Watain’s leader Erik Danielsson has brought his diabolical band from the pits of the black metal underground to Swedish “Best Hard Rock in 2011” Grammy Award winners for their fourth full-length Lawless Darkness by splattering pigs blood upon the masses and emphasizing the extent of his devotion to the dark side…Oh, and by creating some excellent records, too. Danielsson, like others before him, has shaped a persona for his band that has become all consuming, and depending on where your beliefs lie, Danielsson is either deadly serious about his Satanic convictions or has just used blasphemous rhetoric to amass a wealth of hype. Whatever the reality of this may be, the result is still the same: Watain are a now an extremely popular metal band and far from a name whispered only among the black metal elite, whoever they are.
Danielsson’s aim to break away from the underground and spread the word of Watain to a greater metal audience has gradually strengthened its focus over the past few years—especially as Watain reaped critical acclaim for their Dissection-worthy records, Casus Luciferi in 2003 and Sworn to the Dark in 2007. It was 2010’s Lawless Darkness that really raised the band’s profile however; not because of the music per se, but because Watain went into marketing overdrive and appeared to be omnipresent. Lawless Darkness was also the point down the left hand path where Watain began to lose some of their followers who had been with them since their debut, Rabid Death’s Curse; this fallout served as a consequence of the band’s growing exposure, thirst for adulation, and refinement of their sound. Watain triumphed and summoned a fresh horde of disciples who were drawn to the music, the band’s claret covered aesthetic, and because Watain (rounded out by guitarist Pelle Forsberg and drummer Håkan Jonsson, as well live guitarist Set Teitan and bassist Alvaro Lillo) professed to be the real deal: a band that lived and preached their ideologies from a pulpit of abomination.
The backlash (or denial, depending on your capacity to stomach hyperbole) that can pour down once a band worshipped by the underground reaches out beyond the scene that fed its name can be toxic. This don’t-get-too-big-for-your-bullet-belt-or-we-will-burn-you-down mentality has always been a part of metal’s history, but it is how the band deals with negative commentary that shapes their future. When met by the ambition of Watain’s new album, The Wild Hunt (named after the European folk myth surrounding ghostly huntsmen who charge on horseback across the sky), you immediately get the impression that Watain are going to do whatever they can to keep their black flame burning, and keep it burning in front of as large an audience as possible. The Wild Hunt, Watain’s first album for Century Media, sees the Swedish sinners simultaneously confront their songwriting skills and our definition of what Watain should sound like, while upholding the thrash/death/black metal amalgam they had honed into a sharp scepter on Lawless Darkness. It is also an album that is by far the most audacious release of the band’s 15 year existence, and it will no doubt prove to be polarizing, as purists will contemplate sacrificing their Go Fuck Your Jewish “God” demo once ears are met by what is the most interesting song on The Wild Hunt, the gothic, semi-acoustic centerpiece “They Rode On”.
“They Rode On”, which apparently takes lyrical inspiration from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, is a far cry from the contemptuous black metal Watain has built their temple on and is more about creating a solemn atmosphere in line with revered bands like Fields of the Nephilim and Death in June. Positioned at the midpoint of The Wild Hunt, this eight-minute anomaly traverses the thrum of acoustic guitars, sorrowful sounding strings, melodic guitar solos, cleverly situated crescendos, and—most startlingly—Danielsson’s first ever attempt at clean singing on a Watain song. Those worried that Watain have fallen on the mercy of trite balladry to sell a few extra records need not despair, as Daniellson’s somber vocals are as unrefined as that of a fire-breather and the earthly emotion of his melodies adds authenticity to a song that could have come across as contrived and cheesy as all hell, but somehow doesn’t. Watain’s shot at expanding the parameters of their sound with this song’s pacing and powerful sentiment is just as bold as it is compositionally proficient.
The inclusion of “They Rode On” does not mean Watain have moved into realms of AOR palatability, as the first half of The Wild Hunt is just as wretched and raucous as anything Watain have released since their debut; albeit with a greater grip of dynamics and a huge production job. This is apparent from the moment the melodic, mood-setting instrumental “Night Vision” fades out in a haze of scalding feedback and opens the ground for “De Profundis” to surface, spread its leathery wings and soars across the nightside eclipse. “De Profundis”, along with the anthemic war cry of “Black Flames March” and the first single off The Wild Hunt, “All That May Bleed”, are of your typical Watain fare: full of tempo twists led by Jonsson’s propulsive drumming, whether it be an all out assault or the Satanic stomp that has become synonymous with the band’s past work. Following on, “The Child Must Die” casts an icy chill with guitar lines that drip with the essence of Swedish black metal, and this song also plays a pivotal role in setting up the second half of The Wild Hunt, where Watain’s newfound sense of songwriting devilry can best be found.
Danielsson spits fire, hisses and shrieks throughout, with vocals that rival Marduk’s Mortuus (also of Funeral Mist) in terms of dramatic and multi-demon delivery. But as well as his surprisingly clean singing on “They Rode On”, his desolate tones also make an appearance during the title track; a ceremonial hymn and another clear album highpoint that slithers along at a sinister pace before unveiling a passage that takes Pink Floyd’s grandeur and strains it through Bathory’s epic legacy. It is a song that shows the potential for future refinement, and its melding of malevolence and elegance is a masterstroke for Watain. Elsewhere, “Outlaw”, which takes thematic inspiration from Haiti voodoo traditions, lands on similar footing to that of Rotting Christ’s recent riff structures and memorable tribal chants, while the penultimate instrumental “Ignem Veni Mittere” paves the way for the ruthless “Holocaust Dawn”, which, in the end, makes a return to the blazing orthodoxy of black metal’s second wave.
Black metal has survived because of its deep-rooted rules, yet these rules beget limitations, whether aesthetic, musical or lyrical. Granted, the genre is going through a renaissance of sorts and what is or is not “true black metal” has been debated to the point that the argument is now completely immaterial. Watain’s position among all the traditional proponents of the genre, the post-black metal this and transcendental black metal that is dominantly clear on the The Wild Hunt. Through Watain’s thirst for experimentation and ambition to widen the limited confines of their sound and convert the masses with this extremely engaging and meticulously sequenced collection of songs, Watain have escaped from the pack to ride alone across the sky like the huntsmen that inspired the album’s title.
// Notes from the Road
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