For better or for worse, the United States is now very much a part of the broader black metal frontier, and Washington-born three-piece Wolves in the Throne Room could be said to have been the pioneers for the Pacific Northwest, opening the floodgates and helping harbour the rise to prominence of many US-based bands to come after them. As the original ambassadors for American black metal, Wolves in the Throne Room have numerous genre-changing records under their belt, with the group’s debut from 2006, Diadem of 12 Stars, acting as an appropriate representation of the themes and philosophies that underpin the band’s maiden voyage to bring their brand of Cascadian black metal across the Atlantic. The album artwork’s depiction of a sylvan mountainside swaddled by mist embodies the reverence for the landscapes of the American countryside that has been echoed through the forests of the United States’ black metal scene for years since, with releases from the likes of Panopticon and Falls of Rauros paralleling this appreciation of the natural, with chilling ambience cloaking their crisp guitar lines like fog camouflaging conifers. Indeed, atmosphere has always been placed very much at the forefront of American black metal’s aesthetic, as if a reflection of the haze and woodsmoke so commonly illustrated on record sleeves and in promotional photos, which would explain why blackgaze bands such as Deafheaven and Ghost Bath have been met with commercial success so shortly after first sprouting from these same US regional scenes. In the case of Wolves in the Throne Room, the trio’s tangible veneration for ambient music manifested itself vividly on their last album, 2014’s Celestite, which explored the themes of their previous project, Celestial Lineage, sans the usual shrieked vocals, tremolo-picked guitars and blistering blast beats of black metal, with the group instead opting for an entirely drone-based dark ambient undertaking that proved to be a breath of fresh air for the band in more ways than one. As such, questions were left open for the direction that Wolves in the Throne Room would take on future material, with their newest full-length endeavour, Thrice Woven, seeing the trio largely return to their atmospheric black metal roots, but with minor tweaks made to the stylistic undertones of their sound in a way that continues to progress their artistry, albeit in a far more subtle fashion compared to Celestite.In fact, mentioning the folk-wound black metal stylings of Panopticon and Falls of Rauros earlier was rather apt, as the flickers of folk noir sensibilities that have only seldom been present throughout Wolves in the Throne Room’s past output are far more prominent across Thrice Woven. This being said, such folksy leanings are nevertheless rather understated in the album’s sonic palette, and arguably for the better, with the twang of acoustic guitars ringing against the band’s usual austere ambiance, whilst Swedish singer-songwriter Anna van Hausswolff contributes vocals to two of the record’s five tracks for that added element of Scandinavian rusticity that has defined black metal since its second wave. Indeed, as is to be expected from a Wolves in the Throne Room record, the striking, homespun presentation of Thrice Woven encompasses a great deal of its appeal, with the album being as aesthetically dramatic as one could expect from the group at this point. As for its depth, however, Thrice Woven lacks the same songwriting substance as previous projects from Wolves in the Throne Room, with the band struggling to tie many of these 10-minute tracks together with the same strong melodic tones and potent song progressions of their past output. Their usual sparks of creativity do, however, show up throughout the tracklisting, but the group’s compositional chops are far more fractured here, perhaps more than ever before, with the result being a similarly scattered record overall. All in all, although Thrice Woven continues to expand on Wolves in the Throne Room’s stylistic and aesthetic underpinnings in interesting ways, this artistic advancement isn’t reinforced by the same substance that guided their growth on Celestite, with the end product being somewhat deficient in a defined compositional direction.
Looking at each individual element that went into the making of Thrice Woven, it seems as if all the ingredients are here for Wolves in the Throne Room to craft another one of their dark and dynamic black metal records. The fact, therefore, that when all of these components come together, they form one of the weaker releases for the group, leaves the questions regarding what could have been done to push this project into the realm of magnificence wherein the likes of Diadem of 12 Stars and Celestial Lineage reside somewhat difficult to answer. In short, this often seems to circle back to an issue of balance, which has typically been something at which Wolves in the Throne Room have excelled. After all, the three-piece are known and revered for their ability to effortlessly teeter between the burning fire and brimstone of their pure black metal passages and the lucidity of their more ambient sections that comes to clear the smoke. This quintessential formula for the band certainly shows up on Thrice Woven and, as such, it should be no surprise that the songs to execute this usual tonal pivot in an especially graceful or arresting fashion are by far the most successful on the album from a songwriting perspective. The record’s opening track and lead single, Born from the Serpent’s Eye, for instance, is a prime example of this Wolves in the Throne Room blueprint, but is no less effective for it, particularly with the added folk flair that comes with the slinky acoustic guitars that introduce the song and the spectral singing from Anna van Hausswolff. Through the first half of the track, the guitars weave through some of their most serpentine and achingly forceful riffs, with the constant tremolo-picked licks of the gritty lead guitar tying the whole passage together, whilst the second guitar’s meandering melodies unearth some haunting harmonies. Aaron Weaver’s drumming is relatively bare-bones as far as black metal goes, as is often the case on a Wolves in the Throne Room track, with this approach truly bringing out the brittleness in the track’s atmosphere, which can be easily broken and built back up again, along with the commanding changes of pace in Aaron’s rhythmic contributions. Undoubtedly, however, the centrepiece of Born from the Serpent’s Eye comes during the moment of clarity and respite from the foregoing black metal madness, as the most throttling passage of the track thus far is cut short, as the sound of wintry winds and crystalline chimes glaze over the cut’s cold aura. The ensuing harmonies of Hausswolff’s choral lament seemingly offer the pure and sacred alternative to the hellishly harrowing harmonies struck by the guitars previously, whilst the uplifting apex of her vocals brings the band back into what is one of the most colossal and powerful moments on the entire record. As Hausswolff’s mystical cries soar above the lumbering percussion and fiercely impassioned guitar melodies, this passage is undoubtedly burningly potent in and of itself, but the build-up that brought it to this point makes it even more formidable and satisfying. After Born from the Serpent’s Eye establishes that Wolves in the Throne Room have not lost their aptitude for exceptionally dynamic and progressive black metal, however, their compositional capacity begins to wane over the course of the rest of Thrice Woven. Its second single, Angrboda, for example, brandishes one of the most riveting displays of guitar latticework across the entire record in its main riff, but it seems as if the group knows this, as a significant portion of the song is hinged on repeating this lick, to the point of blunting some of its initial impact. Also, in a similar fashion to the opening track, Angrboda routinely interrupts its passages of pure, propulsive black metal for moments of sluggish, doom metal-infused muscle, but on this song, such transitions arrive in a notably more stilted manner, as there often lacks any sort of recurring melody or motif to properly bind these adjacent sections together. Likewise, the album’s last and longest song, Fires Roar in the Palace of the Moon, suffers from similar symptoms in its songwriting, plus, despite its 11-and-a-half-minute length, it only has a handful of truly enrapturing melodies to flaunt, with much of the track dwelling on more insignificant details that don’t feel as crucial to the progression of the piece. Specifically, some abrasive drone work is integrated into the cut for almost a full two minutes, but with a much harsher disposition compared to the shimmers and sparkles of Celestite. However, this passage is also missing the same subtleties in its development, with the gradual expansion of its sound essentially coming as a foregone conclusion, whilst certain textural flourishes come across as slightly clunky and laboured. Indeed, whilst Thrice Woven may be comprised of the same constituents that typically go into the making of a Wolves in the Throne Room record, it nevertheless feels as if the band’s sense of balance is a bit off at times, with their usual, cavernous tone shifts being utilised with noticeably less nuance, in a way that occasionally hinders the compositional development of some of these pieces.
On the sonic side of things is where Thrice Woven truly shines, but as is the case with the songwriting, there exist some substantial shortfalls that become all the more prominent when drawing comparisons between this album and others in Wolves in the Throne Room’s back-catalogue. As such, although, overall, some lacklustre production leaves Thrice Woven as perhaps the trio’s least gripping record from a sonic standpoint, there are nevertheless many embellishments that give the listener ample amounts of auditory splendour to appreciate. After all, with Wolves in the Throne Room’s discography upholding such a high standard when it comes to the group’s winsome aesthetic quality, even their least sonically dense project is bound to still have some magnificent tricks up its sleeve. In relation to Thrice Woven, as previously mentioned, many of the most ravishing moments in the tracklisting come in the form of the folksy frills and furbelows that are singular to this album alone for the band. Hausswolff’s heavenly lilt sounds all the more luscious when textured so fully and richly on Born from the Serpent’s Eye, with the ethereal tinkling playing against her wispy hue to craft some genuinely hair-raising moments of beauty. Just as gorgeous is the singer’s reappearance on the brief, ambient-based interlude track of Mother Owl, Father Ocean, wherein her lingering siren calls are delicately layered on top of one another in stunning and inventive ways, whilst the echoed chinking of a grand harp is interwoven into this mesh of sublime sounds to create another instance of spine-chilling grace. When it comes to the elements that are more typical of an average release from Wolves in the Throne Room, there are undoubtedly a handful of outstanding features to be found in the sonic palette used to paint Thrice Woven as this rugged and rustic venture into the forests of folk-infused black metal. The contrasting guitar tones that are used across the record work well to emphasise many of the guitars’ most arresting harmonies and counterpoints, whilst the use of glistening, proggy keyboards on Born from the Serpent’s Eye adds a great deal of depth to the track’s tone, particularly in how well it anchors the melodic side of the piece into the bedrock of forlorn ambience. Less impressive than many of the well-worked instrumental staples of Thrice Woven, however, is the production, which fashions what is likely the least heavy of Wolves in the Throne Room’s black metal records to date, and this primarily relates to the place of drums. The bass drum is woefully deficient in any punch and, at times, is barely even audible, whilst the snare drum is so lacking in any resonance or clout that Aaron may as well be bashing a crisp packet. If anything, the fact that the snare is turned up in the mix to compensate for this only emphasises how horribly thin it sounds, leaving it to jut out in a rather distracting fashion. Similarly, although the guttural screeches of vocalist Nathan Weaver have typically provided the salient source of viciousness in the group’s sound, his shrieks are buried in the mix far more than usual across Thrice Woven. Whilst it’s understandable that this technique may have been used to contribute to the overt ambient leanings of the album, it’s not as if previous Wolves in the Throne Room projects were lacking in the atmospheric department simply because of the more conspicuous presence of Nathan’s vocals, so their more obscured mixing on Thrice Woven leaves the record missing the fiercely clenched teeth that gave much of the group’s past output such a strong bite. Again, there are more than enough excellent touches in the instrumentation to leave Thrice Woven feeling like a satisfying listening experience overall, but, especially when compared to past material from Wolves in the Throne Room, the record feels lighter and thinner in a way that doesn’t capture the full dynamic range that the band has proven themselves capable of achieving previously.
Given that many criticised Wolves in the Throne Room’s decision to rest on their laurels on records such as Black Cascade and Celestial Lineage, the fact that Thrice Woven witnesses the group push into new territory within their atmospheric black metal paradigm is something that should surely be celebrated, especially given that many of the album’s highlights come in the form of its more folk-orientated forays. Unfortunately, however, much more could have been made of this new direction if the trio came through with the same songwriting substance of their previous records, whilst some occasionally underwhelming production leaves the overall sonic quality of the project feeling somewhat colourless. To an extent, it feels as if Wolves in the Throne Room were striving for an even more stripped-back style to suit the more folksy tone of Thrice Woven, but to the point of straddling the line between a striking semblance of austerity and a slight lack of depth to their sound, with the album unfortunately tilting towards the latter at times. This being said, in many ways, the group’s latest effort proves to be the most aesthetically unique of their black metal endeavours, with the folk elements being incorporated so successfully that one can only hope that they pursue this style further into the future, but with some more considerable compositional ideas to back it up. Ultimately, Thrice Woven marks an interesting new chapter in Wolves in the Throne Room’s artistry and, although the trio may not have unlocked its full potential just yet, this is something that could unquestionably be achieved on subsequent material.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10