Saturday, June 1, 2013

Wolves in the Throne Room - Diadem of 12 Stars (2006)

Wolves in the Throne Room is one of those bands that can polarize people just by mentioning their name. They're alternately pretentious hipsters who are destroying black metal's kvlt legacy and a breath of fresh air for a genre that's long been stagnant and one note. The truth probably falls somewhere in the middle: Wolves in the Throne Room won't take your old Mayhem records away from you, but they're sure as hell not going to change the genre forever either. On Diadem of 12 Stars, their debut album, they perform some solid atmospheric black metal, nothing more and occasionally a little less.

Diadem of 12 Stars contains only four songs, and they each clock in at over 10 minutes with the final track exceeding 20 minutes in runtime. If you are looking for filthy, fast-paced black metal, this isn't the band for you. If, however, you're in the mood for black metal by way of Boris, then look no further.

The album opens with “Queen of the Borrowed Light,” which is probably my favorite of their songs, and it's probably the strongest song on the album. The song starts with a tremolo picked riff clocking in at about a third of the speed of what you're used to. (Yeah, it's weird. Just go with it for a minute.) The tempo eventually increases, drums kick in, and shortly after so do the vocals. The vocals are the standard black metal rasps layered over an operatic female voice. While I would hesitate to refer to this as a duet, the operatic vocals provide a nice background for the fairly standard and unimaginative riffing in the background and elevate an otherwise banal song. The layered vocals eventually give way to some decent riffing, however, and the rasps become more powerful and commanding as they power into the most powerful and remarkable part of the album.

About five minutes into “Queen of the Borrowed Light” the tempo slows and what was one voice becomes a call and response with a lower-pitched voice. High pitched vocals play off of lower pitched death metal growls, and the vocals again elevate the passage to something that is somehow more than the sum of its parts, which is rather true about much of Diadem of 12 Stars – it's much better than it should be. The slower movement eventually speeds up and the song returns to the memorable riffs from before with a second guitar occasionally playing above it all. Were the whole album just this song I would probably have scored it higher.

The second and third tracks are “Face in a Night Time Mirror, Pt. 1” and “Face in a Night Time Mirror, Pt. 2.” The first part starts out a bit unfocused and sounds a bit like the band decided to jam in the studio and use whatever they came up with for the album. It's dull and repetitive, and unlike in the previous song, the clean female vocals that kick in after a minute aren't a welcome respite from the tedium. The melody is still banal and the excellent vocal performance isn't enough to save it. This gives way to an acoustic portion following which the black metal vocals erupt and the riffing becomes more dynamic. This pair of songs suffers from uneven riffing and composition. When the vocals are on and the riffing is good, the album is excellent, but when it's not, you have to slog through another few minutes to get back to the good stuff. And, it's not the case that the faster, heavier parts of the song are the better parts. Often, the slower portions show a wider range of ideas and the faster moments are repetitive and feel like needless padding.

The final track opens with one of their better slow riffs. The guitars harmonize in unique ways and make it sound like black metal by way of doom. Somehow, Wolves in the Throne Room manages to keep it together for twenty minutes without any part of the song feeling excessively bloated, which is nice since you may have fallen asleep after the previous two tracks. The black metal vocals pair well with the clean vocals here, just as they do in “Queen of the Borrowed Light.” This song, much like the first, remains cohesive and interesting throughout. The best examples of the band's black metal credentials can be found here as well as the best clean vocals. If I find myself being bored by “Face in a Night Time Mirror,” I find no shame in skipping straight to this track.

Wolves in the Throne Room is one of those bands that metal heads love to hate, and it's easy to see why: you have to go to a lot of trouble to separate the wheat from the chaff. The band has moments of brilliance sandwiched in between banal riffing and shallow songwriting that wouldn't be out of place in a jam band, and it's not always a rewarding experience to have to actively hunt for moments of brilliance within an album.

Verdict: Win [7.0/10]

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