[18 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s always a huge gamble whenever a noteworthy black metal band decides to stretch its sound outside the ultra-strict confines of what many scenesters deem “true” black metal. On one hand, it’s a chance to win over those skeptical listeners who think black metal is nothing but sad misanthropes screeching onto a poorly-mixed four-track recorder in their suburban basement, but with any bold stylistic shift, whether it’s Nachmystium’s ingenious injection of psychedelic rock, Dimmu Borgir’s complete abandonment of their early sound in favor of a much more bastardized style, Dissection’s eyebrow-raising turn towards the accessible on their final album Reinkaos, or Ulver’s stunning use of subdued elements, there are always the defiant cries of, “Sellout!” from those who consider themselves among the truly grim and frostbitten. Watain is yet another underground darling that’s decided to expand its black metal sound, but although the Swedish band has made some bold moves on their highly anticipated third full-length album, they remain fervently devoted to the genre.
Much has been made about Watain’s indebtedness to the serpentine guitar melodies first heard on Dissection’s landmark albums The Somberlain and Storm of the Light’s Bane, first on the roughly produced yet intricate 2000 debut Rabid Death’s Curse and subsequently on 2003’s spellbinding follow-up Casus Luciferi, and while the influence is still as discernable as ever on Sworn to the Dark, the new album has Watain settling comfortably into a style all their own, thanks in large part to some astounding improvements, not only on the production side of things, but in the songwriting and guitar work as well, not to mention one of the more blistering drum performances we’ll hear all year.
Watain is receiving a lot of attention for its visual (not to mention olfactory) presentation, with their ghoul-like appearance, animal blood caked on their corpsepainted faces and torsos, and rotting animal skulls displayed onstage, but the band, led by the core trio of bassist/vocalist Erik Danielsson, guitarist P. Forsberg, and drummer H. Jonsson, know more than a thing or two about song dynamics, especially when it comes to delivering a thrilling epic, as proven by the sensational opening track “Legions of the Black Light”. Complex, but with a bevy of tempo shifts that keep us on the edge of our seats, it’s an eight minute descent into the bleakest of black metal mood, lyrical themes, and musicianship. Its minute-long intro of tremolo picking and throttling blastbeats is certainly nothing new in this genre, but the song shifts gears early and often, launching into contagious midtempo grooves, propulsive passages that hint at thrash, slower sections reminiscent of Celtic Frost circa 1985, an effective churning mid-song breakdown, and a climactic melodic solo run by Forsberg. Jonsson anchors this lengthy exercise in controlled chaos, his beats taut enough to evoke comparisons to the great Norwegian drummer Hellhammer.
Vocally, Danielsson is above average, eschewing the requisite screech in favor of a more death metal-style growl, his robust voice actually surprisingly intelligible throughout the disc. Consequently, we’re left with memorable refrains that we just can’t help shouting along in liturgical unison: “Into the starless night, I follow the stench!...God! Of! Death!...Open now, abode of Satan’s powers!”
Elsewhere on the album, “Satan’s Hunger” is dominated by a blindingly fast 6/8 gallop that sounds more lurching than propulsive, while “The Light That Burns the Sun” actually manages to swing while Danielsson proselytizes about all things Beelzebubian (hey, they may be Satanists, but that doesn’t mean they can’t shake it on the dance floor). Perhaps the most faithful Dissection homage, the searing “Underneath the Cenotaph” opens with a gorgeous, haunting melody by Forsberg before exploding into a phenomenal, old school black metal maelstrom, but not before tossing in a more contemplative section for some welcome variety. After the grandiose guitar melodies of “The Serpents Chalice”, the much more primal “Darkness in Death” goes for the jugular, the brute force offset by Danielsson’s subtly melodic bassline. Preceded by the disarmingly pretty instrumental “Dead But Dreaming”, the climactic “Stellarvore” marks a return to the epic style of “Legions of the Black Light”, but is much more theatrical, starting with an otherworldly chorus that answers Danielsson’s demonic intercessions with the refrain, “Agios Daimon,” and continuing with monstrous chords made all the more effective by the pregnant pauses that follow them.
In August of last year, after serving seven years in prison for felony murder, and mere months after the release of Reinkaos, Dissection mastermind Jon Nödtveidt went to his apartment, stepped into a circle of lit candles, and with a Satanic Grimoire by his side, shot himself in the head. Watain, both ideologically and musically, are determined to carry on the legacy that Dissection created (going so far as to cover “The Somberlain” at their live shows), dedicating “Lords of the Black Light” to his memory. While the band already has long commanded the attention of the stodgiest of black metal devotees, the fact that this huge-sounding, surprisingly accessible opus has the potential to rake in sales heretofore unthinkable to Watain and its followers, just might be the band’s masterstroke.