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The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain
Review by Felix on May 2, 2022.
Maybe Watain think that they always stayed on target, but from my point of view, they are aimlessly meandering since "The Mild Hunt”. You can try to find salvation in oh so dark (and unfortunately powerless) epics like 'They Rode On' or you can mime the raging black metal gnome with 'Nuclear Alchemy', but playing both roles more or less simultaneously is at the expense of your authenticity, isn’t it? Anyway, ten years after the unwelcome “Hunt” (average 57% while I write these lines) and the okay yet somewhat half-baked Trident Wolf Eclipse (average 79%, is this the result that satisfies this once outstanding unit?), the media darlings have discovered the joy of self-reflection and release songs about their agony and ecstasy. Well, why not? But we can also ask: why? Wouldn't there be more exciting topics to sing about?
Either way, I always thought that the first number of an album is either a stage-setting intro or a massive first statement of power, bloodlust and insanity. I mean we are still speaking about black metal… But 'Ecstasies In Night Infinite' is neither fish nor fowl. It sounds like the unspectacular little brother of the advance track 'The Howling', because it spreads the same vibes (only in a worse form) on the same level of harshness. Luckily, 'The Howling' makes up for this pale opener. Sharp, partly triumphant riffing meets dense drumming, the voice celebrates aggression and the guitar lines create an almost perfect flow. This is a song that tells us something about the doubtlessly still great potential of this (formerly or still?) overly hyped band. And it goes without saying that the track profits from a perfect production. It is dark enough to avoid sterility, well balanced and blessed with the right mix of warm traditional sounds and modern sound options.
In terms of style, the first two songs are pretty representative for the album. For example, 'Leper’s Grace' and 'Funeral Winter' point into the same direction. Yet calmer tracks are on the agenda as well and they convey a fine morbid touch. Some guitar lines remind me of classic Celtic Frost or late Darkthrone (“The Underground Resistance”), and maybe it is true that Watain do not have the outstanding individuality it needs to be at the top of the movement rightfully. Nevertheless, their musical skills are absolutely convincing and The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain emanates more spirituality than the two full-lengths before together. Here everything sounds coherent and makes sense. No doubt, I respect this performance even though I cannot say that all songs kill. Well, perhaps a few of them just need some more spins to reveal their full force. Especially the long, meticulously designed pieces in the second half seem to be a little shy and do not show their real strength immediately. ('We Remain' marks an exception in this context. Its simple configuration does not shine with different layers. Nevertheless, a pretty good, almost slightly psychedelic number.)
My hidden champion is the somehow fallacious 'Serimosa'. It seems to want to be boring, but the opposite is the case. Despite its quite calm character, it generates a lot of musical power, profound evil and mental destruction – apart from that, it is no surprise that it boasts with a gloomy atmosphere. Not only here, the band masters the dark melodicism excellently. Moreover, with devilish duality, the lyrics promise purification and apocalypse at the same time and the music captures this lyrical approach exactly. A wonderful case of absolute harmony between sound and word, I like it very much. So while I am listening to the strong, partly galloping closer 'Septentrion', I realize that the album suffers from an inefficient opener, but not from severe flaws. The unholy trinity of Casus Luciferi, Sworn To The Dark and Lawless Darkness remains untouched; nevertheless, this new work is a surprisingly fascinating collection of expressive songs. The band has found the way back to itself and its core competencies. Hopefully, the period of meandering is over.
Rating: 8.3 out of 10631
Review by Benjamin on April 27, 2022.
Although they have sometimes been the focus for a certain amount of ire from elements of the black metal scene that consider any level of popularity or mainstream acclaim as heretical (often despite continuing to champion other such underground acts as Immortal or Venom), Watain have been one of black metal’s 21st century success stories, their incendiary live shows and albums such as the classic Lawless Darkness positioning them firmly among the elite. However, despite their lofty reputation and significant brand recognition within the mainstream scene, they stand at something of a crossroads in their career, following firstly the divisive left-turn of The Wild Hunt, and its follow-up, Trident Wolf Eclipse, a much more straightforward and even feral album which regained some lost ground, but at the expense of what had previously been an apparent ambition to transcend the sometimes narrow constraints of orthodox black metal.
In some respects, The Agony And Ecstasy Of Watain is the album the band needed to make, essentially marking a restatement of the core sound of the band, while retaining glimpses of the experimental touches that have marked out the band’s singular ambition since they burst forth from the Swedish underground in the early 2000s.
The band have never made a secret of their kinship with their spiritual forbears Dissection, and they tend to be at their best when combining their rapacious blasting and icy tremolo runs with the kind of metal classicism that made Dissection the bridge that they clearly were between traditional heavy metal and the fetid filth of the second wave Scandinavian scene. With the exception of the excellent and unusually brooding ‘We Remain’, which features The Devil’s Blood alumnus Farida Lemouchi, most of the best moments on this album come when the band lean heavily into the florid and propulsive guitar work that cannot avoid that Dissection comparison, with ‘Leper’s Grace’ and ‘Serpentrion’ significant highlights for this reason. To the band’s credit though, the level of quality throughout is admirably high, with a good balance between the kind of furious lightning-speed passages that recall the Swedes’ earlier albums such as Rabid Death’s Curse with the more infectious and technical instrumental sections that allow the album to stand comparison with the seminal Lawless Darkness. The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain does not quite hit the majestic heights of that record, but it is certainly the band’s best for a decade, and a worthy addition to what is now an impressively strong back catalogue.
Rating: 8.1 out of 10631
Review by Fernando on April 7, 2022.
Watain are a name that needs no introduction, as they’ve become one of the biggest modern black metal bands of the last 25 years, and while a lot of purists sneer at the Swedes’ success or complain for the upteenth time about their albums’ deluxe box set editions, people who actually listen to the music see where this band truly shines. And in 2022, Watain returned with their seventh opus, The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain, to be released on Nuclear Blast.
Since the hype and anti-hype this band gets is irrelevant, the music and how this new record stacks next to their back catalog and that is what I’ll focus on in this review. Watain, are of course known for their aggressively melodic and epic style of metal that is very overtly inspired by Swedish titans Bathory and Dissection, among other bands. However Watain have long since stepped beyond their influences, and for The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain the band have taken one further step in their evolution. This refinement is a welcomed development for Watain since their last record Trident Wolf Eclipse while enjoyable, felt like a retread and a throwback to their earlier days, but with their matured songwriting and performances. The Agony & Ecstasy… on the other hand is a further progression from the band’s development which started on their magnum opus Lawless Darkness and the bold experimenting of The Wild Hunt, which is also their most polarized record.
On this new album the trademark elements of Watain are still present, and if fans are expecting Satanic sonic fury, then the first two tracks ‘Ecstasies In Night Infinite’ and the lead single ‘The Howling’ will definitely grab their attention, however, where this record truly excels and where it surpasses The Wild Hunt is the way the band creates atmosphere. That being said, this album is by no means slow or plodding. The one element the band carried over from their last album is their furious speed and intensity, and through that sheer musical aggression is how they create a thick and evil atmosphere that makes the album sound epic and foreboding. Songs like ‘Serimosa’, ‘Black Cunt’ and the monumental dirge and third single ‘We Remain’ (which features lead vocals from Farida Lemouchi of the late great occult rock band The Devil’s Blood and wicked guitar solos from Gottfrid Åhman formerly from In Solitude) also display the band’s skill in slowing things down to create a different type of intensity.
Furthermore, even with the slower and mid paced songs, the album is also surprisingly compact, at under 50 minutes the band truly display how far they’ve come as songwriters. While some people prefer long epics, and Watain have certainly done long tracks in the past, and that’s still the case, tracks like the aforementioned ‘We Remain’ and the longests songs of the album ‘Before The Cataclysm’ and ‘Septentrion’ are the album’s highlights and best songs overall, but the fact that Watain can maintain the same ability to create memorable and catchy riffs, melodies as well as a strong sense of atmosphere and sonic depth for songs between the 4 to 5 minute length is still a mark of excellent songwriting, as each song is trimmed of fat and filler and a focused enough to stand on its own merit, while also being a component of the record as a whole. However, my only minor criticism is the interlude track ‘Not Sun Nor Man Nor God’ while a decent enough melody with an enjoyably dissonant piano, it's just an interlude that bridges the first half of the album with the second. But beyond that, the songs that truly matter are the bulk of the album.
The last 2 aspects worth mentioning of this record are the individual performances and the production. The latter aspect is the most interesting as this is the first Watain record to feature the full lineup of the band and it's also the first record without founding member H. Jonsson on drums, though he is credited with the rest of the core trinity on songwriting duties. That being said, the band’s live drummer E. Forcas is both a worthy torchbearer and a wickedly talented drummer in his own right, as he’s skilled in both the aggressively fast tracks and the mid paced and slower tracks. Founding members E. Danielsson and P. Forsberg still showcase their talents and continue to show their willingness to refine their craft, Danielsson with his bone chilling growls and Forsberg with his riffs and hooks. The rest of the band’s lineup are no slouches either, A. Lillo is still in my opinion one of the best bassists in black metal and H. Eriksson is a perfect complement to Forsberg, as well as an excellent shredder and soloist in his own right. Finally, the production of this record, courtesy of Watain’s long time producer and arguably the fourth unofficial member of the Temple of Watain, Tore “Necromorbus” Stjerna is as it needs to be. Stjerna’s work as a music producer obviously speaks for itself, but there’s something truly unique about his work with Watain, as it’s almost impossible to think of a Watain record without Stjerna’s input, it's quite a feat for a producer to jell so well with a band as Stjerna does with Watain. The easiest way to describe how well Stjerna works with Watain is how the man simply gets the band and perfectly captures their essence on record. All the instruments sound excellent, the performances of the band as a unit and on an individual level shine throughout each track, and it shows how good black metal can sound with a good production when the band and the producer are on the same page.
Overall, Watain continue to prove why they’ve achieved the success they have, while it is true that their sound continues to be black metal, and many detractors will cry that the band peaked in 2010 till kingdom come, there’s no denying that Watain display the true essence of black metal which is staying true to themselves and their craft, regardless of what anyone else might say.
Best tracks: ‘The Howling’, ‘Serimosa’, ‘Black Cunt’, ‘Before The Cataclysm’, ‘We Remain’, ‘Septentrion’
Rating: 8.5 out of 10631