Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Wolves In The Throne Room - Celestial Lineage

In his glowing review for Pitchfork, Brandon Stosuy hails Wolves In The Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage as “the contemporary American scene's defining statement.” I couldn’t agree more. Over the last few years WITTR and their ilk have worked tirelessly to strip black metal of everything that makes it fun, dangerous, and musically engaging, and Celestial Lineage represents the culmination of their efforts. There is no better expression of the follies of the USBM movement.

But for us haters, Stosuy has his usual canned response: WITTR are “fucking with the template more than purists would like,” and in so doing are producing easily dismissed “scenester backlash.” Art, for Stosuy, is a matter of progress, and daring innovators like WITTR are saving black metal from stagnation. To resist the rising tide of USBM is to reveal oneself as a reactionary kvlt troglodyte, the kind of person who prefers his black metal “to remain boring and unknown.” With this rhetorical move, Stosuy has reduced the debate to a simple question of stylistic novelty, to whether one is ready for the “ambitious” sound of the new wave. He’s attempting to foreclose any serious discussion of the music itself, because that’s the void at the heart of his review, and most of his writing.

He hears the “sound” and not the songwriting, the style and not the substance, and for this reason writes about Celestial Lineage purely in descriptive terms. Gushing with adjectives like “colossal,” “frantic,” “levitating,” and “anthemic,” Stosuy glibly namedrops canonically hip non-metal genres like shoegaze and post-punk, and even digs out the WITTR press release to shower us with the band’s own chosen imagery. He treats these scattered labels and references as if each showed us the music’s inherent value, spinning them into a summary without including so much as a sentence about why the album is good.

I’d love to talk sometime about how Stosuy’s indie-rocker notion of “artistic progression” is an inadequate—and perhaps obsolete—category for judging music, and about why it’s especially inappropriate for black metal. But right now I’d like to let these concerns linger in the background, and cut to the heart of the matter. Let’s actually talk about the music. Celestial Lineage isn’t some forward-thinking masterpiece. It’s a mere pastiche of black metal tropes, each deployed in a weak and fumbling way that mocks its real musical potential.

While WITTR’s 2007 breakthrough Two Hunters was not exactly a Dissection album, it was enlivened by a few interesting and strongly defined melodies. On this new release, it seems like WITTR have “progressed” beyond all that. Whatever craftsmanship this band once had has been lost or actively discarded. In short, these riffs fucking suck. Just over a minute into the third track, “Subterranean Initiation,” WITTR cut out the blastbeats and bring in the keyboards for what they hope is a cathartic, expansive chorus-of-sorts. If you have ever heard any black metal at all, you’ll immediately notice how familiar it sounds. Yes, it’s one of THOSE riffs again. It’s WITTR’s take on a stock chord pattern that’s been used since the early 90s to impart an “epic” feel. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with calling on a genre’s tropes, it sounds comically weak here. It’s been trotted out as if it spoke for itself, as if merely including this type of riff was enough to achieve the desired effect. But that’s not the end of it. WITTR answer this keyboard melody with a pair of slowly descending tremolo guitar lines that dispel what little atmosphere they’d managed to conjure. These musical afterthoughts sound a lot like “baa baa black sheep,” or perhaps “baa baa black metal.” Rather than answering the first melody or building on it, they awkwardly echo it. The effect is akin to somebody restating the end of a sentence…of a sentence, of a sentence…

Such impotent riffage plagues the whole of Celestial Lineage. Almost every melodic line somehow cancels itself out, dissipating its energy or neurotically turning back on itself. At 3:23 in "Thuja Magus Imperium," WITTR verge on creating a dark, thrashing rhythm riff, but then pull back into an arbitrary jumble of chords that serves mainly to cancel out the dissonance—perhaps to avoid scaring their fans? And the most embarrassing moment on the entire album comes a mere twenty seconds later. In a poorly aimed stab at majesty, they bring in a slow, ringing lead over a bed of blasting. The melody slews around listlessly before trailing off in a trill. I suspect that this sad little combination of notes was chosen purely because it happened to fit over the chords. Even the guy’s playing sounds clumsy and hesitant. It seem that WITTR are incapable—or afraid—of fully committing to a melodic idea. I’ll venture the hypothesis, though, that it has more to do with an attempt to do something stereotypically black metal by writing “atmospheric” riffs, as if atmosphere was defined by the mere absence of a worthwhile melody.

Of course, black metal isn’t just about individual riffs—it’s about a total harmonic environment within which riffs are often just the most prominent forms. It thrives on the play between traditional and chromatic harmony, between “epic” and “evil.” To their credit, WITTR seem to have some grasp of this: They haven’t fully surrendered to the tinkly, one-dimensional prettiness favored by the new crop of “shoegaze black metal” bands. Still, there’s something really wrong here, and it’s something that’s always been wrong with WITTR’s music. The harmonic edges are rounded off, sanded away, so that everything occupies a bland, hazy middle ground. Rather than deftly interweaving harmony and disharmony (like Sorhin) or moving fluidly between the two (like early Emperor), WITTR have created something that has no discernable harmonic character. Even in the moments of “ethereal beauty,” there’s nothing particularly euphonious or ecstatic going on. I get the sense that the band have been listening to medieval polyphony, and much of Celestial Lineage really does sound like a mediocre attempt at that sound, where the voices cancel one another out instead of coming together in a single overwhelming texture. WITTR are working with a totally neutral harmonic palette, and it goes a long way toward making this album drift past like so much New Age elevator music.

Perhaps that's actually what they were going for. Celestial Lineage is dominated by ambient interludes, some in the midst of songs and some between them. On “Prayer of Transformation” WITTR take this logic to an extreme, working guitar lines and screams into an agonizingly painless ordeal that stretches well past the ten-minute mark. Some of the shorter ambient sections aren’t, in themselves, objectionable. In fact, I’d be interested to hear where some of these ideas might lead. But that’s the thing—ritual drone music needs time and space to develop, and if you’re committed to making it you have to give it that respect. You cannot simply insert this kind of thing into a black metal song, or in between two of them, and have it serve any purpose other than distracting us from the fact that the songwriting sucks.

It’s too easy, though, to dismiss the unfortunate ambient passages as a lazy band’s filler. Indeed, this stuff clearly took time to make, and it says something important about how WITTR understand their music. The soundscapes are supposed to generate an atmosphere, to create an experience that is “reverent,” “sublime,” “serene,” “mysterious,” “sorrowful,” “awe-inspiring,” and that sort of thing. Instead, they work more like a statement, a reminder of just how “ambient” and “atmospheric” and “ethereal” Celestial Lineage is. WITTR really pull out the stops, using every trite trick of film soundtracks and New Age music to convince you that something REALLY DEEP is happening. From Enya vocals and “reflective” washes of keyboard to the embarrassing Zen humming at the beginning of “Permanent Changes in Consciousness" and the fucking chimes at the beginning of “Woodland Cathedral,” WITTR gussy up their music with layers of cheap, cosmetic symbolism.

And that’s what this band is all about. In their fixation on the external signs of black metal, WITTR have failed to grasp the genre’s musical logic and emotional core. They’ve encountered it only as a “sound” comprised of stock gestures and affects. And in this respect, they have much in common with the “boring and unknown” kvlt bands that Brandon Stosuy is so quick to deride. WITTR can “fuck with the template” all they want. It’s still a fucking template.


  1. All right, I said I was going to sit this one out because I'm burned out on the "what's wrong with USBM" topic, plus I'm not really qualified to comment on this album since I've only listened to it twice, and one of those times I fell asleep, which probably says something. But darn it, I _really liked_ Diadem Of 12 Stars. But to say this band has "lost their way" runs counter to your assertion that they never had it to begin with.

  2. Percival TipplebottomOctober 25, 2011 at 8:20 PM

    "WITTR can “fuck with the template” all they want. It’s still a fucking template."

    SLAM! You need a choir of bros going 'oooohhh shit!' and 'daaaamnn son!' after a comment like that.

    I can't really add anything worthwhile, you nailed it pavel. This review is scathing and solid.

  3. @Chuck: Nah man, no contradiction in saying that they've gone from mediocre to shitty. "Two Hunters" was clearly not as bad as this album--that'd be hard!--but it's still bloated and vastly overrated. And it operates on the same principles as "Celestial." I quickly realized it was a pale counterfeit of things that are actually worth listening to.

    As for "Diadem," I've never heard it, but I'm willing to believe it was ok, Noktorn and TheCount also liked it a lot. It's perfectly possible to imagine a band with stupid ideas somehow releasing a pretty good debut album and then going to shit as the problems (which were probably there all along) become more and more prominent. Then you realize that the emperor was naked from the beginning, or at least close to it. Case in point--Liturgy!

    At the end of the day, though, this is a review of the new album, and doesn't have much to do with their back catalog.

  4. @Percival: Cheers! Yeah, TBO really needs a bro chorus. That'd be sweet.

  5. Percival TipplebottomOctober 25, 2011 at 9:41 PM

    Thinking about it a bit more, I'll add this- you could drop me in a random 20 seconds of most of this album and I'd be interested in hearing more. But that's just aesthetics. Taken as a whole it seems vacant and lacking in tension.

    Anyway, my new band Bro Choir will be putting out its debut soon. I'll send you guys an advance for review.

  6. Dude, I heard Enya is a hardline theistic Satanist. She'll be pissed when she sees how you used her photo.

  7. you know, say what you will about wolves. i really don't care if anyone loves them or hates them- i dig diadem a lot and think everything since has been pretty drab and mediocre. the only thing i take offense to is when clowns like stosuy actually suggest that wolves are doing something new and unusual in the metal scene. all it goes to show is that him and his ilk don't actually listen to any of the underground black metal they claim to love.

    basically blazebirth hall called and they want their style back minus the glossy production.

  8. @Noktorn: they also wouldn't mind if WITTR made some effort to find those missing riffs. cause, you know, its not cool to borrow someone's shit and then lose it.

    but yeah, if someone enjoys this album he enjoys this album, whatever

  9. @Ido: haaaaaaa! i literally lol'ed at that thought. would it were true. though for real, at least Enya writes memorable songs.

  10. actually i find it extra funny that stosuy lauds wolves' progressive, evolving style considering it hasn't changed whatsoever since the beginning apart from getting thinner and more inconsequential with every iteration.

    i'm not even sure if i can call diadem a "good album" per se. it's fun. enjoyable. but i think even i knew how thin it was right after it came out when i was like 15. it's basically the jungle rot of black metal but i even feel kind of bad saying that since at least jungle rot's stayed consistent and unobtrusive.

  11. I definitely still like this band a lot (haven't bothered to listen to the new album) but having reviewers suggest, 1) that WITTR SO profoundly original (e.g. "scene defining") or 2)that outside of this artistic bubble, there's this stagnant, orthodox, and obscure black metal scene with no vitality or creativity, is misleading and sensationalistic. Pardon all the clauses in that sentence.

    Me, I'm all for giving hipsterish black metal bands a shot,if they have anything interesting going on but goddamn, with journalism like this that emphatically elevates designated darling (wow check all this alliteration) bands seemingly just for the sake of being contrarian, it's easy to see why there's a "scene backlash/"

  12. my favorite part of such statements from critics is that it means we're supposed to both appreciate hipster black metal as being just as pure as "under a funeral moon," but also lightyears beyond it, to the point where you can't even compare them anymore, so far beyond "mere" black metal have bands like sleeping peonies reached.

  13. Polyphony wasn't really found in music until the Renaissance period. Medieval music was generally monophonic.

  14. Fuck! I love my Trial by Ordeal!