It happens. Some people have a natural affinity for advancement, they slog in the trenches giving their all, next thing you know they're running their own platoon, barking out orders but still getting stuck in (and getting noticed for it,) before too long their strategic abilities leave them directing their forces into the fray yet still hankering to be up to their nuts in blood and guts.
WATAIN have stormed through the Black Metal ranks with their triple jump of three albums proper, the progression has been obvious and not unexpected to those that plot the graphs of bands in the ascendant. The danger is that with better production and more accomplished songwriting, you lose some of your essence and a slither of staleness sneaks in, “Sworn To The Dark” suffers to a degree in this aspect but other elements shift to compensate.
One of the first things to note is the space within which the music moves, comparatively speaking, WATAIN have moved from playing in the cellar out into the theatre, instead of being huddled and halfway bent over they have room to stretch and so the sound is channelled distinct, the bass and guitar compliment but do not cross, energetic drumming supports without obstructing and the vocals rasp over the top of it all but still remain part of the whole. The band have also managed to avoid the pointless experimentation some bands resort to as they mature, instead any embellishments share the bright coal Blackness of the core.
The dynamic range has increased on both the album and track level, with nearly an hour of bashing the bishop and other aspects of light, the seamless ranging between the mid-pace and the frantic ensures variety though some may still wish for a greater proportion of rapidity. One of the more positive attributes of the album is the balance between bass and six string, they share equal footing with the bass roundly wandering across the riffery, often in counterpoint, there are some memorable four string runs on this disk (especially on “Darkness And Death”) all of which gives it a fuller body, turning it from lager to stout. With the clarity comes involvement, you don't have to read the lyric sheet to join in, the vocals are identifiable and tracks like “Sworn To The Dark” have a mighty choral attraction that will have gig goers unified in their participation.
So you have the stompers and the stalkers like “Storm Of The Antichrist” and the title track respectively, you also have tracks like “The Serpent's Chalice” which broaden the gauge whilst staying on the rails, nowhere here do you form the opinion that WATAIN are straying away from Black Metal. What they are doing is increasing their accessibility, a notion that some people cannot accept, they would rather stick a finger in each ear (as well as one up their arse) than hear the word spoken, nonetheless the fact remains that this will attract a wider audience without any particular compromise. In many ways, this is Black Metal stripped bare but instead of some skinny weakling under the cape, you have an athletic being with defined musculature and no excess fat whatsoever.
Personally, I was not initially grabbed by this album, it has taken a fortnight of repeated listening to win me over. At first it seemed a touch too clinical for my current tastes but eventually the songwriting increased the bite and now it won't let go, “Stellarvore” being a perfect example of how insistent melody and relentless drive mixed with menacing mid-pace can get to you. As this album has infected me much like a virus, I expect a number of return visits to the STTD clinic.
(Online July 25, 2007)