’s Between is a little more grounded. This is a record of songs, not progressions of sound. And though every one of those songs is decidedly not metal, they still originate from a familiar point of sadness for those who followed James Kelly’s previous project.

What’s Between has a mechanical R&B backbone that owes just as much to The Weeknd as it does to Trent Reznor’s S&M take on Prince’s aesthetic. For a guy who once wrote a 19-minute post-black metal song called “Neptune is Dead,” WIFE have a lot of tethers tied back to Kanye West’s more daring production (Yeezus, obviously, but also some of the sparser stuff on Graduation and even 808s & Heartbreak at times). While Kelly lacks the inspired electro-genius of dudes like of The Weeknd or Yeezy, WIFE lands pretty deftly on its feet. Some of the record ends up working more in theory than in execution, but songs like the ominous trudge of “Salvage” or scorched Earth love song “Dans Ce” pack an emotional punch. Whether or not WIFE measures up to Altar of Plagues is insignificant; the latter released their last album then called it quits, making WIFE its own experience. That experience is pretty excellent in its own way.

While black metal isn’t nearly as rigid as its most-orthodox champions make it seem, there’s definitely a limit to it. That’s why Wolves in the Throne Room went the full Ulver: why languish somewhere you don’t really want to be in order to make a variation on the same point? So should they be punished for sticking to their moniker to release music antithetical to the band’s prior catalog? Of course not. But they don’t deserve a free pass, either. Both Celestite and What’s Between are tremendously experimental records, but part of the nature of experimentation is failure (and thus trying another approach that might work). Celestite and What’s Next are both semi-failures, but in a great way: they try something bold and aggressively different and manage to produce something interesting. The fact that James Kelly and Wolves in the Throne Room allowed themselves to snap off and float freely in space untethered is admirable. But they’re on their own now without the cushioning of their back catalog to offset any potential faceplant. While that makes their respective futures cause for apprehension, neither were the type to rest on their laurels. If anything, a “back to basics” Wolves in the Throne Room album or an Altar of Plagues reunion would be significantly worse than a botched creative attempt on the part of either band. Fortunately, though both are hit and miss, Celestite and What’s Between are solid enough to justify continued interest in both their makers.

Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestite

3 horns

(3 out of 5 horns)

WIFE, What’s Between

3 and a half horns

(3 ½ out of 5 horns)

Celestite and What’s Between are both out now. Get Celestite here and What’s Between here.

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