Words by Andrew Lampela
Andrew Lampela was an employee and eventual co-owner of the 40-year old institution, Haffa’s Records in Athens, Ohio, just outside of the dark woods from which Skeletonwitch emerged. Over his years there he has played in a number of bands ranging from rock to noise to metal and has taken his lifelong knowledge of music into contributing to a number of publications.
Well, it seems I’ve survived being this recklessly mediocre long enough that people writing critical evaluations are hitting the periods that I not only lived through, but those that I was fervently inspired by. Daniel Lake covers quite a bit of ground in USBM: A Revolution Of Identity In American Black Metal (Decibel Books), and it is exactly the kind of book I like to nerd the fuck out on. I’m a bit late talking about it, but the unread piles are scarily out of control. I like to suffer my mid-life spiritual flailing by throwing more and more books at the idea of ‘spare time’ and, if you were actually allowed in my house to gaze upon these marvelous heaps of desperate youth-chasing capitalism, you would understand that I am a complete sucker for the all-consuming deep dive, the type of book that inspires a one hundred and nine hour playlist and takes three months to actually finish. I’m running out of shelf space, but it’s less douchey than a crisis-Porsche.
Lake’s book explores the birth, growth, and continued evolution of the US scene quite adeptly, introducing me to bands I missed in all phases, getting me to care about some of the goofy Satanic-y records I never quite understood the fuss about, and reminding me that some of those Krieg and Nachtmystium albums hold up better than expected. Mostly though, it re-enforces just how hard that early to mid 2000s West Coast stuff positively owned me. Leviathan and Xasthur opened the idea that I, too, could feel miserable out loud with a four track. Agalloch infused a natural progressiveness into their sweeping run of absolute classics. It’s an unforgivable crime that I somehow forgot how powerfully the tumultuous urban bleakness of Ludicra’s The Tenant (Profound Lore) affected me back then, a crime I’ve been trying to absolve myself of with daily listens to this absolute gem of forward thinking darkness. And my god, once I could finally find a copy of a copy, that Weakling record (Dead as Dreams, Tumult Records) was/is a fucking MONSTER.
Much like anyone else into the style, though, I too consider Diadem Of 12 Stars the unfuckwithable masterpiece of the era. Wolves In The Throne Room took an unlikely genre to new heights of popularity, and despite the expected shit-talk from the KVLT lords, stayed true to the intent of Black Metal’s roots. I’ll go one mild hot take further and declare that the stream-lined follow-up Two Hunters (Artemisia) stands as equal, and remains one of my favorite metal albums since its release. Seeing them in my local dank dive bar on this tour remains one of the best metal shows I’ve seen, and letting them crash at my house afterwards led to one of the weirdest brunches I’ve ever been lucky to be a part of.
By the time Black Cascade dropped in 2010, I was many years into obstinately refusing to deal with how rudderless and deeply cynical and angry I was living. I was busy drinking my face off all week so I could destroy some stranger’s basement with a scorched-earth noise set after getting super fucked up in their bathroom, and bands like WITTR and Agalloch had cleaned up their sound enough that they might as well have been Steely Dan, who, in 2010, were most definitely not yet cool to like, ironically or not, unless you were Jimmy Kisor (Ludicra, however, still fucking ripped). I did what any constantly inebriated person too involved with a scene would do. I let meaningless trash get in the way of the music and became one to the shit-talking KVLT idiots. Metal was all pretension and predicability, my personal abyss craving the the kind of scary that only 78s of raw gospel and world from the early 1900s (Dust to Digital) could provide.
So a new Wolves In The Throne Room album is fortuitous. Sure, Lake’s book has me laser-focused on ALL THE BLACK METAL, but I’m fortunate enough to be immersing myself in their back catalog far enough removed from being a constantly hammered record store dick to enjoy an immensely creative band without all that opinionated scene bullshit. I’m positive I won’t be feeding you any new information when I tell you that Wolves In The Throne Room aren’t in the practice of releasing bad albums. How much you’ll enjoy a WITTR album mostly depends on where you land on the black-metal-to-transcendent-epicness ratio, and Primordial Arcana (Relapse Records) a long way towards satisfying both ends.
It also won’t come as a shock that WITTR have a loosely set formula for their records. Establish mood, blast your face off, shellac with layers of soul-crushing gauzy guitar. “Mountain Magick” gets right to the point, rolling straight into the blast in just under a minute. WITTR juxtapose a lyrical melodicism against the harshness of Black Metal with the best of them, but shit doesn’t really take off until “Spirit Of Lightning”. When those epic guitars drop down into pure evil at 4:18, whoo boy, one of my favorite spots on the album. Touring guitarist Kody Keyworth joins the Weaver brothers as a full-time writing member in the band’s newly constructed studio, offering the group the opportunity to self-isolate and disappear up their own asses over-producing these songs into oblivion. Instead, I hear one of the most concise distillations of all things Wolves. There’s quite a bit going on in the background, with ambience and keyboards providing flourishes, but these songs never lose focus, and there isn’t an out of place moment to be found. Well, “Skyclad Passage” is a weirdly unnecessary (but welcome) bonus track, but the core album itself is fantastically tight.
I’m sure twelve years ago, I would’ve talked major shit on “Primal Chasm (Gift Of Fire)”, with all the synth textures, but it’s an absolute highlight. The addition of Keyworth’s lower register growls make Nathan Weaver’s screech really pop out, and the song itself is as crushingly heavy as you could ask for, lush and epic and blindingly fast. One thing noticeably absent is the addition of female vocals, something WITTR excel at utilizing across their discography. A minor quibble for me, as the ten minute centerpiece “Masters Of Rain And Storm” satisfies every craving I have for totally epic shit, while shoehorning in a few magnificent doom-esque parts. When they drop into that thirty or so seconds of death/doom around 4:28? Holy smokes, completely crushing.
Nothing is ever going to give me the chills like hearing Diadem for the first time, or spending a solid year living in every crevice of Two Hunters, but Primordial Arcana has very much been a staple in the rotation for the last month or so, and likely will stay there for the remainder of the year. I can’t wait to headphone this thing in the miserable grayness of Ohio winter, goddamn is THAT going to make sense. Wolves In The Throne Room are in peak form across these songs, adding textural highlights that give new depth with each listen. Sorry I ever doubted you guys, I was a miserable jerk back then. On the plus side, I’ve pretty much got four new Wolves albums to invest myself in now, with Primordial Arcana at the forefront.
Another fortuitous release is Ng’ambu (Gilead Media) by New Orleans Black Metal outfit Mehenet. Fits ever so nicely into the bender I’ve been on AND has members of Thou, whose collab albums with Emma Ruth Rundle (May Our Chambers be Full – Sacred Bones) are always in rotation. Most good Black Metal has sights set on invoking the feeling of ritual immersion. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but this album makes me feel like I’ve heard some of its ghosts. The band incorporates field recordings of the French Quarter as well as fleeting hints of traditional instrumentation into incredibly crafted Black Metal songs. Clean vocals rarely do it for me within the style, but really hold their own on “In The Garden Of Suicide” and add a very dark, epic feel. Ng’ambu proves that clean production can really work in the genre, provided the actual playing is raw and dirty. It is. One of the more unexpected gems this year, this is a great album.
Another group Lake’s book nudged me into reconsidering is Deafheaven. I saw them open for Russian Circles way back before they blew up, and I remember them being pretty good. Then a bunch of records came out that I was supposed to hate so I did without really giving them a chance. And what do you know? They ALSO have a new album out. So what the hell, I’m pretty open to shit these days, why not dive into some pretty Black Metal. Only Infinite Granite (Sargent House) sets out to shed all the Black Metal fans still clinging to hope and become one of the biggest Shoegaze bands on the planet. Deafheaven is floating on pure atmospheric creativity, and I don’t think they give much of a shit about genres anymore. It’s like they did emo Depeche Mode covers at open stage one night and had a ton of fun, and then wrote an album. There’s still some heaviness here, just smothered in thick effects. Drop “Lament For Wasps” as a single, all seven minutes, and these guys are ginormous, no question. I certainly didn’t expect this, but Infinite Granite has me pretty excited to revisit their catalog.
A good indication of how deep in the Black Metal weeds I am, consider that any other month Ænigmatum (20 Buck Spin) would easily make the lead review. As much as I love the gore-and-bludgeoning stuff, Deconsecrate is so much my complex brutal-but-epic technical Death Metal shit, it’s not funny. We are truly living in a golden age right now. There is so so so much good Death Metal being released currently, it’s difficult to fit it all in. Don’t sleep on this one. Prominent bass, ferocious death blasting, some epic as fuck parts, all distilled into great songs that don’t needlessly over-technical the life out of themselves. It’s also one of the more aesthetically pleasing cassettes I’ve picked up recently. If you don’t like this, you don’t like Death Metal.
Spirit Adrift (20 Buck Spin) have a new EP coming, and while I haven’t gotten to spend much time with it, the guitars on the title track are just bonkers awesome in the most restrained way, so another great release from these dudes. Krigsgrav (Wise Blood Records) are difficult to pin down, weaving through Black and Melodic Death metal at will, with a dash of melodically downcast European doom in the guitar harmonies, maybe? Anyway, it’s really good. Finally got around to the Paysage D’Hiver (Kunsthall Produktionen), and it too is really, really good. Dead Heat (Triple B Records) take the award for dumb-cover-I-need-to-hear, and scratch my itch for 80s throwback thrash. Nothing new, but fun as shit. Whoever wrote Tombstoner’s (Redefining Darkness) bio needs to dial it the fuck back, but Victims of Vile Torture is worth checking out. The riffs are deceptively high brow in Karloff’s (Dying Victims) punky blackened rock, and it has faint whiffs of Entombed (mostly in the vocals) so fuck yeah. More metal adjacent, but DARE (Revelation Records) just dropped a smoking straight-edge (heh heh) hardcore ripper that’s definitely worth checking out.