Thursday, January 11, 2018

album review: 'trident wolf eclipse' by watain

So when I've talked about black metal, I haven't really talked much about record labels - and that's mostly because as a frequently controversial metal subgenre that has remained almost entirely underground, most major labels and distributors don't touch it, and that suits groups just fine. Now on the one hand that can make finding certain black metal records a real pain in the ass, because distribution can be limited and scarce... but on the flip side, if you hear that a black metal group signed to a major label or distributor, more often than not you could give odds that the group will have diluted or diversified their sound.

Now granted, when it came to Swedish black metal act Watain in 2013, some of that you could have predicted already. While their early records did showcase some impressive shredding and a theatrical brand of theistic Satanism - which of course led to the sort of elaborate live show that was intensely controversial - I personally never found them all that challenging or abrasive. The production was always pretty clean, the vocals were never too guttural, and the song structures felt more accessible. And by the time they signed with Century and put out The Wild Hunt, openly dabbling in tones that were more progressive or doom-inspired with even clean vocals, they were primed for that crossover and had the sales to prove it, even the atmosphere, intensity, and writing had taken a bit of a dip along the way... and then close friend of the band and occult rock artist Selim Lemouchi committed suicide. It was a moment that shook the band deeply and drove them back to expanding on the desperate dark empowerment themes that characterized their full-length debut in 2000, a truly nasty little album that might have textures that'll satisfy black metal purists, but really doesn't showcase the refined compositional strengths that would start to come later on Casus Luciferi. So if they were going back to that tone and style as seasoned veterans, this could make for a pretty damn potent listen, right?

Well, here's the thing: this is exactly what I was looking for Watain to do, but I recognize by saying that, I'm placing myself opposite the folks who might be disappointed by the lack of that progressive side that came with their last two more well-known breakout releases. Or hell, maybe I'm just showing my inexperience with the genre, because I can see some just branding this as more direct, explosive but simplistic black metal that doesn't differentiate itself enough from its peers. But the more I went through Trident Wolf Eclipse the more I was convinced there was more going on than what's gotten credit - there's a method to this madness, and it's led to a furious black metal record that might not be among my favourites, but still sounds pretty damn good regardless.

Now granted, there are some qualifiers to that statement, the biggest coming in the lyrics... and for as much as they even matter in black metal, this has never been Watain's strong suit. I don't mind the theistic Satanism at all in theory - it's your standard apocalypse prophet stuff, purified by unholy fire and savagery to face the reincarnated Antichrist as demons and unholy madness charge up from the abyss to retake Heaven - but the fact that I can follow all of this with 'you know, the standard stuff' does speak to Watain not really taking it in a fresh or potent or challenging direction. And while the production does add a real sense of urgency, neither the poetry or dramatic arc is all that captivating - it feels a little austere or, for lack of better words, puritantical. And if there is an element that suffers more in the 'back-to-basics' approach, it is the lyrics; you'd think they'd at least add a little more of a personal touch given the inspiration for this dramatic, back-to-basics shift.

But fine, lyrics are seldom the most relevant thing in this brand of black metal, it's more about the composition and production - and as I have said before, I haven't been a fan of Watain's increasingly clean and polished production or genre experimentation - it was never able to cultivate a lot of atmosphere for me, and whenever they dabbled in progressive or doom metal, it felt a little awkward, especially considering their greatest strengths came more in melodic composition and intensity. So thank god Trident Wolf Eclipse opted for far rougher, more explosive tones, cranking up the blastbeats and tremolo shredding even faster with tones that not only embrace a rougher tuning, but also showcase a little more depth - not so much that this record becomes symphonic or atmospheric, but enough that it can leverage that atmosphere for melodic complexity or pummeling moments of musical punctuation. A big part of this comes in how the drums were micced, especially that kickdrum which can lead to some truly thunderous moments on songs like on 'Sacred Damnation' or 'A Throne Below', which really do pay off the more developed tremolo melodies that leverage their acoustic accents well. And I can't stress how well that deep, roiling surge plays on songs like 'Teufelsreich' or 'The Fire Of Power', playing to a slightly slower tempo but letting the whiplash transitions have a little more room to breathe. And really, for the Watain songs that connect for me, it's balancing those transitional pieces with the raw intensity - the opener 'Nuclear Alchemy' brings some stunning firepower and I really dug the shrill screams of guitar keening across the song... but at the same time the transitions can feel a little slapdash, which is also the case for 'Furor Diabolicus' or 'Ultra (Pandemoniac)' - great nasty guitar lead or in the latter case an absolutely twisted solo, but the pieces of melody don't really transition well. But on the flipside you can get the opposite, and I'll say it: the inclusion of 'Antikrists Mirakel' to end the album was not the best choice, with the slower, flattened guitar line and an odd refusal to let any of the vocals seem audible making it a really wonky closer. I get why it's here - to satisfy the fans looking for more of those progressive or doom touches - but it runs long, doesn't really pay off anything, and doesn't fit with the rest of the record.

So as a whole... you know, I was all set to really praise this record for a pivot towards tones I like with a ton of intensity and sharper melodic songwriting, and going through Watain's discography, I can see myself returning to this a lot more their last decade's worth of albums. But I also can't ignore that in going 'back-to-basics' the songwriting was not exactly impressive and the melodic cohesion definitely suffered, a lot of killer segments with great shredding and complexity, but they can feel haphazardly stitched together. Furthermore, I don't get the impression Watain is going to stick with this sound - the fact Century let them release this at all gives me the impression they were letting them get this out of their system before heading closer mainstream, which is a damn shame because this production easily has the most body and texture they've had in years. So for me, I enjoyed it enough to give it a 7/10, but I'm a little hesitant to recommend it, especially if you're a more recent Watain fan or not into this thicker, more suffocating and frenetic brand of black metal that may not satisfy if you're not digging for the details. Granted if you like that sound you'll dig the hell out of this record, but beyond that... eh, it's short and still worth a listen, check it out.

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