Tune your ears just right and you can already hear the backlash snapping in the distance. People far more KVLT than I are sharpening their knives, dismissing The Wild Hunt as “Watain’s Black Album.” Ostensibly because Watain should do nothing but remake Casus Luciferi and Rabid Death’s Curse over and over again. I might not go as far as Watain’s Erik Danielsson in pronouncing that “fear of change is fear of death” (from this album’s “The Child Must Die”), but I’m damned close.
Let’s be clear: The Wild Hunt is not a primitive-sounding onslaught of blast beats and tremolo-picked riffing. But Watain haven’t been that band for a long time now. Each album has seen them step away from black metal orthodoxy as the band has gradually developed their own idiosyncratic take. But The Wild Hunt is a much larger departure for the band, and as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t feel like a selling out or a betrayal of their vision. It feels like liberation.
The album opens with the brooding, atmospheric and ultimately majestic instrumental “Night Vision,” which quickly plunges into the churning bowels of Chaos with “De Profundis.” This is as violently pummeling and frenzied as Watain have ever been, with periodic shifts into a martial rhythm (reminiscent of “Legions of the Black Light” from 2008’s Sworn to the Dark) to emphasize the pure, unbridled discord of the track.
The record continues with the more traditionally Watain “Black Flames March,” which shows off the band’s ability to create tightly-wound and razor-edged compositions that are equally evil and catchy. We’re then treated with the double-shot of the ever-building intensity of “All That May Bleed” and the melodic death-infused “The Child Must Die.” All three are solid pieces of construction, with “The Child Must Die” a mid-paced stomp that surprisingly echoes a more aggressive Reinkaos-era Dissection (though not that surprising, given the band’s connection to that era of Dissection’s history and their shared philosophical/theological underpinnings).
To this point, there’s not much that would anger the faithful. I mean, there’s more than enough to annoy those who think their two previous studio albums were steps in the wrong direction, because those people were never going to be happy with a new Watain album anyway. But it’s at the mid-point of the album that the record goes off into largely unexplored territory that will send folks packing—either to get as far away from the album as possible, or to accompany the band on this journey.
Yeah, I’m talking about “They Rode On.” It’s the one song on this album that has drawn the focus of everyone. It’s the basis for the Black Album comparisons. It’s the basis for the “selling out” cries. It’s…a ballad. I’m not talking “More Than Words” here, mind you. This is a nearly-nine minute progressive epic featuring the debut of Danielsson’s clean vocals. And while people have tossed around Morricone and Western films as reference points, I think there’s a more direct line of parentage, and one that makes the track feel that much more of a logical progression: Fields of the Nephilim. For those of you keeping score, the concluding track of Watain’s last album (the similarly epic “Waters of Ain” from Lawless Darkness) features a rare—and the only, as far as I know—guest appearance from the Nephilim’s Carl McCoy on vocals. With this track, Watain demonstrate that they share the Nephilim’s ability to harness the alternating use of starkness, elaborate flourish and grand drama of Morricone and create a darkly beautiful magickal working. Even Erik’s vocals sound like a slightly pitch-adjusted McCoy. And what’s more, the guitar work from Pelle Forsburg is actually emotionally moving (the solos remind me, of all things, of the end of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”). This is no safe move. This is no aim for Rock Radio Respectability. This is a ballsy fucking step for them as a black metal act to take. This is like Darkthrone going all NWOBHM and speed metal, except that Watain don’t invite the built-in “let’s give this a chance” approach that legends like Fenriz and Nocturno Culto do. (And people still haven’t forgiven Darkthrone for betraying the Unholy Black Metal Cause.)
And it’s that song that signals that from here on out, you are either committed to the ride or you’d best leave now. After the warm embrace of “They Rode On,” you get nearly sliced into pieces by the flying assault of cold, blackened shards of noise that is “Sleepless Evil,” only to be dragged into a doom-filled swamp of chants, spoken word, clean vocals, more overt Pink Floyd-isms and Flamenco guitar in the album’s title track. “Outlaw” seamlessly combines Sepultura-esque tribal drums with more chanting before shifting into full-on blast mode, wah-wah’ed thrash solo segments, a two-step, and back again. And much in the way that “Night Vision” introduces us to the album by way of its devloping sounds, the album’s second intstumental “Ignem Veni Mittere” reprises the stylistic shifts of this album and leads us into the abyss as it closes, leaving us with the album’s final track “Holocaust Dawn.” Pulling us into the darkness, the song tears down any semblance of structure as it schizophrenically skitters about from a waltz-timed blast of metal, to furious blast beats, to carnival music orchestrations, to gypsy fiddling, finally removing all sense of order, ripping through the veil of existence and returning to the primal Chaos from whence all life springs. (As if to mirror this return to the source, the limited edition of the album closes with the bonus track “When Stars No More Shine,” a re-recording of their first song from their first demo.)
Call this what you will. But if you call this a compromise, I think you’re wrong. Because to me, this is pure Watain: uncompromising and daring to kick the fuck out of the often too-tightly-guarded barriers that delineate black metal. This is a major work.