So, how did three guys from Olympia, Wash., neo-hippies and veterans of the DIY punk scene, come to emulate this deeply European music, and to make it so thoroughly their own? On the surface, the Wolves are not your typical black-metal band. Besides being American—black-metal bands in the United States are few and far between—they don't go in for corpse-paint or silly pseudonyms. Most importantly, their music is unusually textured and rich. On the their recent album Two Hunters (Southern Lord), melodies slash through a shoe-gazing haze of guitars, analog synths, and shimmering cymbals. Genres are woven together, with folk, ambient, goth, and environmental samples rising and falling through the material like tides. For the first half of "Cleansing," which opens with the crackling of a fire, guest singer Jessica Kinney provides a clean and keening lament over a steady tribal beat. Most black-metal bands sound cornball when they go softy like this, but the music here conjures the mournful exotica of the Goth crossover band Dead Can Dance.
You can't understand the lyrics, of course, and the band, in a typical black-metal move, does not print them. However, the aural sleuths at the Encyclopaedia Metallum, which tracks more than 50,000 metal bands, do offer some convincing transcriptions. These suggest that Two Hunters is about an apocalyptic struggle. On one side, there's a cruel mounted priest-king, whose steed beats the earth to "lifeless chaos" with his 24-7 galloping. On the other, there's a tribe of earth folk who flee into the forest, dance in the dark of night, and prepare for a final conflagration and a cleansing rain. The album closes with the 18-minute (!) swan song "I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots." While not abandoning the tragic mode, the song's shiny timbres and a yearning, hopeful chord progression sound the first glimmerings of a new dawn, when "the sun god is born anew."
The contours of this myth echo what my chat with the band after the Santa Cruz show confirmed: Wolves in the Throne Room are hard-core tree-huggers, with a Manichaean view of the environmental crisis and a pagan faith in the transformative powers of nature. I mostly talked to Aaron, an articulate and intelligent fellow wearing a green Tyrolean hat. After honing his politics in the Pacific Northwest's DIY punk scene, Aaron moved to D.C. to fight the good fight as a secular lefty. It didn't work out, and he moved back to Olympia, where a surprising series of spiritual experiences he hasn't really talked about made him a clear-eyed seeker of earth wisdom. With his brother and their respective partners, he now lives on 10 acres of land near Evergreen State College, where his posse is painstakingly crafting a sustainable life off the grid. And finding time to play hard-core, shamanic eco-metal.
"The intersection of dark, spiritual music and radical ecology is quite natural," explains Aaron, who has not given up on the DIY punk scene's penchant for packaging radical political platforms with music. In interviews, he'll make favorable mention of the Earth Liberation Front—some of whose monkey-wrenching adherents have been branded as "terrorists." He also expresses cautious admiration for Finland's merciless eco-philosopher Pentti Linkola, who argues that the best way out of the environmental crisis lies in a swift, lethal, and authoritarian process of de-industrialization.
This is disturbing stuff, and it's supposed to be. I mean, aren't you a bit disturbed? Lots of people who open their souls to today's seemingly relentless assault on wild creatures and wild places find themselves gripped by bitterness, melancholy, and misanthropy. For the Wolves, black metal just makes sense; it's melodramatic Satanism transformed into an angry lament for human folly. But the band doesn't just mourn. It also aims its epic melodies toward the old Romantic sublime, drawing the listener into the dream of a vital and resurgent earth. Which is why, as the long last stretch of blistering riffs echoed through the Santa Cruz woods that night, the crowd started headbanging like dervishes, discovering in the harsh hyperspeed beats a deeper, more archaic pulse.