What better way could you pass a Monday night than in a stinking darkened room watching the most evil of black metal? Or at least that’s what Tom Dare thinks, which is why he went along to catch Watain in London.
A crowd queuing quietly in Camden late on a miserable Monday afternoon is nothing unusual, and nor is the atmosphere. If you happened to be walking past, you would probably assume it was a relatively popular but unspectacular British band playing tonight – there are no chants of band names, no random shouts of, “Slayer!” And no one band dominates the black tshirts the fans are sporting. Nothing you would have seen could hint at the phenomenon that would emerge on stage later, when Watain reinforce their claim to be the lead pack of the black metal wolves.
The support bands warm things up nicely, local favourites Iceni and sinister Frenchmen Otargos pave the way for the genuinely excellent Deströyer 666 to snap necks and get the rapidly growing Underworld crowd sweating. The thrashing intensity of their set would probably have overshadowed most headline bands in truth, but then Watain are not most bands.
During the changeover, the stage is adorned with candles, burning torches, a small satanic shrine and various other paraphernalia. It all looks cool, but as part of an empty stage it simply appears to be the kind of theatricality Mayhem have been doing for years. Appearances can be deceptive, however.
As the subtle tension of the crowd builds, the putrid stench of death and corruption begins to permeate the room. The PA churns out a soft melody as the band hit the stage. Instantly the atmosphere changes – partially because the smell gets worse, the sickly-sweet miasma of rot that accompanies the band intensifying in their presence, and partially because Watain make the usual panda-painted, black metal showmen look like a bunch of paper badgers. They look fucking evil, none more so than diminutive frontman E – tattered leathers and occult iconography hanging off him in equal measure, one eye sporting a contact lens that makes him look like a week-old cadaver. Within five minutes, the room smells like one too.
Be glad this isn’t in Smellovision:
As they charge into the awe-inspiring ‘Malfeitor’, they are in total command. The rational part of your brain that is trying to cynically convince you it is just a load of clever stagecraft is silenced by the sensory assault. The bass drum kicks pound through your legs as much as you hear them, the visual spectacle is like something out of your nightmares, the reek is so thick, you can taste as much as smell it; the music grips you with its melody and beauty as much as with its power and horror. It is a totally overwhelming experience, nauseating and terrifying but making you feel totally alive and powerful. And this is in the first song.
The show continues with ‘Devil’s Blood’, the centrepiece of which involves E hurling rancid animal blood from a goblet into the crowd, and by this point you are in the palm of Watain’s collective hand. The quotes they have given in interviews about their shows being religious services to The Horned One may inspire anything from devotion to fright to scoffing, but watching it, you fucking believe. For the time they own the stage, it is impossible not to be convinced they mean it.
The setlist contains no less than four songs from their latest brilliant masterpiece Lawless Darkness which occupy nearly half their running time, and it is a testament to the band that it is this material which sounds the strongest. Everything is played with ferocious precision to near perfection, and every song ends with the mightiest of roars from the crowd as fists and horns fill the air.
When Watain finish and leave the stage, the crowd demands them back for one last song, and oblige with a vicious cover of the Bathory classic, ‘Sacrifice’. It fits perfectly- this is a band worthy of playing the fruit of Quorthorn’s genius. Based on tonight, none could be more worthy. Watain have a great deal of hype behind them, but if they can play like this, hype is understating their brilliance.
Watain @ Camden Underworld setlist:
Sworn to the Dark
Legions of the Black Light
On Horns Impaled
Sacrifice (Bathory cover)