Friday, October 24, 2008

Watain - Sworn to the Dark (2007)


Sworn to the Dark is the third full-length album from Swedish Black Metal band Watain. Released in the cold month of February 2007, this was the band's first effort on their new label, Season of Mist. The cover art includes the words "no return", which can be viewed in many ways. This was the beginning of the band's departure from the obscure depths of the Black Metal underground. Not only did they leave behind the more cult label, Drakkar, but their sound evolved to something more accessible. This coincided with a great number of interviews in the Metal press, drawing more attention to the band. 

I first heard Watain many years ago, being introduced to a song from their debut album. While it was good, I neglected to really pay a lot of attention. I was reintroduced to them around the release of Casus Luciferi, as I happened to be living in Stockholm. This offering was quite impressive and I did everything that I could to spread the word. It was difficult, early on, as I soon realized that too few people had even heard of the band. Upon returning to the states, two years later, it seemed as if no one at all had any idea who they were. After successful tours with Dissection, Celtic Frost and Kreator, word seemed to spread quite rapidly and, by the time Sworn to the Dark was released, I found that I wasn't the only one anticipating this album.

It was a freezing cold winter night when I first listened to this L.P. I waited a few days, after receiving it, as I wanted to give it my full attention. This was common for me, since I was younger, to focus on the music and read along with the lyrics during the first listen. In the case of this album, I had very high hopes and the atmosphere had to be just right. It was late and I was sitting in the corner of the room, surrounded by black candles. Through the spaces between the blinds, I could see a faint light reflecting off of the snow. With headphones on, the volume was turned all the way up and I prepared myself for the second coming of Casus Luciferi. Doubtless, nothing could have lived up to the expectations that I had for this album.

As the record begins, one will surely notice the thicker and more powerful sound. It suits the music well enough, though it sounds a little too modern when compared to the somewhat more raw and cold production of its predecessor. It also comes off as somewhat claustrophobic, maybe due to some kind of compression, as there is a lack of space between the instruments. This is but one of several complaints.

Watain was never really known for possessing the most original songwriting. Looking back, the prime reason that their sophomore album was so appealing to many is that it hearkens back to the glory days of Mayhem and Dissection, with hints of Burzum thrown in as well. It was, more or less, an updated and amalgamated version of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and The Somberlain. What one finds with Sworn to the Dark is that the Mayhem influence is practically gone and the inspiration taken from Dissection is stronger than ever; however, rather than taking their cues from the old records, this release seems like the more underground brother of Reinkaos. There are still far more pure Black Metal riffs, but the overall sense of melody and structure has changed, considerably. This is evident from the first song, "Legions of the Black Light", which offers up sinister tremolo melodies mixed with more old school riffs, before diving headfirst into a continuation of Jon Nödtveidt's work. From the eerie solo to the riffs that play beneath it, it is clear that Watain has been influenced by their association with Dissection. This fact becomes more obvious with tracks like "Storm of the Antichrist" and "The Light that Burns the Sun", though the latter does feature some brilliant tremolo melodies that weave in and out, reminding one of the band's last outing.

Though starting and ending on strong notes, much of the album's remainder leaves a bit to be desired. There is a dark and morbid atmosphere that permeates most of the songs, with some truly haunting melodies here and there. Still, many of the tracks feel as if they could (and should) have been much better, as is the case with "Storm of the Antichrist" and the title track. "Sworn to the Dark" certainly sounds like the band traded artistic integrity for an attempt at making something catchy. The riffing style features a lot more of a thrash influence, with less emphasis on the tremolo melodies that made the previous album so memorable. This is painfully demonstrated on "Underneath the Cenotaph", which begins with a very mournful melody and then degenerates into thrashy nonsense. When the tremolo riffs do appear, they seem to play a supporting role, only serving to accentuate the rest of the composition rather than being the central focus. This is definitely the case with "The Light That Burns the Sun". "Darkness and Death" is also a bit of a letdown, being the most straightforward song on here and yet still not reaching the quality of the band's earlier work, though it does have its moments.

While paying attention to the negative aspects, such as the often boring songwriting and the modern production, one cannot overlook the drumming. The percussion is far too high in the mix and incredibly hyperactive. At times, it is almost reminiscent of Marduk, which is not a good thing. It is bad enough that the riffs are not as strong this time through, but the drumming often distracts and also gives yet more of a modern feel to the music.

With that said, it's not all downhill after the opening track. There is still some quality material to be heard, here. "Satan's Hunger" is one of the better songs, though it really sounds quite similar to Gorgoroth's "Possessed (By Satan)". Watain uses the same galloping drum beat to carry the listener toward the gates of Hell. Thankfully, the riffs have a morbid feeling and there is an overall dark and sorrowful vibe that makes this one of the most memorable songs on the album. The tremolo melody that appears around the four-minute mark is among my favourites on Sworn to the Dark, though it is all-too-brief. Still, from the composition to the execution, this track possesses a very epic atmosphere and more than makes up for the flaws found elsewhere. As the song finishes, it flows into an otherworldly instrumental piece, "Withershins". This track is very haunting and you almost feel as if you have passed through a gateway into a realm of nightmares. Though only lasting one minute, this is clearly one of the highlights of the album. It really has a way of messing with your mind, as if it offers a short glimpse into another world. In some ways, it seems as if it is foreshadowing a horrifying future, yet it ends before you are able to get a clear picture. This would be a fitting piece of music to die to.

"The Serpents Chalice" is one of the best songs on here and manages to succeed where some of the other songs came up short. It is mid-paced, with more of the Mayhem / Burzum influence evident in the main riffs. This is one of the more consistent tracks on Sworn to the Dark, and does well to mix elements of their earlier efforts with their new approach. Two-thirds of the way through, everything stops, with the exception of the guitar. Haunting whispers accompany the open arpeggio riffs, building up into a very melodic riff that is pure Dissection. The song ends on a very sorrowful note, which is also one of the more memorable moments of the album.

The final chapter of Watain's third album begins with "Dead But Dreaming", another haunting instrumental that serves as the calm before the storm. It lulls the listener into a trance, preparing them for what is to come. This leads into "Stellarvore", which witnesses the band keeping up their tradition of ending albums with something more epic and awe-inspiring. This is pure Black Metal magic, finally offering up the sort of melodies that have been hinted at, on and off, up until this point. This song creeps out of the abyss in a slow and menacing manner, a creature of horror and dread prepared to unleash Hell upon the sleeping world. It is very memorable and the vocals are possessed with a macabre conviction. Not every riff is pure brilliance, but the tremolo melodies that lurk within this beast of a song are masterful and really take you away from this world, into a place of indescribable darkness.

"Let us welcome the bringer of the end with open arms
Let us adorn the gates to nothingness with blood"

Sworn to the Dark is the beginning of a new phase for Watain. It seems as if they all but abandoned their previous path in an effort to ascend to the cold and dusty throne left vacant by the passing of Dissection. In that respect, they have succeeded. In many ways, this is what many expected Reinkaos to sound like, and certainly does well as a follow-up effort. There is no way to know if the shift in style was simply due to the affiliation with Jon, or if the band was looking to broaden their sound and fanbase as well. It would seem that they have definitely done that, as nearly everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now. Hopefully, this is not the beginning of the end. So, while this album is a step down from Casus Luciferi, it is a powerful piece of music that is likely to grow on you with time.