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My first encounter with Watain was seeing them support Kreator and Celtic Frost in March '07, and I was absolutely gobsmacked. There is the age-old issue of whether a band's studio performance can match the live equivalent, so obviously I was a bit apprehensive that my expectations might not be maintained. However, the strength of the material I heard live made me confident that I wouldn't be disappointed, and my faith has been darkly rewarded.
As a quick summary, this is a strong, modern Swedish Black Metal album. Every genre has its 'codes and conventions' that emerge pretty swiftly once people pick up on the new sound, but Watain have managed to adhere to the positive aspects of these whilst throwing out the negative. It's worthwhile to draw the distinction between the Swedish and Norwegian styles of Black Metal, because there is no Burzum or Darkthrone worship/copying that makes much of today's Black Metal so tedious. The risk, then, is that by adhering to a Swedish sound, Watain will end up sounding like Dark Funeral and their maligned clones. Without wanting to turn this into a 'Watain v. Dark Funeral' issue (whilst I understand why the latter gets criticism, I do consider them to be a worthwhile and legitimate Black Metal band), Sworn To The Dark has plenty of positive aspects that should satisfy critics.
Distinctive qualities of Black Metal are present here, tremelo-picked riffs and blastbeating being the most distinctive. Whilst no riffs have sunk into my head as memorable for the rest of time, they fit the songs brilliantly and have a definite dark quality about them. Whilst these conventions are promimant, they are not the be all and end all of the album, and this is where Watain's strengths become apparent. There is a welcome variety of riffs and tempos that never once descend into faggotry and traditional verse-chorus-solo-chorus rock/pop structures, favoured by the aforementioned Dark Funeral, are disregarded. There is still clear structure - no Abruptrum-style avant-garde to be heard here, and here lies another strength in the album.
Sworn To The Dark sounds unmistakeably like a band working as a unit, instead of a chaotic mess that afflicts many demo-level bands. Each instrument can be heard clearly, and is played more than competently. Seems like Watain actually learnt how to play and then used this knowledge to create great hymns of the dark. Though technical prowess is not necessary to create great black art (see Venom, Burzum, Bulldozer, Gehennah and many others...), it is a welcome quality here. Hell, just being able to hear the bass distinctly is something different. The vocals are typically dark and rough, but again distinct, and how rewardingly so!
"Block not my path! You futile walls of flesh and blood. For I have seen your structure clear and I know where to stab. Right in the heart. There I shall place my dagger." Love it.
Watain's legitimacy as a true Black Metal band, unhindered by the genre's rules due to their skill, even comes through with the production. It is crisp and clear, perfect for the aforementioned musicianship. It allows give the music a kick like a donkey, and is a welcome ironfist to those who believe crappy kvlt production is mandatory to make Black Metal evil. It works for some, for atmosphere and genuine sheer aggression for those with the material to make it work. But songs of this style deserve to be presented clearly to accentuate their rawness and heaviness - don't forget that Swedish predessesors to this band such as Necrophobic, Unanimated and Sacramentum were all clearly produced. All of them were excellent at their brand of extreme Metal. It works.
Even the packaging of this album is lush and professional. A gatefold digipack whose booklet took me right back to my early Black Metal days, recoiling in horror at the sight of Nifelheim. Not only is it pleasing to hear a well-executed album, but it is also refreshing to know that in this day and age there are still bands that are able to actually break rules and conventions, instead of just talking about doing so. Sworn To The Dark does this whilst retaining a distinctive, 100% Black Metal sound, without reducing it to a mockery. Against those that would try and indulge in such mockery, Watain could well be the flagbearers for Black Metal - an artform that is still vibrant and valid. Hail Watain!
Originally written for http://www.metalmongrel.com