The whole concept of returning to your roots is a dicey proposition, one whose underlying reasons can obfuscate intent and mar as much as elevate the final product. I’ve heard the term used a lot when discussing Wolves in the Throne Room and their roots returning (or reclamation, if you’re NPR) new record, Thrice Woven. After the atmospheric tone poems that made up previous album Celestite, anticipation for a move back to more of the traditional folk-laden USBM the band help push forward was high, and the result is solid, if somewhat unremarkable slab of metal that may please fans wanting more roar in the music but also feels like a band running in place.
To understand that you have to go back a decade and remember how Diadem of 12 Stars, WITTR’s 2006 debut helped solidify a movement in USBM started earlier by bands like Agalloch, where folk melodies and lyrics encompassing nature and location gave a unique identity to a movement that previously was distinctly European. And similar to Agalloch, each subsequent album stretched the musical ambition and direction of the Brothers Weaver: 2007’s Two Hunters moved the scope up dramatically, particularly with the multi-movement closer “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots.” While both Black Cascade and Celestial Lineage furthered this expansion of sonic scope, it was the 2009 EP Malevolent Grain, with lead vocals handled by Jamie Myers on “A Looming Resonance” that truly captured the band as a restless spirit, refusing to stick to what drove their initial success.
It’s still one of the standout tracks for me in their discography, and this sense of adventure was taken to an extreme on 2014’s Celestite, a dark, synth-laden take on previous album Celestial Lineage. For a genre labeled as “extreme” it’s interesting to note how the metal community reacted to the album: many took Celestite to be too extreme a departure from what they would prefer Wolves in the Throne Room to be, although repeated listenings show many of the hallmarks of the band’s style, albeit reformed in electronic shades and ambient noise. So the idea that four years later the band would return to their roots comes with a mix of feelings: for a band that has consistently pressed onward, where does Thrice Woven stand on their musical journey?
Based on the five tracks, it sits in many different places, and if there’s a complaint I have with Thrice Woven it’s in the disjointed quality of the tracks. Which normally wouldn’t be an issue, but it rears its head loudest on the opening track, “Born From the Serpent’s Eye.” In an interview with Decibel, Nathan Weaver discussed his love of Metallica and their influence on him, and that influence comes to the fore with the riff structures of the opening track. After a brief acoustic opening the song opens up with a fiery riff, the melody line running in lush patterns over brother Aaron’s blast beats before transforming into a more dirge-like crush. It works, and even the more violent transition about halfway through is a gem despite not having a sense of connection to the preceding pieces. If you watched the video (their first, apparently) for the song it ends at roughly this point, a short but punchy intro back to the USBM folk sound the band perfected. But the track proper is another five minutes long, fading out for about six seconds before returning with a quiet choral piece featuring Anna Von Hausswolff. This then transitions into what is essentially a second song, one that isn’t bad but feels disconnected and disjointed, one that might have worked better as a separate track.
Elsewhere when the structures are more cohesive it works like gangbusters. The second track, “The Old Ones are With Us”, moves with an undercurrent of bluesy folk menace, only some of which is conveyed by the hollowed spectral narration by Steve Von Till. There’s a Nick Cave/Bad Seeds feel that rolls into a claustrophobic and harsh black metal march before again resolving to a cultish chant of the song title. “Angrboda” injects some of that otherworldly majesty Celestite had, although using guitars instead of synthesizers. It’s probably the heaviest song on the album but again suffers (although not as much) from a disjointed quality in its ideas. It’s not enough to condemn the song – indeed it’s not enough to condemn any of the tracks, but if it’s enough to take notice it’s not working as intended.
“Mother Owl, Father Ocean” is a short interlude, although almost half of its run time is silence, which begs the question of why separate it out. If “Born From the Serpent’s Eye” combined two very separate musical cues then it might have made more sense to connect “Mother Owl, Father Ocean” as a coda to “Angrboda” as it is on the Spin premier of the track. It’s short enough to forgive, because closing out Thrice Woven is “Fires Roar in the Palace of the Moon” which takes everything WITTR have done on previous albums and wraps it in a massively epic package. The band has always excelled at closing tracks, and this one is no different, really playing up the ambient passages of Celestite in an organic way with the more brutal and metal moments.
Nothing Wolves in the Throne Room have ever done lead me to believe the “return to roots” that takes place on Thrice Woven was anything but a natural return to explore in the genre. They’ve once again created a mosaic of sounds that recall their foundation of 90s European black metal while creating a geographic identity in the music that is specific to their Pacific Northwest origins. If it’s not the second coming of USBM folks want it to be, I suspect they don’t care. I’ll take the pieces that work for me and let them bury themselves in my bones, knowing that ultimately it doesn’t matter if it works for me, or for you. It only has to work for them.