Wolves in the Throne Room
Reckless Records - Chicago, IL USA
October 22, 2007
The scene was average enough on a cool autumn afternoon in Chicago’s north side neighborhood of Belmont & Clark. At Reckless Records on Broadway, about ten or so patrons were flipping casually through the merchandise while Neil Diamond’s 1971 album ‘Stones’ played over the speakers.
Two middle-aged men thumbed through the classic rock vinyl, the bald one mechanically checking them for condition and stacking them in his partner’s arms. From where l leaned against the U’s and XYZ’s, I thought about commending his choices—UFO, Uriah Heep, and Yes—or remarking on how many fine bands the years 1968-69 had produced for the end of the alphabet, but the mood wasn’t quite right. Neil Diamond continued to sing about a frog becoming a king.
In the next fifteen minutes or so, a handful of darkly dressed youths gathered at the rear of the narrow main room and crowded the threshold to the back. In the room beyond, a small row of amplifiers and a drum kit were set up, while two guitars leaning against the DVD and VHS sections. Over the past half hour a few rugged young men had passed back and forth to fiddle with this knob or that, but otherwise the afternoon had been passing without disturbance.
Once 3:30 came, that began to change. Three men emerged from the side door in the back room and quietly took up the instruments, two with guitars and one at the drums. Each of them had been seen in the store previous to this—either taking a smoke out front or checking the instruments—and had no special badges or uniformity of dress to distinguish them from the onlookers. If anything, they actually looked less ‘metal’ than those in the audience: they wore plaid long-sleeves or white T’s, and the two that had hair down to their shoulders wore it as if it were merely a scruffy coincidence instead of a matter of identity or pride.
Now with about 15 people crowded in to watch, the short, stocky guitarist stepped to the microphone and said, “Ok, we’re going to play now.” The audience remained silent, evidently not knowing what else to do, Neil Diamond’s ‘Chelsea Morning’ faded out, and the band took their cue.
At first, the music was gentle and slow, and the other customers in the store continued to browse with one ear open. In that first minute, the group seemed for all the world like an indie post-rock or ambient band, set to fade into the subconscious and lull the store’s patrons into continuous, dreamy purchasing.
Then came a moment’s warning of four taps of the drumsticks, and the guitarists’ languor exploded into a fury of tremolo strumming and dissonance. The drummer thundered upon his simple kit, making heavy use of the toms to supplement his single bass drum. When the vocalist stepped to the microphone to sing, his teeth were bared and his scream was a distant, feral thing, trapped behind the guitars’ wall of sound.
The bald man started and literally dashed for the front of the store. An elderly, white-haired lady perched her glasses upon the end of her nose and tried to peer over our shoulders to see what the ruckus was all about. This ruckus is called Wolves in the Throne Room, from Olympia, Washington, and it is one of the most important black metal groups in the United States today.
As they played, a few members of the crowd at the front were headbanging along, but most simply stood still and watched. After a time, the drummer began to pant and drip sweat, though his performance never fell a beat behind. At one point, his hand became so slick with sweat that a stick flew from his hand and struck one of the guitarists in the chest. Neither paid much attention, and the drummer merely continued his beats with the other hand, took up a spare stick from the top of his bass drum, and resumed the full attack.
The song was the first full track from their newest release (‘Two Hunters’) called ‘Behold the Vastness and Sorrow’. It deserves the name, and is a towering, consuming piece that sprawls across more than a dozen minutes with a peak that concentrates all its energy into a single, climactic melody.
When its end finally came, the vocalist drew back into himself and offered a quiet, “thanks”, before turning to tune his guitar again. The other guitarist followed suit, staring at his pedals on the floor, which had been crookedly affixed to a 2x4, and after a minute of light twangs we realized their second song had begun. Without a keyboardist to supply the ambiance, they took it up on themselves to set the stage and had segued quite effectively into the next composition, which turned out to be even more epic than their first. This second song was ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots’, which reaches nearly 20 minutes on record. The band members themselves were showing physical signs of tiring, but the music remained impeccable. At points throughout the song, the vocalist would lean his face against the microphone to prop it up again, not wanting to take his hand away from the strumming for even a second.
As with the intro, there were some sections that couldn’t be replicated exactly as they were on record, but the band more than made up for any missing elements with the sheer force of their performance. This second song had a number of swells, peaks, and segues, so when its final chords were ebbing away it took another laconic, “thanks,” from the vocalist to prompt us to applause. And then, as unassumingly as they had first arrived, they removed their instruments and put them aside, letting the resonance slowly fade as they began to pack up. Most of the audience turned away and left, slightly dazed. I lingered, hoping to capture some of that power and keep it stored in memory, and was lucky enough to spend some candid moments with the band.
Their drummer, Aaron, has stated in interviews that the band’s goal is to recreate and pay respects to an archaic form of life that prizes spirit and nature over technology. Despite the bustling city not a stone’s throw away, when I listened to them play with eyes closed, visions of untamed forests sprang easily to mind. I can’t rightly say which is more remarkable—the music they have composed or that they can recreate its potency in any given situation, even in the heart of urban modernity.
The band is quite aware of that irony. I spoke with Aaron after the show, and as he messily drank coffee, he admitted as much. However, the band have tried keep as true to their lifestyle as possible while on the road, and have maintained a commendable focus on their fans al the while. The band had another show that very night over at The Empty Bottle, but many of the band’s fans are not yet 21, which prompted them to set up the in-store session (both were free).
Aaron also believes that, “we have another album in us,” and that they are hoping to unveil it as soon as 2008. This time around, Aaron said that they hope to limit the influence of modern production and outsiders’ influence even further. The band, he says, have a very clear vision of what they want the newest songs to be, and that the next album will be their most direct and forceful.
And although the band have made clear that touring and being famous are far from priorities for them, both members I spoke with seemed passionate about the music and eager to continue it, which is a reassuring thing indeed. The States could use more bands with the vision and innovation of Wolves in the Throne Room, and I can only hope to be around long enough to see their influence come to fruition.Rahn