Watain - Sworn to the Dark Review
by Mark Hensch
There came a moment on Emperor's landmark 1997 album Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk in which an unnamed narrator swears an oath to the forces of primal chaos and darkness, forever binding himself to their will. That song, "Alsvartr (The Oath)" is in my mind when Emperor first defined the pinnacle of Scandinavia's black metal scene. As I sit here and wallow in the filthy, smothering darkness that is the new Watain album, I can't help but see things moving full-circle for black metal as a whole. In all honesty, I found Watain's last few albums to be tantalizing glances backwards to the days of Mayhem and Dissection, a trilobite embrace of all that was originally special about the first black metal bands. As strong as discs like Rabid Death's Curse and Casus Luciferi were, it still felt like they could be better at the end of the day. What was missing?
The answer lies in the affirmed dedication it takes for a band to truly give itself over to evil. Much like Emperor's groundbreaking "Oath," Sworn to the Dark is fifty-seven minutes of nothing but sworn reverence for chaos, destruction, and evil. As listeners wander through the secretive catacombs of blackness that Sworn to the Dark is, what becomes clear is that Watain is not reinventing the wheel on this album in the slightest; rather, the ancient spirit of wickedness and evil is simply a legacy worth reclaiming, and one that has rotted in dormancy for far too long. It is this sense of history which pervades Sworn to the Dark and finally catapults Watain into something beyond their love of the original black metal bands. As a result, if evil is in and of itself timeless, music utterly in worship of it is as well.
Opener "Legions of the Black Light" should prove just that, its call-to-arms sure to be a favorite amongst the black metal hordes for years to come. Twisting tremolo-picking slowly shrouds listeners in the chill embrace of night, before a crushing hammer of blastbeating kicks in and lacerates the eardrums of all. What next ensues is an eight minute BM mini-epic, replete with dirty riffs, furious percussion, and howling jackal choruses as grim as they are memorable. The equally biting "Satan's Hunger" is up next, and shows no mercy, the song attacking with furious riffing and hooking melodies made of icy steel.
All this fiery energy must cool down somewhere and that is where "Withershins" comes in. Drifting, skeletal chords echo out of the abyss with a hollow clarity, setting the mood perfectly for the stabbing punch of "Storm of the Antichrist." "Storm" is a churning maelstrom of monstrous guitars and manic leads. In an interesting twist, Watain switches gears after their initial assault and transitions seamlessly into a thrash-worshipping passage. Rousing and fierce, the band uses this clever tactic to switch back into one last breathless charge later on, and the whole thing works perfectly.
"The Light that Burns the Sun" has a murky clean chord progression chock full of eerie melody to start things off, the likes of which soon explodes into a swelling crescendo of frightening ambience. Massive and battering, the song has mid-paced haymaker riffs all through its entirety, laced with acidic melodies which sizzle and burn flesh. "Sworn to the Dark" is a bit more traditional, some nimble tremolo-picking beginning the track while a later sequence includes rabid howl-alongs, stoned out breakdowns, and snaking melodies. Hypnotic and sinister, the song lures you in only to destroy you later on with an annihilating nuclear explosion of rage.
The phenomenal "Underneath the Cenotaph" could have been penned by classic Somberlain-era Dissection. Umbral passages of clean guitar trade barbs with flickering ghosts of wispy melody, only to be utterly swallowed by a cloud of noxious midnight; the thrashing hellspawn that ensues next is the best four minutes of straightforward black metal I've heard in a couple years. "The Serpent's Chalice" is equally grand, injecting insane amounts of flesh-cutting melodies into the riffing and flat-out asskicking being put everywhere else. Building itself into venomous and towering blasphemy, it descends into surprisingly upbeat and epic melodies all before fading away.
The cascading "Darkness and Death" is an aural skullf**king, its pounding tempo stumbling in-and-out of sickly rays of lighter melody. Tremolo-picked note progressions uncoil like agitated snakes, and the primitive, cathartic stomp is just purist satanic beatdown. The instrumental "Dead but Dreaming" is a delicate interlude almost frightening in its evil tranquility; one gets the feeling that this is how it would feel to look at the infant Antichrist. Nothing could be better paired with the final song however, so it works wonders. Said song, "Stellarvore," is Watain's crowning as reigning lords of black metal; everything about it is perfect. Mixing howled incantations, soaring choruses, and a veritable hailstorm of Scandinavian metal fury, "Stellarvore" will leave people gasping in awe at the perfection Watain has wrought with Sworn to the Dark.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said that "if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Truer words have never been spoken, and the Dark harnessed here by Watain is an endless wellspring of foul hatred and seething rage. If Watain continues to churn out albums as effortlessly enthralling and impressive as this, there is no doubt in my mind that they will become a legendary act. For now this will remain my album of the year, and here's hoping that Watain keep staring into the abyss.
1. Legions of the Black Light
2. Satan's Hunger
3. Withershins (Instrumental)
4. Storm of the Antichrist
5. The Light that Burns the Sun
6. Sworn to the Darkness
7. Underneath the Cenotaph
8. The Serpent's Chalice
9. Darkness and Death
10. Dead but Dreaming (Instrumental)
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