Venue: 17 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NG, UK
Date: 30th November 2017
Wolves in the Throne Room have a long-standing place in my heart. They were my first proper introduction to black metal back when I was a teenager who genuinely believed Slipknot to be the heaviest band in the world, and as such were a complete turning point in my musical development. After I first heard Two Hunters it opened up a new boldness in me, and I began a heady dive into genres unknown that I am still yet to pull out of. As such, I snatched at the opportunity to see them live for the first time years later, hoping for an experience comparable to that first feeling of opening up a box of unknowable horror and beauty, and the night delivered just what I had hoped.
First, however, were French trio Aluk Todolo, who I had never heard of prior. A cursory glance at the internet on the journey to the gig threw an array of genres and descriptors at me: krautrock, black metal, noise, enigma. In my experience, when bands cast their net of influences so wide, it tends to be either genius or idiocy, and rarely much in between, so I went into the venue prepared for both the best and the worst.
In Heaven, the band took the stage to little fanfare, the lights in the venue predictably dim. They spaced themselves out evenly along the front of the stage, their only lighting a flickering filament bulb dangling to the floor. The soft orange light reflecting off their gleaming chrome drum kit evoked an ominous minimalism from the start, on which the music soon delivered. As the pulsating drums picked up, enwrapped in a driving bassline, the krautrock the internet had warned me of made itself immediately known; the synth-like, abstract guitar only served to reinforce that this band was not playing black metal in any traditional sense. However, their sound was rich in that intangible atmosphere – ominous, unsettling, yet somehow meditative – that is the primary and possibly only true aspect of the genre present here. When music captures that, it captures me. Aluk Todolo delivered this atmosphere relentlessly; their rhythms rattled and rumbled like a freight train through hell, the bass and guitar filling it with a potent menace. They rarely stopped between songs, each mesmerising piece flowing into the other as if it were a demonic rave – rarely has an extreme metal band been called danceable, but Aluk Todolo were more than that – to dance was irresistible. Their music compelled me to move until I could move no longer, which was hardly expected from the support at a Wolves in the Throne Room gig, but a delightful surprise nonetheless.
The ritualistic, meditative feeling that Aluk Todolo had exuded throughout their performance fed immaculately into the main event of the night: an hour and a half service from Wolves in the Throne Room. A progenitor of the Cascadian black metal scene in the US, the band have attracted both derision and praise for their rich, ethereal take on the genre and their adamantly environmentalist politics. But if they proved one thing with their performance, it was that no matter your thoughts on their politics, none can ever doubt their black metal credentials. Between the sets, the filament bulb was swapped out for something a little more theatrical – an ornate, winged microphone stand in front of a backdrop of intricate Celtic latticework, the light source now relegated to the pale stage lights. The stage was set for a religious experience, and religious it was. The appeal of their music is a ritualistic one; it’s music that is detached from the mundane, divorced from familiarity by its balance of ferocity and high melancholy, and in a live setting, engaging with this visually is vital.
Wolves in the Throne Room went a step further into creating their church; about halfway through their set, in one of their ambient interludes, one member lit up what looked from a distance to be a particularly fat joint. I was impressed by his boldness – not only did he appear to be taking massive, frequent drags, he would move the joint in a broad circle in front of him in between tokes. It was only when I was hit by the rich, intoxicating smell of incense that I realised he wasn’t just taunting the security. The pungent odour eased me into a trancelike state, in which I was perfectly primed to be inundated with their barrage of rolling drums and riffs dissolving in a mist of distortion. The set was relentless; they played only six songs over an hour and a half, charting a course between the most expansive highlights of their career that ensured a near-constant state of meditative ferocity. A sea of nodding heads and raised fists showed how effectively the performance pervaded the crowd; the rapture and subconscious convulsion of the punters was reminiscent of some evangelical ceremony. At points it wouldn’t have been surprising if someone had dropped to the floor as if smitten by the power of some nameless deity.
It is a testament to the craft that Wolves in the Throne Room put into their songs that despite their repetitious compositions, there was never a point in their performance where it became boring. The constant tide of blurring riffs did make it very easy to drift off; my mind frequently wandered, but not due to lack of interest. Overzealous it may sound, but I was sometimes led into a kind of reverie, mind detached in an atmosphere so thick it became conversely void. Wolves in the Throne Room manage to make lengthy compositions that never lose their structural integrity or wear a motif out, always shifting rhythms, textures and melodies just when it’s right to do so, and the result is truly enrapturing.
Wolves in the Throne Room exude that definitive atmosphere of black metal – a sense of both grandeur and claustrophobia, of a transcendent, solitary collapse; I was as entranced as when I first discovered them. Witnessing them live lived up to this completely, a visceral, spiritual experience that demonstrated the very best that black metal can deliver.