When discussing the trajectory of American black metal, it is impossible to omit Wolves in the Throne Room. Like Elrond and his ilk, the Weaver brothers Aaron and Nathan and their many collaborators have at times seemed like reluctant central characters in the black metal back-and-forth, drawing a huge fanbase while neither eschewing all second-wave aesthetics nor leaning fully into the departures that made bands like Deafheaven or Liturgy lightning rods for controversy. Over the years, this both-and approach has enthralled and sometimes appalled metalheads the world over—while Diadem of Twelve Stars and Two Hunters were points of entry for legions of American heshers, their sound, and excursions like Celestite, confounded others, drawing criticisms for departing from the endlessly rehashed “cold” sound of Norwegian black metal and necro recording techniques in favor of their own mist-shrouded aesthetic.

The band has never let this rhetorical tug-of-war bog them down. Retreating to Owl Lodge Studios, their Rivendell in the Pacific Northwest, with musicians ranging from Aaron Turner to Swedish experimentalist Anna von Hausswolff, they have continued to create uncompromising forest visions both deeply rooted and skyward-aimed. Primordial Arcana, their latest, embodies both facets. It is their most compact and approachable release to date, undeniably brutal and yet glistening with the forest dew that has characterized their sound since 2004.

Primordial Arcana is elemental. Full of fire, the forging of landscapes, and the hissing of steam on cooling magma, the full release follows three singles that reach through loam into bedrock for their inspiration. The latest, “Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire),” sees the band contemplate a time before trees and moss. The track opens with a horn sounding from the firmament before launching into boiling blast beats and ferocious dueling vocals. Lyrics allude to the earth’s origins, where the “yawning abyss opens” and “ice becomes searing red flame.” The video’s central visual motif of a sword being quenched and hilted echoes the song’s battle-ready riffage and furious rhythm section.

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And yet this song is only four minutes and twenty-four seconds long. For those used to Wolves’ black metal epics such as “Angrboda” that run over ten minutes, the relative brevity here may come as a surprise. This is in part the result of a new approach enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic—for the first time ever, the Weaver brothers and guitarist Kody Keyworth, a live guest since 2010 and a full-time band member since 2017, handled the album’s genesis, recording, and production almost entirely by themselves.

But it is also the result of twenty years of exploration. Wolves in the Throne Room has pushed back through human history to the earliest molten earth in content, but they have also refined their musicianship to an edge so keen it disappears. Early single and album opener “Mountain Magick” is as technically refined a song as the band has ever produced. Its lyrics elevate death to something celestial, concluding with the transmutation of “blood to sap/Flesh to ore/Bone to quartz/Eyes to gold.” The rhythm section on “Mountain Magick” maintains a tight focus; the guitars weave gracefully from medieval chords to mountain-summiting riffs. Even the acoustic ambience on this album, like the hammered dulcimer that opens “Spirit of Lightning,” is held to its allotted time and place. Where past Wolves releases have been more or less fairly critiqued as meandering, unrefined, or occasionally self-indulgent, Primordial Arcana is relentless.

Unlike the band's previous full-lengths, the album sports no interlude tracks. Rather, the atmosphere is fully integrated. “Spirit of Lightning” gives way to “Through Eternal Fields,” a more melodic and introspective song that moves at a melancholy trot into “Primal Chasm.” While “Underworld Aurora” unfolds more slowly and is undergirded by saber-rattling ride hits and cosmic synthesizers, it continues the onslaught, paving the way for the album’s climax and sole track over ten minutes, “Masters of Rain and Storm.”

“Masters of Rain and Storm” is a composite of every force marshalled by the previous songs. Two and a half minutes in, the more contemplative riffs give way to martial guitar and drums which then collapse into a galloping blast hurtling through ethereal synthesizers. The song is an undeniable feat of composition, tailor-made for footage of a battle. At the six-minute mark, the bloodshed ends, and acoustic guitars take over for a moment of counsel. In this way, with its caesuras and left turns, “Masters of Rain and Storm” is the most quintessentially Wolvesian track on the record, but when Aaron Weaver’s precision blasts resume a minute and a half later, you’re reminded of what an intense voyage Primordial Arcana has been. This record conspicuously never lets the listener meditate for very long until the final track, “Eostre,” offers you a moment to reflect on its entirety.

This is another masterful compositional flourish; however, “Eostre” itself is very Celestite-esque and feels almost out of place with its dungeon-synth motifs. It lacks the acoustic instrumentation found within other tracks, and only the final burble of a mountain stream ties this three-minute outro with the rest Primordial Arcana. But these are minor details in the scheme of the LP, and “Eostre” is a necessary digestif for what precedes it, that being arguably Wolves in the Throne Room’s most out-and-out black metal release.

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While the band has clearly not compromised on their unique brew of brutality and introspection, they have distilled it into a very potent and palatable essence. At these compact runtimes, there’s no room for doubt about the band's ability to blaze their own trail. Nothing on this record feels rote. Songs like “Mountain Magick” and “Primal Chasm” will doubtless become setlist classics, showcasing as they do musicians who have homed in on their many strengths. One wonders if the band would continue to benefit from favoring this more compact three-piece approach on future releases. Doubtlessly they will determine the next move themselves, whatever conclusion one may reach.

While Primordial Arcana doesn’t redefine the genre, it does feel like a defining release for this current era. Without eschewing either the old or new, the atmospheric or face-melting, it is a linchpin moment for Wolves in the Throne Room, containing timeless flashes of brilliance. Whatever the band’s next exploration, Primordial Arcana is a mighty milestone on a path numerous bands have sought to emulate, and further makes a case for Wolves in the Throne Room as the preeminent American black metal band of the early 21st century.

—Colin Williams

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Primordial Arcana releases today via Relapse Records. Grab it on translucent gold with brown, oxblood and olive green splatter vinyl.