There is no denying that Watain’s status as a preeminent extreme metal band is secure at this stage of their existence. Over the last 20 years the Swedish wolves have amassed a remarkable discography featuring some of the finest contemporary black metal ever canonized within this diabolical sub-genre. Acclaimed albums Casus Luciferi, Sworn to the Dark, and Lawless Darkness stand together as an indestructible trident, dripping with claret and occult glorification.
Watain’s esteemed position following the Swedish Grammy Award-winning Lawless Darkness afforded the band—Erik Danielsson (vocals, bass), Pelle Forsberg (guitars), and Håkan Jonsson (drums)—the liberty to experiment within the context of their chosen style on 2013’s The Wild Hunt. However, upon its release, that album proved quite divisive among fans and critics alike, some of whom condemned the stylistic changes Watain undertook to expand the scope of their sound.
The Wild Hunt‘s centerpiece, “They Rode On”, took the brunt of the ire. Inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s biblically epic novel Blood Meridian, this song showcased Daniellson’s clean singing for the first time on a Watain LP, set to a sprawling backdrop of gothic metal with acoustic passages. For those put off by “They Rode On”, it was a blasphemous act by a blasphemous band. While others—this writer included—admired Watain’s creative ambition as well as this particular song’s execution, which, along with the progressive metal flourishes of title track, sounded like a meeting of the minds between Fields of the Nephilim, Pink Floyd, and Bathory. From the outside it appeared as though The Wild Hunt would mark the beginning of boundless experimentation by this blood-drenched trio.
So, now that Trident Wolf Eclipse, Watain’s second album for Century Media, is upon us, the immediate question is whether Watain have continued to piss off the purists by toying with the tenets of second wave black metal, just as many artists have done prior/post The Wild Hunt? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Trident Wolf Eclipse is a traditionalist album for Watain; they have focused on straight-for-the-throat Swedish black metal without any stylistic detours. Such a regressive decision may satisfy some and disappoint others, and Watain could have another polarizing album on their viscera-sodden hands here.
Regarded as black metal’s Reign in Blood, Marduk’s Panzer Division Marduk (1999) was a militaristic blitzkrieg assault on the senses, blasting everything in its path for 30 minutes. Interestingly, that release by their fellow Swedish heathens is Trident Wolf Eclipse‘s closest stylistic comparison, not a previous Watain album. “Nuclear Alchemy” immediately sets the infernal tone with its thrashing tempo changes and Watain never really deviate from its relentless onslaught. Jonsson’s drums dictate the entirety of the album, constantly shifting patterns from high-speed gallops and double-bass bombardments to vicious blast-beats and slower grooves. He changes direction so much throughout the likes of “Sacred Damnation and “Furor Diabolicus” that you’re left dizzied, and it takes a number of listens to begin to find distinguishing features within each song because of the unrelenting tempo changes.
Yet despite the songs’ uniformity and very minimal use of codas rich in aphotic atmospheres, there is serious songcraft to be found within the shifting ferocity Watain emphasize since it is extremely difficult to arrange jolting transitions to flow together seamlessly. Daniellson gives an enraged vocal performance, too—maybe his most authoritative yet, but certainly not his most dynamic. He matches the incendiary musicianship underpinning the Luciferian paeans with rabid intensity, snarling and bellowing from the abyss and even laughing maniacally at the end of “Ultra (Pandemoniac)”—a song that’ll entice fans of Teitanblood faster than followers of Tribulation.
For a band that was at the cusp of mainstream crossover, it is certainly a curious prospect to hear them return deep within the underground to reclaim their throne with razor-sharp, no-nonsense extreme metal. In fact, “A Throne Below” and “Towards the Sanctuary” rage and surge with some of the fastest passages of the band’s career, both positioned near the album’s conclusion to keep the black flame burning bright until the very end, leading into the mid-paced discordance of the anthemic closer, “The Fire of Power”.
The reasoning behind Trident Wolf Eclipse’s atavistic nature is unclear at this point, however. Perhaps this album is to silence some of the dissenting voices heard upon the release of their previous album? If that’s the case then it’s disappointing that a band espousing “do what thou wilt” ideologies could be creatively swayed by certain sectors of their fan base. And if it’s just a self-centered choice, highlighting the aggressive head-space of where Watain is right now and not closing the door on future experimentation, then this short, sharp blast of Scandinavian savagery should be accepted as a welcome diversion in the grander scheme of things. Only time will tell; but for now, we have Panzer Division Watain to contend with.