Aug 062013

(BadWolf reviews the fifth album by Sweden’s Watain, and their first on the Century Media label. It’s due for release on August 19 in Europe and August 20 in the US.)

With a series of critically-acclaimed albums under their belts, a dead-serious take on satanism, and a notoriously bloody live show, the members of Watain are the current poster children for European black metal. Deathspell Omega may be more artistic, and Alcest may make more palatable music, but neither of those bands land on the cover of Decibel magazine. Under this level of public scrutiny, many metal bands, and black metal bands in particular, stop producing excellent work. At this point, Watain is in the company of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, who, like Watain, rode into success on the backs of powerful imagery, strong melodies, and a few good records, though they ultimately fell into the rut of overproduced kitsch.

Judging by Watain’s fifth album, The Wild Hunt, however, these three Swedes won’t make the same mistakes. The Wild Hunt is a confident step outside of Watain’s comfort zone—one that dials down black metal cliches while taking more risks than they have before, and producing several excellent songs in the process.

The Wild Hunt comes neatly divided into two halves. In classic hard rock fashion, the album opens with a series of confident crowd-pleasing singles, before diverting into a self-consciously ‘artistic’ and ‘difficult’ second act. The first two songs released from the record, “All That May Bleed” and “The Child Must Die”, come from the first segment, and offer a good look into what to expect: Erik Danielsson’s super-echoed vocals, blackened thrash riffs, and both melodic and chaotic guitar solos. Watain play it just anthemic enough to hold my interest without feeling like they’re kowtowing to Revolver magazine and Sirius XM’s sensibilities.

The album sports a vague classic-thrash feel. The clean guitar intro of “Night Vision” that segues into “De Profundis,” comes across like a slice of Metallica worship. Gang-shouts play counterpoint to Danielsson’s lead vocals on “Black Flames March.” Most of all, the barely-restrained grit of late-80’s Slayer peeks through all these songs.

And then “They Rode On” plays, and suddenly Watain becomes a very different band.

“They Rode On” is a nearly nine-minute folk-inflected ballad, the sort of thing that could easily derail an extreme metal album. In a parallel universe, that song is the precise moment in time when Watain jump the shark.

Against all odds, “They Rode On,” is one of the best songs on the album. Perhaps Watain had more Metallica in them than they cared to display until now, because it’s quite the ballad, the sort of curve ball that Converge threw at the end of 2009’s Axe to Fall, but Watain made it the centerpiece of The Wild Hunt. The highest honor I can give the song is it feels like something Opeth would write, and from that point on the influence of Watain’s fellow Swedes runs thick in the record—it is as if they realized that Opeth would never make a great prog metal album again, and stepped right up to the plate. Danielsson’s clean vocals are not as good as Akerfeldt’s, but they feel human—untouched by obvious studio trickery. It’s endearing; he brings an earnest twang and comes across more meditative than romantic.

From then on out, all bets are off. The second half of the record displays a myriad of of influences heretofore absent from Watain’s music. The band experiment wildly with style and tone, and succeed in every venture they try their hand at. This second half is much more exciting than the first—actually, it’s the most exciting series of songs Watain have put to tape since Sworn to the Dark. The title track is a mid-paced doom song that strikes a great balance between melody and abrasion, the perfect song to raise a glass and headbang to. The closing track, “Holocaust Dawn,” flirts with clean guitar bridges and chanting atmosphere in the vein of Melechesh, and also nails a  circus-like swing-time passage reminiscent of Sigh. “Outlaw,” sure to be a live staple, comes across as a five-minute love letter to Roots-era Sepultura, complete with tribal chants, a schizophrenic guitar solo, and a two-step skank section—it’s the sort of big mosh song Watain hasn’t ever written, and I imagine it will become a live staple, too.

It goes without saying that the very things that have endeared The Wild Hunt to me are going to crucify it for other people. I have peers, co-writers, and industry contacts who feel Casus Luciferi, a record I found a bit boring, was Watain’s crowning glory, and I cannot imagine them finding the joy in this record that I have. The Wild Hunt deviates too far from the core aesthetics of black metal for a certain crowd of people—remember “Outlaw”? And for that crowd of people there’s a host of excellent, experimental-while-orthodox material out there from bands like Infera Bruo and Woe. At the same time, this is not the sellout betrayal that many other publications are going to paint it as.

And believe me, they will. Danielsson is a consummate careerist, and has never shied away from that fact in interviews. Watain fit easily into the familiar storyline of the underground sensation that flies too close to the populist sun, and has its wings of critical acclaim burned off out of resentment. Remember ,when you’re listening to The Wild Hunt, that the sellout narrative is only a narrative, an outline we use to organize information and nothing more. Reality has no responsibility to conform to what we expect, and there is no objective reason that a financially solid black metal outfit needs to make shitty records

The Wild Hunt is both a movement toward wider acceptability and an experimental record, and it pulls both sides off with aplomb. Is it the solid front-to-back rager that Sworn to the Dark was? No. But it’s going to make many people’s end-of-the-year list. More importantly, it’s thrown me one hell of a curve ball. For that, Watain have earned my applause.

  6 Responses to “WATAIN: “THE WILD HUNT””

  1. “They Rode On” strikes me as Watain’s version of “The Unforgiven” (or “Fade To Black” – though I think that’s more what “Water of Ain” was).

    Love, love, love, the title track as well.

  2. so excited for this album, i was just listening to “Lawless Darkness”, this morning. it sucks that their tour isn’t coming anywhere near me

  3. the salt of satan in the wounds of christ
    one of the most brutal lines ive ever heard, i really need to see these guys live someday

  4. Not sure what to think from the tracks posted, not bad exactly, but not all that great either. A little bit disapointed to be honest, but on the other hand i should not judge the complete album based just on the very little i have heard so far. I will blindly buy it and hope for the best, after all i initially didn’t like “Lawless Darkness” but it grew to become one of my favourite albums of that year as time passed. So, crossing my fingers!

  5. Good review because it describes the album as it deserves to be described. Any idea inside “The Wild Hunt” song after song is captivating, accurate with a furious onslaught wisely conceived. “They Rode On” is the real surprise of the record. The clean vocals with his shady and nostalgic tone is marvelous even for the lyrics and the sound setting. The female voice warms the heart. It is really able to be deep and touching. The other songs are a smart division between the traditional black metal lash (Sleepless Evil, De Profundis, All That May Bleed) while “The Wild Hunt” is a good mid -tempo speckled by clean choirs and arpeggios. The ceremonial atmosphere is charming too.

    “Night Vision” is opened by an arpeggio in horror style. Underscored by a dark veiled orchestrations and keyboards. The drums and the devilish guitar duel comes in very perfectly.The pace becomes martial and the voltage rises to the second. A classic intro, rooted in the tradition of the genre, awesome way to start an album. “The Child Must Die” is a flawless song and “Holocaust Dawn” for an ending that literally makes sparks. Here, Watain offer to us everything from Swedish death-black assaults marked “early 90’s”. A curious brackets similar to the sound of a Luciferian waltz. Mid-tempo are triumphal. “Outlaw” is Highly infectious. Watain phenomenon is about to explode and they deserve all of our respect, smart band, awesome music!

  6. I fuckin dig the bullshit “check out my album review that nobody gives a fuck about” by 365chaosriddendays. Anyhow, I love Watain, but I gotta say, this is a less than impressive album. It’s fine but I wish I wouldn’t have spent money on it.

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