As fans we have a deep but usually distant relationship with the bands we love. We care and we hope and we revel in their art and the emotions they stir inside us. But on occasions, in some respects, we can also be the spoiled, needy child that never grew up and this is particularly poignant when a band changes direction suddenly: We rant and whine and have tantrums online and in the pub but really, in the end, why do we feel ‘betrayal’? What do bands actually owe us? Actually I believe they ‘owe’ us very little. If they are mainstream commercial, they owe us as much as we should expect from them: Sod all except big buck chasing. If they are in it for the music first and foremost then really all they owe us is to be true to themselves. Yes some choices will always hurt us – I still don’t own a copy of Cold Lake and seeing One Second in the racks even after all this time brings me nothing but sadness and, yes, you might even argue neither was entirely ‘true to themselves’ – but we always need to hold the thought that the bands owe us nothing but their best creative efforts. And as we are not forced to buy anything there is no betrayal, only a parting of ways.
I’ve no idea if there has been a lot of ‘talk’ about this album; I try and avoid investigating such things before I finish a review. There is no surprise though; they told us after the Radio 1 session release what they were going to do. Instrumental, keyboard, reimagining of previous work which at least was an answer to the ‘what can they do next and not get stale?’ question. The impression given also was that if they carried on after that this would be their new path. I wondered at the time why they didn’t just change their name or something but it is their name and a deeply held one so why not keep it? This album of course will divide people, but the band always have anyway. It’s been streamed on the New York Times website which makes my hip bone shudder but so what?
So the only question left is: How good is it? Are they geniuses of the keyboard as well as the cascading wall of riffs?
Simple answer is no, not yet. But this is far from awful all the same. The sound is slow but mostly flowing, atmospheric often, sometimes deeply evocative. It is a blend of Vangelis circa Heaven And Hell and the Elend instrumental album Weeping Nights, Dead Can Dance’s ‘Spleen And Ideal’ with a tiny cold pinch of Burzum’s more ambient moments around Filosofem. Notes echo ice and water-like across a soft keyboard night sky, the subliminal throb of bass notes and the gentle ebb and flow of lunar forces are the texture to it. No drums. It is effortlessly relaxing and has moments of real delicate intrigue and mystery and awe. Passages of cinematic wonder whisper through. It is coherent and reasonably mature and is fine background music. Music to write to, or that will sooner or later be used in film or documentary. It also displays perfectly why they didn’t change their name; it sounds exactly like Wolves In The Throne Room doing an ambient keyboard album based on a Vangelis/Elend motif of Celestial lineage. It does.
The downside is that it sounds exactly like Wolves In The Throne Room doing an ambient keyboard album with Vangelis and Elend as the only points of reference you need. The un-engaging passages, the couple of sections that feel a little stilted and leaden fingered break things up badly, and it’s only the return of reference points that re-establish the mood. It makes me want to revisit Vangelis ‘Heaven & Hell’ and ‘Blade Runner’ soundtracks and the second and third Elend albums, Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon or Phaedra albums maybe. Albums many of their fans won’t have heard I suspect.
In parts beautiful and enthralling, in others dull and average. If this was a debut it would be ‘full of huge promise ‘ and ‘definitely ones to watch’ but it isn’t and as they kept the name and have a history it has to be judged as part of their canon. By December I may have a clearer idea but for the moment this is what I have: It is much, much better than I feared. But it is also flawed and, to my old ears, as derivative as good debuts often are. Full of the ideas and inspirations but not yet quite in their own voice, which is odd for a fifth studio album. Parts make my emotions swell and mind race but always the baggage and the reference points bang me awake. I’ve tried everything and it still happens. When it’s good, it is genuinely majestic, when it is less it grates.
Wolves In The Throne Room, the eco-pagan black metal band were a group that a friend and I walked to see. We walked through a snowstorm in the dark, across a city ankle deep in snow and freezing to immobility to see them. We did it because if they could turn up, so could we and what more perfect a way to arrive at a Wolves In The Throne Room gig? What more perfect a night?
Wolves In The Throne Room, the Vangelis-playing-dark-ambient band? I’d take a gentle five minute stroll from the train station. There’s nothing unfixable here, but we appear to have lost a very special black metal band and gained, at the moment, an average if potentially beautiful ambient one. If you don’t know the music I’ve referenced, go and listen to them now. If you do then try this, it may surprise. I’ll hang on in here for a while longer but it needs to be said that for music sitting behind That Name it is sub-par.