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Wolves in the Throne Room - Diadem of 12 Stars Review

by Mark Hensch

Like a glimpse of campfires well into the night as you are lost deep in impenetrable forests, Wolves in the Throne Room see themselves as the quiet flicker of salvation. For much like that harried, lost soul looking for rescue, the campfire he espies from so far away might not be the saving grace he desires; it could be a trick of light, the campfire of something much worse than his present situation, or the only thing that keeps him alive. Undoubtedly thinking in split seconds deep within the woods, our unnamed protagonist must make a decision; is it better to change one's current wandering or stay the same?

The stunning 2006 album that is Diadem of 12 Stars is exactly like that. I went through hell-and-high-water to get this damned CD (I spent over a year tracking it down from local record stores who would order it for me, lose it, then try again) and I will be blessed if it doesn't mark a great change in the United States Black Metal scene (henceforth referred to as USBM). To prove my point, a person truly enjoying Diadem of 12 Stars must completely reexamine their life. I'd explain it myself but the band can do it so much better:

Artist Statement (http://www.wolvesinthethroneroom.com)

Our Black Metal is highly local and personal not beholden to the expectations and demands of any scene. Our music is rooted in the traditions of Black Metal, but we subvert the aesthetic and ideology to remain true to our personal manifestation. To us, Black Metal might be understood as the Death card in the Tarot or the number 13, which represents not an end to life, but the shedding of an old and outmoded way of being: death and rebirth, transformation and enlightenment. Our music is perhaps what happens after the initial, necessary, hateful burst; after the psychic explosion that is Black Metal wipes away that which came before: the sick and twisted "truths" of our modern condition. For in Black Metal, we see great truth, transcendence and power. Black Metal is the cleansing fire that frees us from the bondage of rationality, science, morality, religion, leaving us free to choose our own path.

'The cleansing fire that frees us to choose our own path.' Most people will roll their eyes at this, and they should; we live in a society with many great achievements and aspirations, the likes of which are unparalleled anywhere else in the world. However, the intent behind this act is special---for the first time in a long time black metal is about outright iconoclasm again, iconoclasm being the absolute destruction of current traditions and customs. This is huge---never before has the USBM scene had such a reinvented purpose or intent like this before!

And it is just that which makes Diadem of 12 Stars so powerful. This is not the USBM of rehashed Second Wave Scandinavian Black Metal or another scuzzed-out bedroom project done on a computer. On the contrary, Wolves in the Throne Room have woven a rich, intricate tapestry of sound quite their own, and not really pertaining to the black metal scene at all. An idealogical companion to the work of Velvet Cocoon, musically this is somewhere between early BM Ulver, scene-compatriots Ludicra, and Washington's now-defunct doom masters YOB. Through it all is a spirit of natural rebellion akin to those old WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK movies, and the soul of Agalloch watches over the proceedings with a wary eye. The Wolves are most definitely in the Throne Room.

"Queen of the Borrowed Light" on its own establishes a band miles ahead of their peers. Icy tremolo-picking slowly builds into a driving layer of warm, organic guitar overdrive and then the vocals kick in. The stylistic tic that truly sets the vocals apart are the truly heart-wrenching emotion behind them. The blackened rasps are here as any BM fan might expect, but deep, bestial growls, melancholy sing-songs, and wordless howls all make an appearance. From here, "Light" gets even better with a driving pulse full of bitter, blackened blood. Spacious, near-cosmic guitar notes are wrought from seemingly thin air, and the percussion is a perfect mix between enthralling blasting and hypnotic fills. Like the long-winded process of trees taking root, the band slowly but surely edges absurdly memorable melodies into the potent mix, and eventually gives them center stage with a magical clean passage that is soon swallowed whole by more furious black metal fury. At one point the song goes plummeting off a cliff straight into choppy, doom-ish walls of sound; as your heart stops beating in your chest, one of the absolute best black metal assaults I've heard in my entire life kicks in and attacks like a pack of pouncing wolverines on a dying moose. Absolutely incredible, this is the perfect start to this gem of an album.

Listeners are next treated with the two-part epic that is "Face in a Nighttime Mirror." Of the two halves, I at this point prefer "Part I" though both are stunning in their own right. "Part I" is the more memorable portion, and there is plenty going on. The song begins off ponderous, mammoth riffs, the likes of which soon explode into a full-on raid of frothingly rabid black metal. Like a glorious stay of execution for an innocent man, crystal-clean female vocals soar above the barren desolation as the band shifts into patiently churning riffs clad in black ice. Epic, beautiful, and majestic, the song seamlessly transitions into a clean fingerpicked passage that would make Agalloch nervous. When the bittersweet howls of the band's usual vocals kick in, they sound that much more ripping and fierce as the contrast between beauty and beast is a perfectly fitting one. From here, "Part I" explores all manners of spiritual depth as guitars twist in-and-out of varying layers of blackened doom with all the intent of a burrowing fox fleeing from encroaching hounds. "Part II" is leaner, faster, and more abrasive, at least at first. As a blasting passage of animalistic brutality assaults your ears, things slowly blossom into civilized, nay, elegant bloodletting, the kind of murderous BM insanity that still maintains melody and soul amidst the blazing rage. Though it lacks the intimate power of the former part of the epic, "Part II" portrays a much-wider range of dynamics as it sways between glittering ambience to trampling blastbeating to massive, epic doom and back again. Few bands I can think of can go to the well so many times and come back with so many new ways of conveying the same message, and these guys are the real deal.

"(A Shimmering Radiance) Diadem of 12 Stars" closes the disc with what is best described as twenty minutes of cinematic grandeur. The slow introduction features earthy guitar tones that reek of the very ground that gives us life and are every bit as full and robust as that life which sprouts from it. Delicate passages of velvety, magical notes cascade by, and the song's understated origins are what makes its eventual climax so fist-pumpingly great. Like the last stampede of wildlife from the onset of man's devastation, the guitars go zooming by in a sorrow-laden panic of sound. By now, the band has grabbed you by the jugular and won't let go. The next rip-roaring fifteen minutes or so features literal heavy metal evolution, the band working up from portions of simplistic, epic sludge/doom and into torrential downpours of eco-terrorist black metal. From absurdly necksnapping percussion to slicing riffs to lupine howls and queenly vocals courtesy of that lone female voice in the night, this song has it all---a work of pure genius, and nothing less.

Though their ideologies are unusual or maybe even entirely unique, there is no denying that Wolves in the Throne Room have crafted something very special with Diadem. For quite some time the black metal mavericks over in Scandinavia have been scoffing at our "inferior" USBM scene, even calling it a rip-off or copycat movement to the original. With this masterful, genre-redefining album, Wolves in the Throne Room have made such claims irrelevant by playing something that has nothing to do with the original black metal scene at all! And therein lies the greatness that this band could have; the fact that they aren't afraid to recast conventions, including their own. In closing, Wolves in the Throne Room have with Diadem of 12 Stars completed their own mission; this disc transcends previously held wisdom at what it means to make a lasting black metal album. A future classic?

Track Listing
1. Queen of the Borrowed Light
2. Face in a Nightime Mirror Part I
3. Face in a Nightime Mirror Part II
4. (A Shimmering Radiance) Diadem of 12 Stars

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Wolves in the Throne Room - Diadem of 12 Stars


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