After 20 minutes of driving around in the dark near Santa Cruz, I found the right road and pulled up in front of a cemetery. I was looking for a rock band called Wolves in the Throne Room, whose gig tonight was advertised as occurring "somewhere in the woods." Stepping into the chilly evening, I slammed the car door and started walking down an unlit lane toward a forest of cypress and eucalyptus. Where the asphalt gave way to dirt, a scruffy kid with a lantern led me and a few others along trails and over streams. A sign asked us not to smoke, to turn off our cell phones, and to try to refrain from talking. Nobody asked me for any money.
Stumbling through the weeds, I came across 30 or 40 young folks gazing at a black-and-white film loop of ravens and ravaged forests that was projected onto a sheet pegged to a massive conifer. The crowd shuffled and stared and occasionally burped and giggled. Then we lumbered through the bushes toward a nearby clearing marked by a few antique hanging lanterns, a drum kit on a carpet, and a couple of amps and guitars. There was no stage, no risers, no proper lights. A massive tree limb stretched over the clearing, and a few people had clambered up for a better view, young gents with furry hats and Rasputin beards passing around bottles of nameless homebrew. Waves of ambient electronica began flowing out of an old analog synthesizer, merging with the groan of a nearby generator. After 15 minutes of this, three rather nondescript guys shuffled out of the crowd and took up their instruments.
Given the setting, you might think that Wolves in the Throne Room was some West Coast jam band or a freak-folk combo. But what these three fellows played was melancholic and often brutal black metal. Nathan Weaver, one of the two guitarists (there was no bassist), rasped incomprehensible lyrics in the throat-shredding "Cookie Monster" vocals that mark the genre. (Sample it here.) Using tremolo picking, he and longhaired Rick Dahlin created darkly stacked melodies that soared through the rapid-fire "blast-beats" and cymbal sheen flawlessly delivered by Nathan's older brother Aaron. The band performed for about an hour and played four songs. When Nathan wasn't singing, he faced away from the rapt crowd, toward his mates.
To understand why a metal band from the Pacific Northwest was playing their ferocious and lamenting music in a forest, you need to delve into the back story of black metal, perhaps the most evocative, emotionally challenging, and risible of the many subgenres of heavy metal that have emerged since the 1970s. Black metal, which was kick-started by the bands Venom and the mighty Bathory, at the turn of the '80s, began as a raw and self-consciously devilish rejection of commercial hard rock, and it flowered in Norway in the early 1990s. Production and musical values were ranked lower than atmosphere and emotion, especially feelings of bitterness, despair, and hatred—those "serious" sentiments beloved of alienated adolescents, which is what these groups were largely composed of. Black-metal acts adopted pseudonyms like Count Grishnackh and Fenriz from mythology and Tolkien's Orc lore, wore ghoulish corpse-paint, and released crudely produced recordings decorated with spidery, unreadable logos. They earned a justified reputation for extremism and misanthropy. Satanism was proclaimed, churches were burned, bandmates occasionally stabbed.
Like gangster rap, black metal drew a great deal of its charisma from its claims of countercultural authenticity, a realness defined not by criminal boasts and urban play-by-plays but by an ultimately spiritual fidelity to misanthropy and infernal nihilism—an uncompromising (if easily parodied) Satanic sensibility salted with occasional bursts of violence, obscenity, and tabloid controversy. But as the genre grew in popularity, an interesting mythological transformation occurred. Classic bands like Ulver, Windir, and Enslaved left the Christian devil aside to reach for an older, pagan stratum of Norse and heathen lore ("Viking metal" is now its own subgenre). In their quest to express the atmosphere of awe and gloom that permeates these ancient ways, black-metal acts began extending and deepening their use of melodies, both folkloric and epic. What emerged was a powerful dark-side Romanticism, perhaps the most unalloyed descendent of old-school Sturm und Drang that we have.