Essential Black Metal Listening: WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM Diadem of 12 Stars
Believe me, I was surprised as you when I realized that Diadem of 12 Stars was about to turn 10 years old. American black metal has changed a lot in that time and there's a fair argument to be made that brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver were one of the parties most responsible.
Today, Diadem of 12 Stars makes for a very interesting listen. Not just due to the passage of time, but because of the difference between how this band was perceived and how they actually sounded. For many genre purists, Wolves in the Throne Room represented a softening of black metal ethos, both in terms of sound and philosophy. The word "pretentious" was thrown around quite a bit in regards to their naturalist themes and Earth-loving lyrics. As for the music itself, it was too pretty, its riffs shimmering and immaterial to the point of impotence.
This seems pretty ridiculous now for a number of reasons. First of all, nature and the worship thereof are an inextricable part of black and viking metal, and have been since the beginning. The point at which that sentiment becomes "soft" has yet to be clearly defined by the band's detractors. It's also worth pointing out that "pretentious" is a pretty funny way to describe a band that doesn't spend their time hiking up into the woods to do four-hour photo shoots in full medieval regalia. As for the music, there are definitely many elements of what came to be known, for better or worse, as cascadian black metal, but Diadem of 12 Stars is a much heavier and more diverse listen than you might remember.
While the band has said that their intention was to convey the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it's the Bay Area that sometimes feels like the greater sonic authority here. Diadem was produced in part by Tim Green, formerly of Cali black metal group, Weakling, who the Weaver brothers claim was a powerful influence on the album. This isn't just Dead As Dreams worship, though. The Weavers draw from the entirety of the notoriously diverse San Francisco scene, especially the crusty, semi-melodic bile of bands like Skaven and Stormcrow, which imbues a lot of the albums heavier moments. Dino Somese of Asunder, as well as Jamie Myers, then of Hammers of Misfortune, make appearances on vocals, further cementing the album's west coast ties.
Bay Area influences rear their head early and often. Opener "Queen of the Borrowed Light" wastes little time shifting from fairly familiar melodic European black metal to a deathly, crushing breakdown worthy of the doom death label. A similar path is followed on "Face in a Night Time Mirror: Part 2," which features a twisted, Somese-led dirge at the 5:00 mark that brings to mind both Asunder and even Evoken. Myers, meanwhile, makes her mark early on "Face in a Night Time Mirror: Part 1," and her voice is a real X factor here, giving Diadem its most folk-inflected moment. Featured frequently throughout the album, her ghostly voice is tastefully employed and blended effectively with the music, bringing a welcome level of competence to a role that plenty of WITTR's black metal forebears treated as a novelty.
Twenty-minute closer "(A Shimmering Radiance) Diadem of 12 Stars" is by far the most diverse and experimental of the four tracks, transitioning from from melodic doom to tremolo picked passages, and almost militaristic, death-like chugging in a fever dream of extreme styles. Listening to this now, I can't help but think that many of the bands that followed—and maybe even Wolves themselves—took from this album its least interesting elements, namely its masterful but ultimately conventional black metal portions, and ran with them until they became a sort of parody. The strength of this album is its diversity, which brings me to my last point.
Given the album's heft and the extreme nature of its musical lineage, you have to ask what it was exactly that was so offensive to the black metal elite. Diadem of 12 Stars was diverse, unusual, and sometimes highly melodic album that inspired others to experiment, yes, but it hardly does any of those things to a fault. Calling this soft and pretentious while a band like Summoning can still get a pass is flat-out absurd. As is almost always the case with these things, the band's detractors were less concerned with the music itself than with the people who were listening to it. Diadem of 12 Stars attracted a lot of new fans to the genre, many of whom had no prior experience in the realm of black metal or even heavy in general, into the fold. And when shifts like that occur, there are always those who feel threatened and uncomfortable. That's a sentiment I can understand and even one I might have shared in my earlier days, but now I would only say that's a shame because those people missed out some something pretty darn special.