Wolves in the Throne Room - Two Hunters (2007)
Wolves in the Throne Room (WitTR) were formed by and revolve around brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver in 2002. They are from the Pacific Northwest of the US and are considered to be the progenitors and prime movers of the niche sub-genre of atmospheric black metal known as Cascadian black metal (named for the Cascade mountains, a range that extends from British Columbia to northern California and which the band call home). They are also the first US black metal band that managed to make any real lasting impression on me. Sure I'd listened to a few prior to the Brothers Weaver - Absu, Agalloch and Nachtmystium had all been given ear-time, but none had really got their hooks into me until this 45 minutes of atmospheric black metal nirvana forced it's way into my CD player courtesy of a like-minded metalhead I worked with at the time.
Two Hunters is the epitome of what atmospheric black metal strives to achieve, utilising the savage and harsh sound of black metal in such a way, through repetition and subtle chord changes, that the result is something beautiful and even, dare I say, transcendental at it's best. The music truly does evoke the awe-inspiring and imposing might of the United States' northwestern wilderness (admittedly I have never been there, but I have watched enough National Geographic channel documentaries to have some idea of the impressive scale of the region). From the slow build of the opening post-metal instrumental, Dea Artio, right through to the ending of the eighteen-minute epic I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots and it's haunting female vocal, this album absolutely drips with an atmosphere that most others can only dream about getting close to recreating, despite many trying.
After the gathering thunderheads of Dea Artio's ominously building post-metal fade into the aether, the band launch into their trademark wall of sound, built from successive layers of bass and guitar and underpinned by the metronomic drumming and crashing cymbals of Aaron Weaver that signal the beginning of Vastness and Sorrow, a track that manages to convey a feeling of both vastness and sorrow quite sublimely throughout the entirety of it's twelve minutes. For the early part of third track, Cleansing, we are treated to the ethereal beauty of Jessika Kenney's clean, sirenic vocals over a ritualistic soundscape as Aaron's drums beat a primal rhythm to act as a gentle interlude and introduction to the track which ultimately explodes with full force. An interesting point is that on the double vinyl versions of the album, the introduction is greatly extended, taking the track from almost ten minutes to nearly sixteen and allowing an even more gradual build with a more ambient, choral opening.
After Cleansing we are treated to the album's epic closing track I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots, my personal favourite and one of the best titles for an atmo-black track yet written. This eighteen minute modern saga tells the tale of a future apocalyptic conflagration that engulfs the Earth, yet the song's protagonist, a woodland spirit of the natural world, takes refuge in his sacred grove, awaiting the time when he (or she) can return and begin the land's great renewal. Again, running counter to accepted black metal aesthetic, this is a track that ultimately has a positive outlook with it's theme of death and rebirth and the necessary clearing out of the old to make way for the new. Everything on this track screams epic, with it's heaving and melodic depiction of global disaster and the ultimate rebirth, signalled once more by Jessika Kenney's heart-rending final vocal as it heralds in the New Day.
Two Hunters is WitTR's masterpiece, one of the finest USBM album's ever commited to disc and is one of the absolute best atmospheric black metal releases, to be held up alongside the likes of Drudkh's Blood in Our Wells, Ulver's Bergtatt: Et eeventyr i 5 capitler and Burzum's Hvis lyset tar oss in the atmo-black pantheon.
As a postscript, aside from the extended version of Cleansing, the vinyl editions of Two Hunters have an extra track in side 4's To Reveal, another sixteen minutes of sublime black metal, very much in keeping with the rest of the album. I'm assuming that the vinyl version is the full Two Hunters experience as envisioned from the album's outset, as both the extra track and the extended intro to Cleansing sound fully integrated in this version and, presumably the original CD version was edited to allow for a less intimidating runtime.
The variety of the black metal genre is dizzying to say the least. However, whether it is the nihilistic fury of the genre in its conventional form or the catchy infusion of rock in black ‘n roll that floats your boat, any variance on the central theme of black metal for me can only be deemed successful if it retains that “spine” as the core of what it does. Atmospheric black metal has an obviously well-established presence in music already. With bands like Drudkh creating earthy and organic outputs under the sub-genre alongside more cosmic creations from the likes of Darkspace also occupying the same space. The infusion with the niche is also a recognised branch with artists such as Summoning taking a more symphonic approach to their version of atmo-black.
In the case of WITTR, we are on the more earthy side of proceedings, not in a foul or uncouth sense of the word though, more in the meaning that this sound close to nature. For clarity though, this feeling of proximity to nature does not rely on any samples of running water or birdsong. What we get here is all done using balance, repetition and consistency that breeds a real sense of evolution in each song.
Two Hunters has not been an instant connection for me by any means. As I write this review, I am about five listens in this time around and have previously tried to connect with the record on numerous different occasions over the past decade or so. What is obvious to me from these repeated visits, is that this is a record that rewards quality time spent with it. It is an album that is not written to grab the attention in a gawdy manner. I would go as far as to say that any attempt by me to do anything else other than sit in front of the speakers for a good few listen throughs of this would be futile. The beauty within the record lies within its simplicity and subtle variations (not all of which work, more on that shortly) in pace, atmosphere and direction. There is a steadfastness to Two Hunters that makes it the success that it is, coming across as an album written to be exactly what the artist wanted it to be as opposed to being composed with any appeal-factor considered.
Now, it does not always work for me in terms of them getting the balance correct. Jessika Kenney’s ethereal vocals are haunting and moving I agree, and their inclusion is a positive here, but I do not think they are positioned quite correctly on the beginning of Cleansing. I get the feeling that they could have layered the tempo change better with a better use of build as opposed to the hasty sounding interruption of the guitar which destroys the mood that has been so beautifully built by those clean vocals.
That is my only criticism though. In a life were time to sit down and enjoy a record seems increasingly stretched it is always endearing to find an album that can provide such immediate gratuity for you spending a shade over forty-five minutes of your day with it. Going back to my opening paragraph on this review, the sound of WITTR is obviously routed in black metal and it relies on little variation from that conventional sound, using mood superbly to deliver an authentic and textured listening experience.