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.