Over the course of their fifteen year existence, Sweden’s Watain have gone from being underground black metal darlings to being the band tr00 kvlt internet warriors love to hate. I’ll be the first admit that I don’t think the band has managed to top their 2003 masterpiece Casus Luciferi, but they’ve definitely released some great music since (see 2007’s excellent Sworn to the Dark) and are one of the most formidable and mesmerizing live bands I’ve ever encountered (if you haven’t seen them yet, you really, really need to). It’s no surprise that Watain has gained considerable popularity over the years with their burly yet melodic and catchy (relatively speaking, of course) brand of black metal, but I’ve never understood why this inevitable outcome resulted in the band getting showered with haterade.
After listening to the Swedes’ fifth album The Wild Hunt extensively over the past few weeks, I have no doubt that it will further the band’s reputation for being divisive. The Wild Hunt is a Watain album through and through, but it sees the trio taking their sound in some unexpected new directions while at the same time continuing to strip down and simplify their approach. I do believe the trio has crafted their most accessible album to date with The Wild Hunt, but the thing is, they’ve managed to retain their identity in spite of it, while shedding some of the Dissection-isms of their earlier work.
Obviously, the most unexpected thing on The Wild Hunt is the much talked about “They Rode On,” a nine minute quasi-ballad featuring acoustic guitars, clean vocals, female backing vocals and an epic-as-all-hell guitar solo, which some have compared to Metallica’s “Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters.” Yes, “They Rode On” sounds just like Lars and his merry men, except for the vocals, lyrics, production, playing, song structure… I’m not sure if it’s a matter of laziness on the part of the listener, an extremely limited frame of reference, or a desire to disparage the band at every turn, but the Metallica comparisons couldn’t be further off the mark. To these ears, “They Rode On” sounds like Death in June sitting around a campfire with Bathory circa Hammerheart, and it’s fucking awesome. Erik Danielson’s clean vocals aren’t the strongest you’ll ever hear, but his singing has a strained, forlorn quality that perfectly suits the lyrics and atmosphere of the song, recalling both Quorthon and Douglas P in equal measure. It’s a bold experiment for Watain that works surprisingly well.
The clean vocals return on the album’s hypnotic title track, lending a mournful pathos to Watain’s attack that once again recalls Bathory, albeit in a somewhat more metallic setting than “They Rode On.” The song features yet another soaring solo and closes with some Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar, making for an interesting re-tooling of the typical Watain slow-burner. The title track is immediately followed by “Outlaw,” which might best be described as blackened biker metal and sports some of the album’s catchiest riffs. This is the closest Watain have ever come to black ‘n’ roll and could perhaps be considered their stab at a “Fuel for Hatred.” “Holocaust Dawn” is doomy and atmospheric, but around the 3:30 mark it briefly mutates into a blackened sea shanty replete with accordion and fiddle, which dissolves into creepy ambience before picking up into crushing black metal to close out the album.
In spite of exploring so much new sonic territory, Watain haven’t forgotten to include a healthy dose of the scorching melodic black metal that brought them to the dance. “The Child Must Die” is the strongest of these, and would have been my pick for lead-off single over the good but lesser rager “All That May Bleed;” it’s a track that showcases everything that Watain does well, with it’s über-melodic riffage and catchy vocals. “Sleepless Evil” is the most frenzied, scathing track on the album, and immediately follows “They Rode On,” as if to say, “yes, we put a ballad smack dab in the middle of our album, but we’re still motherfucking Watain and we can still pummel the shit out of you.” “De Profundis” is another bruiser with a strong mix of thrashy, blackened riffs and those stomping mid-paced sections that Watain have perfected over the last few albums, which bleeds seamlessly into the the slower, more textured “Black Flames March.” Indeed, there’s vintage Watain aplenty to be found on The Wild Hunt, proving that rumors of the band selling out aren’t just greatly exaggerated, they’re complete bullshit.
Of course, the idea of a black metal band “selling out” is pretty silly to begin with. Do you really think they’re gonna gonna get played on mainstream radio? Play live at the MTV awards? Do a collab with Kanye? Gimme a fuckin’ break. If you still insist on thinking about it in more-kvlt-than-thou terms; what’s more fucking evil, playing the same old tired black metal to the same handful of listeners year after year, or seducing a rapidly growing audience with a more palatable form of the Devil’s music?