By now, you’re either with Erik Danielsson or you’re not. A decade removed from setting the black metal underground ablaze with the ferocious debut Rabid Death’s Curse, Watain might look the same as they always have, reveling in every visual black metal cliché you can think of (from corpsepaint to the much-ballyhooed impaled sheeps’ heads and animal blood tossed on crowds), but with the release of their heavily hyped fourth studio album, bassist/vocalist Danielsson’s intentions are abundantly clear. They’ve left the reputable underground label the AJNA Offensive in favor of the much more mainstream and widely distributed Season of Mist.
The production is much cleaner than anything they’ve done before, essentially doing away with any of the ugliness and atmosphere that permeated their early work. Lavish artwork replaces the more traditional visual style of their previous albums. And most noticeably, although Watain has always been a melodic black metal band in the tradition of fellow Swedes Dissection (Danielsson was a member for a short stretch), much more emphasis has been placed on melody than ever before, to the point where the trio comes astonishingly close to the streamlined metal of Dimmu Borgir. That’s right, blasphemous as it may be in the eyes of black metal purists, Danielsson, guitarist Pelle Forsberg, and drummer Håkan Jonsson, more than anything else, want to be huge.
While it’s not as cartoonish a turn as what Norway’s Keep of Kalessin have pulled off on their latest album, Reptilian, Lawless Darkness will still throw some for a loop by just how straightforward several of the new songs turn out to be. “Reaping Death” approaches the simplicity of Immortal in the way the verses border on straight-up thrash metal, the pre-chorus riff reminiscent of early Celtic Frost as Danielsson spouts his usual Satanic shtick in surprisingly effective cadences and rhyming schemes: “Hail! Hail! Thou who makes the cosmos wail! / In anguish as we fuck the world / And sodomize the god that failed.” “Kiss of Death” alternates between a stately march, groovy 4/4 passages, and double-time thrash as Forsberg slyly injects well-timed touches of dissonance into the main riff. And like any thrash epic, it includes the requisite contemplative mid-song break, allowing for Forsberg to lay down an expressive, decidedly anti-black metal guitar solo.
Still, and to no one’s surprise, the album is at its best when the band cranks up the intensity. Blastbeats and the usual tremolo picking dominate the malevolent “Four Thrones”, and while the shout-along moments are more goofy than blasphemous (“Tonight the heavens shall burn by the love of our Lord / Hail BEELZEBUTH!”), you know it will go over huge live. “Death’s Cold Dark” continues the more subtly thrash-tinged melodic black metal that we’ve come to expect, the sinister yet very catchy “Malfeitor” is highlighted by Forsberg’s diverse array of riffs, while “Hymn to Qayin” comes closest to evoking the feel of the band’s first two albums.
It’s on the album’s two longest tracks where we get the best sense of how Watain wants their form of extreme metal to progress. “Wolves Curse” might pass the nine-minute mark, but it’s essentially an exercise in classic first-wave black metal, Forsberg’s galloping riffs and the song’s dynamic structure bearing a strong resemblance to late-1980s Bathory. The 14-minute “Waters of Ain”, meanwhile, is one of the finest compositions the band has ever done, an engrossing amalgamation of classic black metal aesthetics (towering opening riff, haunting tremolo melodies, pure, blazing speed) with the band’s more accessible bent. The track never slips into tedium, and in fact slowly segues into a melancholy movement reminiscent of Katatonia before bursting into a climactic guitar solo that will remind many of the end of Metallica’s “Fade to Black”, the best evidence that the band couldn’t care less about sounding “true” on record and simply want to become better songwriters instead.
If there is one noticeable flaw, it’s that Lawless Darkness just might sound too slick for its own good. A little bloated production never hurt anybody, as Dimmu Borgir and Immortal will attest, but the tone on Watain’s record is so clean it borders on antiseptic, lacking the warmth and mood of 2007’s brilliant Sworn to the Dark. In the end, though, it’s a bigger worldwide audience the threesome is after, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that this immaculately-produced album will expand the band’s ever-growing fanbase even more. Danielsson is going to have to find a bigger bucket of blood.
- Multiple songs MySpace