Watain - The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain (Cover Artwork)


The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain (2022)

Nuclear Blast

Having first formed in 1998, Watain are not only stalwarts of the true black metal scene at this point, but can legitimately be held up as legends of the genre with at least a couple of true classic records under their belt (most famously 2013’s The Wild Hunt) they are a band beloved of followers of ‘trve cvlt’ black metal. As you might expect, that means there are both rumours and ratified truths surrounding the band (and some of their ex-touring members, most notably) that are both concerning and in some cases, truly deplorable. However, the band have openly criticised the neo-nazism that often surrounds black metal bands. Still though, you look at the controversy beyond that, then the rituals, animal blood, ‘Luciferian Misanthropy’, etc that are synonymous with Watain are at worst, deeply troubling in terms of their association with homophobia, animal cruelty and murder. At best, a macabre obsession with the occult which has lent an air of tangible danger to Watain’s music that is rare in today’s world, for better or for worse. Where the individual listener lands on this issue will typically depend on many things and I would never presume to judge someone if they either passed it off as silly, edge-lord behaviour, a nod to the genesis of the art form, or found the commercial and public support for the band to be fundamentally offensive.

I felt that it was imperative to lay out some context for anyone unfamiliar with Watain and what their background involves. Because I’m now going to usher that to one side to discuss this record. It is the band’s seventh studio record, their first for Nuclear Blast and on a run of form that has seen the last two records reach number 1 and 3 respectively in their native Sweden, one might be inclined to expect great things. And intermittently, you get them. This record sits as an interesting artefact in the Watain catalogue. Oftentimes the band will commit so completely to a style or concept and not deviate for a milisecond, the result tends to be the creation of a world for the record’s runtime. But the exact style of the black metal involved in each record does change. From savage, furious and blistering, to considered, malevolent and epic. Whereas The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain feels somewhat like a bit of a reset. The band don’t land on a single style and simply exist in it as has often been the case. They move, fluidly, from track to track, altering their approach and thus, the impact. Longest track “Before The Cataclysm” for example, is a 7 and a half minute epic incorporating medieval melodies, classical strings somewhere deep in the mix, but also some moments of the most ‘rock’ approaches to black metal I’ve ever heard the band utilise.

To further demonstrate what I mean, with tracks as diverse as “We Remain” (featuring Farida Lemouchi of The Devil’s Blood and Molasses doing a glorious piece of Aleister Crowley meets Shirley Bassey vocal work), “Funeral Winter” (a classic piece of blistering, violent black metal complete with unsettling jack-in-the-box melody interlude) and “Septentrion” (a near-7-minute song replete with melody and also one of the best rattling, blackened punk passages I’ve heard in a long while) this is both a holistic showcase of what Watain are, and yet maybe the most accessible collection of songs they’ve made. When you consider the album title, the fact that this is the first record on a new label, albeit one of a similar size and pedigree to their previous home, it makes sense, but I do get the slightest creeping feeling of compromise from it, which is a first for me when it comes to Watain. But then there is also a song on the record called “Black Cunt” (very clearly referring to demonic genitals as opposed to anything else, just to save from any further controversy…), so I’m probably being unfair.

This is a great black metal record. It was never going to be anything less given the talent and commitment to the art form involved. There are many moments, even extended passages of that greatness, but from a band capable of creating records more focused, exciting and ultimately, better, I’m slightly afraid that this could be the point where Watain become defined by their past instead of continuing to surge forwards into their future. But for context, this would be a career high for most black metal bands. I simply have to hold Watain to a higher standard, because it’s a standard they themselves have set.