Oh, Watain…where have you been? It’s been a little over four years since your return to the fold offering of Trident Wolf Eclipse…an album whose title signified those things you associated with your b(r)and. It’s safe to say I wasn’t over the moon with it. Now you come back with the even more outlandish (and frankly wonderful title) The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain. Sirs. You have evoked your own name in your title, and not eponymously, either. Not to mention the trials and tribulations of the great Michelangelo. What I am saying, gentlemen, is that you have either set yourselves up for a fall or you had a sneaking suspicion that your latest album is your best in a long while. Well, after careful review and consideration I am of the mind that it is most certainly the latter. This, my friend, is the bee’s knees.
To understand that we need to look back. Back in the early 00s when black metal was growing by leaps and bounds Watain crashed out of the gate with three bonafide classics of the genre. Casus Luciferi, Sworn the the Dark (where I caught onto them) and Lawless Darkness showed a band embracing the template, gravitas, and ritual of second wave black metal while priding themselves on making sure listeners could decipher the riffs with crystal clear production and a live show that was bonkers. Then in 2013 came The Wild Hunt, a record that tried to embrace darker and deeper styles within their framework. It was fine, but a lot of folks didn’t care for slogs like “They Rode On” or the very Bathory-esque title track. Five years later brought the course correction of Wolf Trident Eclipse which tried to bridge the two sides of the band a bit more harmoniously and…it kinda did? The more traditional songs worked fairly well (although the production for once didn’t do much to enliven the tracks), but over all it lacked the streamlined power of the earlier records.
Enter The Agony & the Ecstasy of Watain, and within the first minute of opening track “Ecstasies in Night Infinite” you can hear a band playing at the top of their game. Part of that may be the circumstances of recording: according to frontman/bassist Erik Danielsson, this was the first time the expanded live lineup played the tracks live in the studio during production. This fuller approach yields an intricacy and vitality missing from the last few releases. With more people in the room, ideas flesh out and expand. This is still very much indebted to the classic second wave era of black metal, but with everyone firing on all cylinders the riffs, licks and the solos are kicked up one hell of a notch: this is a guitar record in a way I think none of their previous records were.
Leadoff single “The Howling” is just as ferocious, showing how the band excels at taking the tenets of the genre: tremolo picked riffs and blast beats and injecting some fresh sonic perspectives, whether it’s the brief death and roll moments punctuation the verses or the sudden dip to a slower, more doom pace for the songs’s final section. That menace continues on the more mid-paced “Serimosa” which tweaks the formula just enough to offer some nice variety without straying into “WTF?” land.
But it’s the second half that really shines on The Agony and Ecstasy of Watain. The attack is still just as intense, but there are small moments that open up to expand the band’s sound without outright ignoring what they excel at. After the short segue of “Not Sun Nor Man Nor God” the band kicks into epic mode with “Before the Cataclysm.” When they go for doom and gloom they do it in style, bringing in Farida Lemouchi of The Devil’s Blood and new favorite Molassess to contribute on “We Remain”. Things then suitably ramp back to blistering for final tracks “Funeral Winter” and “Septentrion” which is currently holding steady as my favorite song on the album.
I’m as surprised as anyone how much I dig the new Watain. I’m typically all for exploration and evolution in a band’s career, but there is definitely something to be said (just ask Motörhead) in taking what you excel at and fine tuning that thing to within an inch of its life. The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain shows that there’s still a lot to explore in a genre that got its start 30 years ago, and that Watain are committed to showing you the way.