Metal music as a genre has rarely had any significant mainstream exposure, with the notable exception of some popular bands in the 70s and 80s like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Its most recent rise to prominence was possibly in the mid-90s, with the wave of arsons associated with the infamous Norwegian black metal scene that took the European media by storm.
Even with the press these musicians garnered with their side activities, their music received far less attention than the overblown image of evil and occultism that they had created for themselves. Black metal is an extremely harsh-sounding subgenre of metal that is characterized by the poor quality of its production, shrieked vocals and fast, melodic guitar riffs and a sound that most people found offensive, with the exception of a few rebellious youths. This small group of socially dejected young men transformed the subgenre into one of the biggest and most respected branches of metal music in a cultural movement comparable to the rise of grunge or punk. While black metal has made huge waves in Europe, with the eccentric, monster-themed band Lordi even winning the “Eurovision” international song competition, the style has gone mostly unnoticed in American circles outside of a few isolated bands like the now-defunct Xasthur.
Within the past few years, however, black metal has experienced a new world rebirth in a massive movement based in a place many Bellevue College students live: the Pacific Northwest. Popularly referred to as “Cascadian black metal,” this relatively new branch of the subgenre eschews the demonic, darkness-obsessed themes of its predecessors in favor of lyrics and music inspired by the bountiful forests and nature found in the mountain range that many of us call home. It is not uncommon for calming female vocals and recordings of bird songs to appear alongside intense, atmospheric metal sections, sometimes at the same time.
The movement is spearheaded by the Olympia-based band Wolves in the Throne Room, comprised of two brothers, which has become one of the most successful bands from its label, Southern Lord. Their music often seems to try and evoke the image of an ancient ritual in which humanity makes a spiritual bond with the natural world that it severed long ago. Wolves in the Throne Room align themselves strongly with the ideology of environmentalism, and spend most of their time alone on their property in the Cascades, sustaining themselves by farming and fishing.
Cascadian black metal is by no means confined to Washington State, with another major band called Skagos hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia. The bands Ash Borer, Fauna and Altar of Plagues also consider themselves to be part of the scene.
Though it has distanced itself from its dark roots, Cascadian black metal remains a divisive variety of music and while it is certainly not for everybody, it’s fascinating that such a community of musicians exists unknown to most people in their daily lives, hidden from sight like the vastness of the natural world that inspires them.