Four nights ago I was in Austin, Texas to witness one of the more atmospheric metal shows that I’ve been lucky enough to catch. Watain was in the state capital on their The Wild Hunt tour with their Swedish pals In Solitude, and Tribulation along as support. I was asked if I was doing anything for Halloween earlier in the week, and I thought to myself —- yeah looks like it. Albeit falling one day short of Halloween itself, the tales I’d heard of Watain’s concert hi-jinx were as good as it gets in terms of inspiring an eerie, unnerving sense of dread and anticipation. I have a friend who’s a die hard Watain fan —- this was really his show. But I’d come to appreciate the band in the past year and a half and was curious to see a real black metal spectacle up close. I would not be disappointed.
The show was at a seemingly obscure hole in the wall called Red 7 on 7th street, yeah next to that famed street of one number below, but the venue was deceptively sized. Inside was a small stage facing a bar, but a side door led to a spacious outdoor courtyard complete with shady trees overhead and a covered stage. Watain’s backdrop’s were already on this stage behind multiple drum sets, and a pungent aroma of cloves, possibly sage, and incense was pervasive throughout the air. The show would apparently be happening outside, a small commercial office just on the other side of the fence, one of its window blinds drawn open to reveal a still lit computer monitor. This was unusual, and also totally Austin. I’ll admit my experience with the city is severely limited, most of my out of town show excursions aimed at San Antonio. Here in Houston, metal shows are almost exclusively at smoky, dark, indoor clubs in remote corners of the city.
I didn’t see much of it, but what little I did was enough to say —- Austin impressed me. We have hours to kill before the show. Across the street from the venue is a nice little dive bar called “The Side Bar” where we grab a beer in what else, a tiny courtyard. At the end of the block is an outdoor clutter of rickety tables under an awning, a precariously perched flat screen TV turned to the NFL network, and five food trailers arranged neatly around it. The guys at the BBQ trailer serve up some pretty damn good brisket sandwiches. Its all very relaxed, perhaps too much so. Everywhere you look on the street there are an alarmingly vast amount of standalone ATMs with no bank designation. All just out in the open —- I should’ve taken a picture of one in particular right at the sidewalk corner of an intersection. Nothing next to it, just a walk up ATM unattached to a building. What the hell?! My H-town born nerves and sense of foreboding would prevent me from daring to risk grabbing money in such an exposed manner. I think it really hits me then that this is a world apart from Houston: It’s a pedestrian friendly city, and rather convenient (or dangerous) for concert going activities. If I have to choose between out of town show locations in the future, I will from this point on always choose Austin. My views on its hipster population and aesthetic be damned.
Its raining on and off throughout the early parts of the evening, just light drizzle basically by the time local openers HOD take the stage. I’ve seen them a few times before in various venues, they’re a frequently gigging San Antonio based metal band whose sound is difficult to categorize except to say its mean and ugly. This is the best I’ve heard them yet. In past shows they’ve come across as a whirlwind blur of noise on stage but Red 7 seems to come equipped with a rarity in venues this size —- a really good sound guy. All of the instruments are discernible, the vocals are clear and up front in the mix, and the drums aren’t too overpowering, it all bodes well for the rest of the night. I didn’t know a thing about Tribulation, who take the stage soon after and begin to play a surprisingly atmospheric mix of doom and death metal. I love the instrumentation, they have a vivid sense of melodicism and use of space in moodier sections. They were entertaining on stage as well, a quality that to a relatively jaded metal head like myself is an achievement to note. I promised myself to check out their records once home.
In Solitude I’ve been familiar with, having given into the hype surrounding them and checking out their studio albums. I liked what they did, never loved any of it, but accepted them as an above average retro metal band among the scores of retro metal bands crawling all over the place these days. Getting on the tour with Watain seemed to me a pretty nice endorsement, as I’m thinking that Watain are at a stage in their career where they wouldn’t tolerate touring with bands they didn’t like. They are heavier, punchier, and way more interesting live. Its also telling that Watain vocalist Erik Danielsson slips into the crowd during the band’s first song, in fact, right next to where we’re standing in the far back corner. I feel a slight bump on my left side and its Danielsson, a Watain roadie, and an unknown female member of their entourage trying to squeeze in. We make room and amid some discrete pointing and gesturing, quietly freak out and take in the surreal moment. Danielsson is nodding along to the band, he’s clearly there to watch the performance, but as heads turn here and there, he politely obliges fans with handshakes and pictures —- even taking my friend’s not-so-subtle hopefulness that Watain would play their cover of “A Fine Day to Die” in good humor (he asked him this while wearing a Bathory shirt). Eventually they abscond backstage, as does In Solitude, and then things get surreal.
Remember when I told you it was drizzling? Good, keep that in mind. Changeover times are short, the venue staff really do seem to have a handle on all these things that we Houstonians usually accept with delays. Live music capital indeed. Watain’s stage set is grisly: A folded out two sectioned backdrop of stretched out animal skin panels with actual animal bones set in each panel column to spell out in runic lettering W-A-T-A-I-N. There is a small altar set off to the side just adjacent to the center mic position, upon it a chalice, an open book, and some kinds of incense or leaves (hard to distinguish in the dark). Inverted crosses stick in between the monitors at the front of the stage, and incense burners produce enormous quantities of perfumed smoke, and the entire scene is bathed in eerie, muted, red light. There won’t be any stage lighting change ups during their set, nor any roaming vocalist spotlights, this is all the lighting Watain wants. All the band’s have had extra help in that regard as the overcast clouds have brought much in the way of actual thunder and lightning throughout the evening. It was mood setting during the opening bands, with many in the audience nodding and smiling while looking up appreciatively at the night sky. Halloween, Watain, freaking lightning in the sky? Its as if the Earth approved of our shenanigans for a time. And then it didn’t.
Watain takes the stage to tremendous applause and a huge crowd surge forward, with some unwitting idiot deciding to start the pit (on slippery cement no less) on the left side of the crowd instead of the center (you know, as everyone else on the planet knows to do). I’m casually thrown back ten feet along with a dozen other people from my third row center position as another pit forms middle center. Somewhere between fending off circle pitters to my right with my forearm and helping a tiny female fan next to me get up after being bowled over, I see Watain appear as shadows in the smoke, Danielsson already launching into his weathering vocal attack. I won’t pretend to be entirely knowledgeable about the Watain back catalog, really just the past few records, but I knew they opened with “De Profundis”, one of the best cuts off The Wild Hunt. Then, a few songs into a set, as we’re all headbanging and warily watching our peripheral vision for incoming mosh pitters, the clouds are uncorked and a light, frothy drizzle becomes a torrid, cold downpour. It is vomiting rain, and we are stunned and soaked. The band plays on, covered by a huge sheet metal roof, and some of the first rows of fans pressed against the stage are sheltered as well, oblivious to the storm. The rest of us have a collective moment of either, “yep, going inside now”, or “oh well, hey’re we’re already wet —- and Watain’s playing!”. I stick with the latter camp, my shirt getting heavier and heavier with soaking rain each second, my only concern my cell phone now precariously pressed in my side pocket. I see Danielsson hold up his chalice and say something about ritual blood, oh man…. he throws it, everywhere. It reeks of, ahem… putrefaction.
More than halfway through Watain’s set, just after their rendition of “Reaping Death”, I finally have to call time on the satanic shower. Most of the rear half of the audience have gone inside, those closest to the open doorway watching from their dry vantage point. I’m more than drenched, its like I just walked into a shower with all my clothes on and decided to stay there for half an hour plus. I duck inside, past a mass of drip drying faces that I see through a wet blur. I feel a few hands clap me on the shoulder as I sludge past them, what I take as a “good effort, good hustle” type of thing. My friend —- he’s up at the front under the meager extension of the stage covering, raging like a maniac, while just barely escaping the water wall inches from his back. I try to watch from the doorway, but eventually just sit near the wall and listen to the rest of the set. Watain are excellent, and I wonder what they must make of the scene before them. This show was packed with people, there must’ve been close to six hundred in attendance at the peak just before the rainy onslaught. The few left out there look to number around forty.
At some point, Watain has to stop. Seriously —- something shorts out in the stage gear and either part of their final song is cut or an entire song is scrapped. Nature in all its protesting fury has finally pulled the plug on the show. The upside is that the rain has washed off the rotten blood, the car ride back won’t make us retch! We stagger out into the still pissing night sky, wind sweeping rain into our faces as we make our way to the car in a lot two blocks away. It wasn’t a pleasant walk, but what an amazing show. I can’t remember the last time I went to a show where I was pleased by every band on the bill, and in terms of matching it’s atmospherics, I can only think of the time I saw Heaven and Hell at a huge outdoor amphitheater, lightning in the distant sky as Dio sang “Well if it seems to be real, it’s illusion…”. This is one that won’t fade from memory —- and not just for me either:
Saw watain perform outside amongst the thunder and lightning tonight in Austin… fuck yeah. #watain… http://t.co/c3lvIQvmDH
— fuckshitbitch (@zombielove1990) October 31, 2013
Easily one of the most metal shows I've ever seen. Thunder, Pouring Rain, Black Metal, singer of Watain pouring goats blood on everyone
— Drewcifer (@DrewciferVI) October 31, 2013
Thunder & lightning (like Phil Lynott once sang) – a storming downpour. Perfect night for Watain. I can still smell their bloody stench…
— Raoul Hernandez (@ChroniclyRaoul) October 31, 2013