Cold burns the pitch blackness.
Perhaps the ultimate test of a band’s greatness can be measured in the extreme reaction that they can invoke in their audience, either positive or negative in nature. In the case of Swedish black metal trustees and theatrical purveyors of the occult Watain, the default response is never lukewarm, and even those who are repelled by the philosophical message at the band’s core would be remiss to deny the musical credibility and prowess that comes with it. To the uninitiated, their brand of extreme sonic darkness could be likened to a sort of black metal historicism, manifesting as a balanced amalgam of all the important bands of the 1st and 2nd waves of the sub-genre in question. It’s a fitting eventuality for a band that came into being a bit late to participate in the heyday of either era, yet with their latest studio entry dubbed The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain, they’ve constructed an opus that belongs as much to the 2020s as it does the mid-80s and early 90s.
Wearing their influences on their proverbial shirtsleeves, this core trio of decrepit shadow-priests manages to showcase every trick in the book of blackness in less than 50 minutes, with the occasional assistance of some familiar guests. For all intents and purposes, the permanent membership of this fold represented in bassist/vocalist Erik Danielsson, guitarist Pelle Forsberg and drummer Hakan Jonsson function as the creative center, as the latter has ceased performing live since 2015 and abstained from recording the drums on this record, whereas three longstanding live musicians and a couple other familiar names from the scene would round out the membership in a studio capacity this time around. Of particular note is the melancholic and occasionally neurotic vocal display put on by Farida Lemouchi as a dramatic foil to Danielsson’s garbled yet intelligible mutterings on the down tempo, drearily atmospheric and Gothic-tinged “We Remain”, which also features a brilliant extended lead guitar display out of one-time live guitarist Gottfrid Ahman.
For those with any familiarity with the classics that typified the black metal sound of the past, just about everything present here will ring familiar, yet at no point do things come off as contrived or overtly derivative. The unrelenting blasts of arctic chills with a lofty backdrop that one might expect out of the likes of mid-90s Emperor and Saytricon blend seamlessly with the more primitive and rustic trappings of Darkthrone and Immortal, as well as the melodic and cosmic character of Dissection and the chaotic militarism of Marduk. If one were to liken this album to a treasure hunt for the ideal blend of influences, it would find a substantial deposit of precious metals beneath each turned stone, buffed to a gleaming shine that could rival the production quality of the most recent Dimmu Borgir offerings, though naturally with a less overtly symphonic bent. Occasions are even made for a few frenzied guitar solos after the shabby mold of Euronymous and Quorthon, albeit more technical apt in execution.
Despite this vast and stylistically varied array of influences, these songs prove a brilliant exercise in coherence and clarity of intent. The storming fury of the opening blaster “Ecstasies In Night Infinite” and the similarly cold and chaotic crusher with some technical flourishes “Leper’s Grace” display a balance of black and death metal inclinations, rivaling the more impressive moments one might expect out of Necrophobic, yet tied to a more orthodox mode of blackness in line with a vintage Norwegian sound. By contrast, “The Howling” leans pretty heavily into vintage Emperor territory with a dense mixture of harmonized tremolo lead lines and a comparatively thick atmosphere. “Serimosa” maintains a similarly menacing sound but opts for a mid-paced and rhythmic feel that places a greater emphasis on a thudding bass and punchier riffing. “Funeral Winter” recaps the grim and frostbitten aspects of the album’s opener, but in more of a dissonant and crackling sense that could almost recall “Under A Funeral Moon” were the production of a lower fidelity.
Though Watain will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most intense adherents to the style in a live setting, the visions of dread that go along with their performances are vividly carried through each of these ten studio recordings. The impact factor proves to be at its peak during the shorter offerings, yet the more epic and developed approach of the 7 minute slough “Before The Cataclysm” and the closing coup de grace “Septentrion” prove equally forbidding in character and occasionally reach similar zeniths in speed. It all culminates in what is arguably the most impressive offering since 2010’s Lawless Darkness, if not since their often lauded sophomore studio LP Casus Luciferi. It’s an involved listen from start to finish that eschews the concept of filler and challenges the listener to take a third and fourth listen before fully grasping everything, yet it proves highly accessible and should appeal greatly even to those who found the low-fi trappings of the 2nd wave a bridge too far into the world of perpetual night.
Released By: Nuclear Blast Records
Release Date: April 29th, 2022
Genre: Black Metal
- E. Danielsson / Vocals and guitars
- P. Forsberg / Guitar
- A. Lillo / Bass guitar
- H. Eriksson / Guitar
- E. Forcas / Drums
“The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain” track listing
1. Ecstasies In Night Infinite
2. The Howling
4. Black Cunt
5. Leper’s Grace
6. Not Sun Nor Man Nor God
7. Before The Cataclysm
8. We Remain
9. Funeral Winter
- Ltd. Deluxe Gatefold LP in Slipcase (incl. the album on CD)
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- CD Digipak
- Digital Album
Long-running yet ironically late to the party 2nd wave black metal icons Watain deliver yet another colossal opus of raw yet reasonably polished mayhem as only Scandinavia can deliver, running the gamut of every noteworthy pioneering outfit as an influence and putting their own ritualistic twist on it all