“Black metal: it’s a game of two halves, Brian”…

I promise that will be the last joke you’ll find in this review, as Swedish deities Watain are very much not a band to be chortled at, far from it. But that ‘game of two halves’ phrase kept poking it’s way into my brain the more I listened to the band’s superb new album, The Agony & Ecstacy of Watain. Stick with me, and I’ll try and explain…

The first portion of the album, which contains the two singles you may already have heard in the shape of The Howling and Serimosa, seems to your humble interlocutor’s old ears very much the stuff of dreams for long term E. Danielsson fans, and just what you’d expect if you’re a casual observer: Full-on, blast furnace black metal that continually tips it’s hat to the old Gods – especially Dissection and Mayhem – whilst still very much it’s own beast. And the second, after a surprise instrumental break called Not sun nor man nor god – sees the band in far more ‘progressive’ mode; for this writer, though the slithering, PhantomOfTheOpera-meets-MorbidAngel bombast of Serimosa (you said no more jokes – Ed.) is God trashing fun of the highest order, it’s the last four tracks that hold the most interest and also, perhaps, the key to this album’s enduring appeal.

Put simply, this is the most mature Watain we’ve yet seen committed to wax. That might not be a sentence most long time fans are interested in reading, but I guarantee the propulsive likes of Septentrion and the gargantuan We Remain, which features beguiling guest vocals from Farida Lemouchi of Molasses fame, are going to convince many non-believers to flock to the Watain flag for the first time on being exposed to their euphoric influence. This really is modern black metal of the highest, most captivating order and it deserves the widest exposure possible.

Eric Danielsson is one of the last true great eccentrics of heavy metal, a huge presence and yet one whose overreaching vision always exceeds the impact of his contributions to individual songs. The wounded raven’s caw vocal presence seeps into the guitars (provided for the most part by Danielsson and Pelle Forsberg) to such an extent that it becomes ‘just’ another instrument and could almost be anyone contributing them, and yet songs like Funeral Winter and Black Cunt could not be created by anyone other than Watain – it’s a strange dichotomy, but ultimately it’s perhaps what makes this band so great.

You owe yourself the favour of giving this album some eartime even if you haven’t previously considered yourself a fan of the band or, indeed the genre in which they exist. Fabulous treasures await if you take that chance.

The Agony & Ecstacy of Watain releases on April 29th.