Sunday, December 02, 2007

Wolves In The Throne Room - Two Hunters

"As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and to devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness which he represented. Once or twice, however, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me" - Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Can you imagine the idealistic, well-educated nineteenth-century intellectual stalking through the woods, the blood and entrails of some forest creature dripping from his mouth and beard? This historic scene points forwards towards the paradoxes, ambiguities and contradictions that form the intellectual manure fertilizing American Black Metal band "Wolves In The Throne Room" (WITTR).

WITTR's latest release, "Two hunters", is an album of magnificent paradoxes. WITTR's band member all hail from the DIY punk underground (an idealistic left wing environment) but make Black Metal (a genre with links to the radical right wing). WITTR subscribes to a deep-ecological ideology, but use electrical instruments, mixing boards and what-have-you. They espouse a philosophy, yet forswear urban life - never mind that the birth of philosophical thought is indelibly connected to the birth of the polis and that ecological thought is the fruit of academics, not of farmers.

WITTR are acutely aware of these paradoxes and seems to feel deeply guilty about them: "We are all hypocrites and failures" the band states in an interview (here).

The ethical dissonance between their ecological beliefs and the realities of being a band in 21st century America, cause the to attempt to reframe Black Metal's ethos: "If you listen to BM, but you don’t know what phase the moon is in, or what wild flowers are blooming then you have failed" the band states. Of course, from the perspective of the history of Black Metal this is patent nonsense. The members of the Norwegian early Black Metal scene were middle class boys living in apartment blocks and suburbs; and the scene's omphalos was an urban site, the record store "Helvete" in the city of Oslo, Norway's capital. I doubt that Varg Vikernes and Øystein Aarseth were at that time interested at all in botany or astronomy. If early Black Metal takes any position with regards to the countryside, it is that of a perverse urbanoia - proudly donning the mantle of the city-dweller's worst fears about the countryside - never mind that they were city dwellers themselves.

I see this reframing of Black Metal's ethos as a reversal of the polarities of transgression. Nature imagery in early Norwegian Black Metal if firmly on the side of evil - if Burzum, Mayhem and their ilk would have known the paragraph from Walden quoted above, it would have been because of it's bloodthirstiness and savagery, and not because Thoreau was so very much in tune with nature. Not so for WITTR - nature is on the side of the good for them, and technological civilization on the side of evil. For WITTR, using technology is a transgression.

In this sense, WITTR owe much to the transvaluation of Black Metal initiated by Burzum's Varg Vikernes. It was Vikernes who transformed the transgressive, "evil" position of early Norwegian Black Metal into a less ambivalent position. Basically Vikernes started to believe that the transgressive positions he and his peers had taken initially were non-transgressive, "good" positions. Before becoming a national socialist, Vikernes used anti-Christian Nazi imagery to transgress the ethical boundaries of Scandinavian Christian social democracy; later he actually subscribed to that drivel. It was also Vikernes who first stressed ecological concerns. "Burzum is one of our strongest influences" states WITTR's Aaron Weaver: "Burzum creates an intense mythic space with the music that evokes an ancient, tribal order: one can become lost in that world".

I would regret very much WITTR regressing wholly into a late-Burzumesque occidentalism, for I feel it is neither their deep-ecological thought nor their back-to-the-land idealism which provides the fertile ground from which their music springs: but it is the propulsive power of a system divided against itself, ecological thought realizing it is impossible and tearing itself up, it is the incoherencies, the paradoxes and the ambiguities, which provide the music with it's impetus.

Though WITTR calls music that is processed through the lens of technology 'a compromise' I like those parts of the album best in which technological processing is most audible - such as the instrumental opening track, which starts with an audio sample (electronica!) of crickets chirruping. That first track has a majestic sound not unlike the 'shoegaze' music of the 1990s; the rest of the album employs more familiar Black Metal tropes. The album as a whole creates a beautiful landscape-like spatiality with torrents of distortion, feedback precipices, droning riffs and a processed drum sound. On the last two tracks, the voice of Jessica Kinney ( Eyvind Kang and Asva) rises above the din, her Dead-Can-Dance-style soprano evoking Alpine purity and ancientness. The melodies are slow yet as aesthetically powerful as sunlight breaking through the clouds, conjuring up colossal mountains, primeval woodlands, skies, storms, mist. From the interview: "The music is about wild forests, unfettered rivers, nature: furious and vengeful". WITTRs music calls to mind the conception of nature as sublime, as conception historically grounded in the Romanticism of the nineteenth century.

In fact, the music resembles not so much nature itself as a big Romantic landscape painting, in the style of Caspar David Friedrich. And it is exactly this painterly quality I love about WITTR's "Two Hunters": the sense that though nature's majesty is depicted, one can see the technologies of canvas and brush-strokes if one studies the artwork at close range.




Post scriptum

Links towards other WITTR interviews here and here and here and here.

Is WITTR's Jessica Kinney also this Jessica Kinney?

1 comment:

amyaddams said...

ah! what a wonderful review. I could have never said it better myself. :]