Originally written by Melissa Mercury.
If there’s one thing that’s lacking in the modern black metal scene today, it is this: conviction. Albums from countless bands are delivered in droves to the MR headquarters on a daily basis. All with a healthy dose of blast beats, a huge serving of blasphemy, and the necessary helping of bulletbelts.
However, if there’s one band that stands out among this sea of corpse-painted faces and oozes, nay, bleeds conviction. it is Sweden’s Watain.
Since the band’s inception in 1997, the trio from Uppsala have been inciting mayhem onstage and off with their devout belief in “true” Satanism and a dedication to a ‘practice what you preach’ mentality. Their live performances fail to even fit comfortably into the label of a ‘concert,’ and instead more closely resemble a ritualistic sacrifice, complete with pigs’ blood, fire, and lyrical invocations.
The newest offering from Watain, Lawless Darkness (their fourth full-length) will be released in June by Season of Mist.
In a recent press release, Watain provided an explanation on the concept of the new album:
“The title symbolizes the unbound chaotic potential of that which is void of light. The light that defines, the light that shapes and restricts. The light by which the forces of law and order uphold their reign. In the absence of that light lies the wellspring of WATAIN: in Lawless Darkness.”
This concept was quite expansive, so Metal Review asked frontman Erik ‘E’ Danielsson to extrapolate further. Drawing upon inspirations that are metaphysical and abstract–while striving to capture this essence into a tangible and listenable format–seemed a bit of a paradox.
Erik explains, “Let’s back it up a bit – the darkness is non-physical, yes? To a certain extent we are talking about a spiritual darkness, but this darkness would be uninteresting to us here on Earth if it did not manifest, if it did not correspond with the life that we are living. The physical is what we comprehend. So, of course there are manifestations of this darkness and there are ways to experience it physically. You know, manifested on Earth. Its something primordial, and it is boundless actually in its ways of manifestations.”
In essence, the concept of the new Watain album is to capture the ‘boundless’ ideal of all-encompassing darkness and chaos. Which, some might say, is a pretty ambitious, and, dare I say, pretentious goal to achieve for a band that holds a high rank in one of the most narrow-minded and strict subgenres of the entire metal scene, or the music world in general.
“The thing is, metal should be an ambitious thing. Artistry of this kind should be ambitious. That’s a bit of what this genre has been lacking in the past. I would say the most important thing to know and what may differentiate us from our contemporaries is that we are living it. By experiencing it.”
So does life imitate art? For Watain, art imitates life. According to Erik, because they are able to fully encompass their beliefs in their everyday lives, execution of the music and concepts found within Lawless Darkness was effortless.
“I’m taking about not going to work and going back to your nice comfortable little house – but waking up in the Watain headquarters – surrounded by nothing but the underground and the presence of rats and skulls. Just a simple thing like that makes a difference, you know? After eleven years of living like that it makes a difference.
“For me, it would be so strange to try to express and talk about something that I myself was actually not familiar with at all. I don’t go around saying I’m a Nazi and dressing up like a skinhead because I am not. I would be uncomfortable doing it, so why would I? But, there are people who are doing that in this genre. There are people that are wearing these upside down crosses and their pentagrams and they are speaking these ancient words of our gods – and why?”
It is this conviction that sets Watain apart from its peers, and that Erik sees as one of the band’s greatest strengths.
“This is, I think, the most important key to Watain’s music – that, in order to portray something, in the rightful context, in a context that corresponds with how things truly are then you have to experience it. You must have it inside you. There is no other way. There is no other way of doing it.”
Many critics of black metal argue that the Satanic messages and dark history of the genre are self-limiting. Journalists also say that discussing these issues with black metal bands is both cliché and played-out. However, the trio’s devout message of Luciferian Gnosticism goes beyond mere baphomets and incantations. Erik has stated in numerous interviews that every note and lyric that goes into the music is placed to express their spiritual beliefs. So, is it possible to discuss Watain without discussing Satanism? Or, are the two mutually exclusive?
“No, I mean, I can talk about many different facets of Watain. But, to me, maybe this is the most central one. yeah, I would say that. Watain is a very broad topic to me. It consists of many different things, you know? It consists of everything from being a part of the metal industry, to boring business things, to the visuals, and the lyrics. It’s a very broad topic. But this thing, what we’re talking about – the physical link to the things that we are portraying in our music. That’s the most central part [of Watain] and that’s something that people ought to understand to experience Watain as it should be experienced.
“Yeah, its double-edged. Of course, I mean, come on – we’re selling more than hundreds of records for sure. And I think that most of the people that will buy our records – seriously, they don’t give a fuck about metaphysical subjects in general. And that’s fine. Metal is Metal. It attracts a primal nerve in the heart of the wild animal inside. And that’s fine. And if that’s what people want from Watain, then that’s fine, that’s great. I have no problem with people experiencing it like that. But, when I get the chance to explain it a bit deeper, I take it. Always.”
Relentlessly using Watain as a podium for his spiritual beliefs, Erik has stated that the band embeds their music and lyrics with ‘clues’ concerning their beliefs in Luciferian Gnosticism and a few keys to unlock the door to the concept of ‘transcendence.’ When pondering whether or not fans and listeners are fully grasping all of the philosophies they put forth as their offering, it is not for Erik to worry about, nor for him to judge.
“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know if I’m the one to say if they are right or wrong. To me, Watain is the opener of gateways. What is beyond that gate and the way that you comprehend the things that it shows to you – that is not for me to decide. I cannot tell you what is right or wrong because, in the end, it’s about the liberated spirit facing a whole new world of experiences. Satan is without boundaries and without boundaries there are things that are unimaginable. There are things that I cannot put a name on. Be yourself, you know. ”
Previously, Erik has referred to Watain’s music as ‘dangerous.’ While this term is quite ominous, it is also very broad. In an age where children are raised on violent video games and men board airplanes with explosives in their shoes – the word ‘dangerous’ is wide open to interpretation. One might speculate that Watain encourages free thought in a world where free-thinking is dangerous. Or, perhaps it is meant in a much more literal and physical sense of the word.
“I think you answered your questions pretty well yourself by saying that of the ‘free thought’ aspect. Because, “dangerous,” of course…dangerous to what? This society and this world, and what it wants a regular man to be like. We present an alternative. The devil has always been called ‘the tempter’ and the temptations of the devil have always been things that have been shunned by man: perversions, psychopaths, murderers – these things have always been the temptations of the devil.
“The riches and wealths of the unknown. And these things are dangerous to a society that is built upon calm and tyrannical order. This society cannot take free thinking individuals, in that sense. This is an old thought. People have always had this thought in mind – but Satanism embraces this thought. It questions everything. And it is dangerous in that sense. It is the enemy of society in that sense. We want to break down every fucking law that this society has put upon us. ‘Society’ is a small word to use. I would rather say ‘creation,’ actually, in that context. But, there is no rule that anyone is in the position to put upon me – because I am free and I am lawless.”
After hearing this, one can see how a conflict of interest and copious amounts of irony may arise from someone who tries to exist in opposition to society while also trying to function within one of the most cutthroat and irrevocably capitalist industries in the world – the music industry.
“To me, that’s a necessary evil – which is a strange term in this context. Somehow, for some reason, I have been blessed with those skills as well. And I’m ready to take that upon my shoulders. By saying that I want to liberate myself, I am not saying that I am just going to lie on my back and let life pass by and I am liberated. Life is a battle. Every second of it.
“There is no fucking rest for the wicked. So, I don’t want to sit around and complain – ‘yeah, the business side is hard. there’s a lot of people who want to fool me’ – Yeah, its hard – but be a shark, be a snake, be a devil, and you will get your rewards.”
With the arrival of Lawless Darkness, retrospective contemplation of the band’s previous releases comes into play. Not only as a point of reference, but also to help provide a contrast to the direction in which the band is progressing with the new album.
When speaking with MTV in 2007 – just after the release of the Sworn to the Dark, Erik explained the goal and objective of that album was to “take away the superflous parts in favor of a more easily approachable feeling of the whole album….to leave the primal, raw energy in there that everyone can understand. This whole album is more traditional. Our goal was to simplify things a bit.” When reminded of his words and views from 2007, it became clear that time had given Erik valuable insight into what Sworn was born from, and to what it would ultimately mean for Watain.
“I remember saying that clearly, and that standpoint and conception that I had about Sworn being a stripped down record – probably in comparison more to our previous records.
“But now, in retrospect, the era in which we wrote Sworn was a period in time where a lot of abstract thoughts and ideals were grounded and definitely took shape. And that’s why it felt on Sworn that we had reached some kind of simplicity, while it was in fact, determination that we had reached–some kind of definite shape of what we wanted to express. Before that, with Essence [of Black Purity] and Rabid [Death’s Curse] – it felt a bit more loose and … unfocused. Always with the same heart and soul in it, but yeah – maybe a bit more unfocused, maybe a bit more juvenile, wanting to explore a bit more things. Sworn became much more deadly–much more secure, much more iron-forged. That is probably why I talked about that album at that time as something that was more ‘simplistic’ and some thing more stripped down.”
Clearly this strategy was successful, as Sworn to the Dark became a necessary staple for any contemporary black metal collection. Success of that caliber is not easy for a band to ignore, especially when collaborating for a follow-up release. Pressures mount, leaving artists with the decision to stick with a formula that produced results in the past, or to venture into uncharted waters.
Artists from any genre face these tough decisions, but for the black metal community, stepping outside the norm can be both daunting and disastrous. Watain was forced to chose between continuing with the philosophy of ‘strength through simplicity’ or to chose another direction completely.
“Actually, I would say that what we have been trying to do with Lawless is the other way around. Now we have this very definite idea – we reached very strong conclusions with Sworn about who we were, about our position as a band, and what we were here to do.
“Having all this at our back and then writing Lawless Darkness has been very valuable, because what we have done now is to build out from that very firm, very fertile ground. When you know who you really are, when you know what it is that you want to express, then you can begin to work for real.”
Through the simplification of Sworn to the Dark, a foundation was laid for Watain to take more risks and artistic liberties in the future. Which, at the time of writing Sworn to the Dark, was not at all a part of the objective. But doing so helped forge the future of Lawless Darkness and what the band is to become.
“Its just like how the earth sprung from total fiery currents and chaos it came to a point where things took shape – formed, manifested. And that is maybe what Sworn became – it became the ‘hardening’ of the once ‘loose’ shapes of our goals and the foundation of Watain. For Lawless Darkness – I think we have built on that ground, and proudly begun to build our monument. We have always spoken about the trinity – and now its getting deeper. We’re always talking about the ‘trinity’ of Watain, and Sworn was our third album. It was the album that led us to a certain point that made us feel that we had become a unit. A totality as a band. Whereas now, with Lawless Darkness, we can begin to explore our full potential–what the fuck we are able to do with this abomination that we have given birth to during the last ten years. Now its time to start to wield the sword that we have spend the last ten years forging.”
Having such stable groundwork laid with prior releases, Watain felt confident to take liberties with Lawless Darkness that would have been impossible for them to take on previous albums, or at prior points in the band’s career.
“We took full liberty. Of everything. We took the full liberty of being artists. Artistry is something that has no restrictions – or at least it shouldn’t have any restrictions. And that’s why you can hear equal amounts of Judas Priestand Fields of the Nephilim and Mayhem on the new album. Its our way of expressing ourselves. We will always be a black metal band at heart, but that means a lot, you know? That means exploring the totality of Satan – which is an extremely rich reality.”
The new liberties and direction that Watain has taken with Lawless Darkness leaves both fans and critics wondering if there will be stark division between pre-“Lawless era” and post-“Lawless era.”
“Yeah, I can see a division, if I try. But to me, Watain is also very organic. Its an ever-flowing stream for me. But if I have to step back and stand still then I can probably see a bit more – yeah, see it in that way. That it’s a different era for the band.”
‘Different’ is a word that is met with both skepticism and contempt in the black metal community, as increasing album sales and progression are the kiss-of-death within the elite underground. However, Erik and his bandmates carry no trepidations as to whether or not the new album will be well-received.
“That’s something that we’ll have to wait and see. We have lain our offering on the altar now – and we will see how it is received by the gods and how it will manifest with the audience. That’s the ultimate thing – we are standing in the shadows now.”
After listening to a preview copy of the album, it is hard to believe that fans will be disappointed with Lawless Darkness. Proof of this is revealed by the fact that the new single, ‘Reaping Death,’ became certified gold in Sweden on April 21 (which is awarded for sales over 10,000.) Surely a sign that Watain’s formula for success has not faltered.
As for Erik, he has one final message for the fans:
“On the 8th of June we will release the Lawless Darkness. And, I would like to encourage all Watain supporters and all people who still have their heart and soul bleeding for black metal as a real art form – to celebrate this day of Lawless Darkness by committing any act – any lawless act, any act of free will. Anything you have been going around thinking: ‘Fuck! I would like to stab that motherfucker!’ or ‘Fuck! I’d like to burn that ugly fucking church down!’ These things..that would be a good day to do them on.”
And with that final message, Watain again proves that in the coming apocalypse, you’re either with them or against them. And, if you’re the latter – I’d suggest you run for cover.