It may be somewhat reasonable to assume a skeptical stance in the face of Wolves in the Throne Room’s decision to embark into purely ambient territories. The Cascadian black metal sibling duo found its niche making hypnotically atmospheric black metal that sprinkled soundscape ambiance with its uniquely life-affirming take on the most unholy of metals, and with disgraced black metal pioneer Varg Vikernes continuing to do his very best to sever the few threads remaining of Burzum’s musical legacy with his excruciating “video game loading screen” music, I don’t think anyone was particularly thrilled at the prospect of the brothers Weaver ditching their black metal signature.
In interviews, drummer Aaron Weaver has spoken of the band’s goal to create “visual” music. Previous Wolves… records, in my own experience, conjure the presence of the brothers Weaver themselves as they tear it up deep in a candlelit clearing in some old growth forest (or a sweaty bar), bathed in LED lights affixed to their headstocks that pierce through billowing sage smoke. It’s richly visual, but the typical formula of “loud guitar music” has its evocative limits.
Celestite, like the best ambient music, is refreshingly egoless. The omnipresent image of the “rock band” is no longer present; there is no beat, no verses, no choruses, no riffs, no proper songs. It’s a formless cascade of sound, a vision rendered with countless layers of synths, brass instruments, woodwinds, and the occasional electric guitar, all the while leaving out the human element. There is no sense of an ensemble of musicians and their audience gathered together in worshipful reverence of nature and our more feral selves. Without an inkling of conventional song structure to latch on to, Celestite frees itself to invite your attention rather than command it.
Even when taken as a standalone piece (and not the bookend to a previous one), Celestite isn’t a perfect fit into ambient music pioneer Brian Eno’s vision of music of a kind “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Indeed, Celestite is at once outwardly inconsequential, but rest assured: the Weavers are maximalist ambient artists. Take the plunge and you’ll find a piece just as rich, expansive, and diverse as its sister record.
Opening track “Turning Ever Towards the Sun” immediately begins with a borrowing of the more ambient musical motifs from “Thuja Magus Imperium” off Celestial Lineage, but where the latter blasted off with a surge of tremolo riffs and thunderous drumming, the former gently pushes itself out into uncharted waters. The record then unfolds as a single piece, a 46 minute long journey into exotica wherein foreign landscapes are soundtracked by an orgy of sound, simmering with sinister tension and feral beauty alike. At no point does the record devolve into lazy sub-Burzum repetition, nor does the ambitious amount of instrumental layering veer too far into the hackneyed and contrived to charm the imagination as much as it does.
Lovely as this record is, I’m unsurprisingly right with anyone else who prefers the version of Wolves in the Throne Room that’s more strongly tethered to its human core. As free as Celestite becomes to explore and experiment without having to defer to the trappings of heavy metal fundamentals, it becomes just as alien and unrelatable almost by design. It’s not an insignificant trade, and it’s not going to charm many who have no time for vacant soundscapes, but I think Wolves… needed this sojourn into the unfamiliar, having possibly reached the zenith of their black metal craft thus far. And even when placed within their rather stellar discography, the record remains a refreshing break from the norm and at it’s best an intoxicating piece of “visual” music for those willing to take the plunge, even if the metal you and I crave is no longer present.