The grim aesthetics of the Swedish black-metal band Watain don't begin and end with its insane live shows. Unlike many acts of their ilk, the bandmates' lifestyle fully reflects the intensity of their music. They rehearse in a decommissioned bunker underneath a subway station in Stockholm, which they rent from the government; it's dark, it's prone to flooding, and two of the guys live there. The band members profess to follow a militant form of Satanism and treat their live shows as a ritual designed to sunder the bonds that tether us to reality.
For Watain, it's all about anger, isolationism, and the sinister forces of the worlds beyond.
So perhaps it's fitting that the group's current U.S. tour (on which the band is opening for Morbid Angel and Incantation) nearly succumbed to those same dark forces before it even began.
This past November 21, the day the tour was to commence in Houston, Watain published a long Facebook post explaining that officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection had detained guitarist Pelle Forsberg a week earlier in Atlanta after he had flown in from Mexico.
Forsberg alleged he was taken into custody, locked in a cell overnight and questioned, and then sent back to Mexico.
"All this started with a personal vacation in Mexico to experience Dia de los Muertos," Forsberg asserted in a statement that accompanied the Facebook post. "Apparently I was red-flagged because I already had a return ticket to Mexico the day after (cheaper to get the ticket like that). But all good, I had NO bullshit on me, with me or whatever. All papers/visas were under control. But then they proceeded with checking my phone..."
They didn't like what they found.
"I don’t have any illegal stuff on my phone nor a criminal record," Forsberg stated. "For sure some pics can be disturbing for 'normal people.' I don’t live a normal life. It's pics of me riding bikes with friends (that may have a questionable club patches/bikes etc.), me chopping heads off road kills, welding weird things that look 'frightening,' pics from tours where obviously weird shit happens all the time... Again, nothing illegal, no bullshit!"
Forsberg alleged he was interrogated for seven hours by four officers and then "thrown into a cell with just a bean bag as a bed next to a toilet," where he spent the next eight hours before being kicked out of the country and banned from returning for five years.
The four other members of the touring band nearly suffered a similar fate. But with the help of their attorneys, they gained entrance in time for the tour's second date, in Dallas.
As one does when a member of one's hard-living metal band has been knocked out of commission, Watain shuffled its lineup: In Forsberg's absence, Alvaro Lillo switched from bass to guitar, and vocalist Erik Danielsson strapped on a bass. Guitarist Hampus Eriksson and drummer Emil Svensson round out the quartet.
Not ones to fall silent in the face of societal injustices, the bandmates blamed Donald Trump for the customs fiasco.
"We would like to remind you that this is not a cautionary tale from 1980s Soviet [Union]; this is Trump-administered border policy in today's United States," the band wrote on Facebook. "This is what you get with an imbecile, Christian, racist ape ruling the nation and 'defending it at all cost[s]' from anything that can be considered alien and therefore unacceptable and potentially dangerous."
With that said, the band seems to flirt constantly with unacceptable and dangerous rhetoric. Just this past March, the Ministry of Home Affairs in Singapore canceled a Watain show there in response to an online petition. And last year, guitarist Set Teitan had to step away from the group after photos surfaced online showing him giving the Nazi salute.
At the time, Danielsson issued a statement asserting Teitan made the gesture "in jest." The singer decried "the ill-willed ignorance of all those who maintain that Watain have any political agenda whatsoever."
"For 20 years we have proven otherwise and people should know better by now," he said in the statement. "Finally we would like to send a heartfelt fuck off to all who insist on feeding the mindless moral witch-hunt hysteria that is now festering on worldwide Heavy Metal culture. Hail Satan!"
At any rate, Watain's music is, like the aforementioned "imbecile," brutal and oppressive. The group stands at the artistic vanguard of Swedish death metal — meaning the band probably sells only 40,000 records but possesses the critical cachet that eludes far more successful pop stars. For those who find themselves fascinated by the fringes of so-called acceptable music scenes, the gurgles of the underworld, and heavy metal, Watain sits in the sweet, wet center of all of that.
Watain's latest release, 2018's Wolf Trident Eclipse, is rife with the fury and majesty of a perversely focused band that has honed its craft. The songs bleed with a saturnine beauty, which can be heard when studio drummer Hakan Jonsson kicks down the doors of hell behind Forsberg's strident chords on tracks such as "The Throne Beneath." Danielsson howls out his incantations, which are unintelligible to the uninitiated. This is the dark stuff: music to burn down churches to. Not that anyone is advocating such acts — the members of Watain are theistic Satanists, which means they're engaged in a spiritual war rather than a physical one. Their virulent black metal is beyond most people's comprehension by design.
South Florida is a long way from Sweden, both geographically and aesthetically. It'll be interesting to see how the bandmates react to swapping the cold and somberness of their homeland for the heat and humidity of the Sunshine State.
Watain. With Morbid Angel and Incantation. 7 p.m. Saturday, December 21, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025. jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $23 via ticketmaster.com.
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