Whether you view Watain as true princes of the black metal elite, the heirs to the void left by the mighty Dissection, or view them as just another set of corpse-painted clowns who take themselves far too seriously, one thing all will agree on is that they’re impossible to ignore. From the provocative statements, flirtations with far-right ideology and dousing audiences in liberal doses of putrid animal blood, the only things they haven’t done to gain attention is burn down a church or murder someone. That we know of. But beneath all the Satanic imagery and defiant posturing, can they score a knockout blow where it really counts, on record? One listen to “The Wild Hunt” shouldn’t so much silence the doubters as trample them beneath a legion of hooves, so triumphant and grimly magnificent is this record.
Beginning with ‘Night Vision’, the dual-lead harmonies that we have come to expect and worship snake through the air like foul tendrils of mist from an opened grave, menacing yet mysterious; a mere taster for what’s to come. The first track proper, ‘De Profundis’ is an old-school ripper reeking of Bathory as riffs alternately tear and pound, while Erik Danielsson’s vocals are slightly more buried in the mix than on previous records, with a vague echoing effect enhancing the feeling that this ritual is being conducted in another dimension entirely. Alternatively, ‘Black Flames March’ takes a grander approach with its sombre mid-paced riffing as Danielsson holds court like some demonic General, preaching his words of war to the advancing throng.
First single ‘All That May Bleed’ soon follows, hiding an almost catchy riff beneath a tangle of chaotic guitar lines and thunderous percussion while the old-school flavoured ‘The Child Must Die’ will go down a treat in the live environment with its use of classic metal refrains that stretch further back than most black metal bands ever dare to. Those craving something really nasty to seek their teeth into though will be satisfied with the blackened fury and icy melodies of ‘Sleepless Evil’ and the hate-filled ‘Outlaw’, both featuring some of the fastest riffing on a Watain record, as well as a killer solo. Tracks like these remind the listener that despite their growing profile and popularity, Watain has not forgotten the underground which spawned them and still seeks to claim their blackened souls.
However, the main talking point on “The Wild Hunt” is the lengthy ‘They Rode On’, which could almost have come of “The Black Album.” A sprawling, semi-acoustic tale of Gods riding across a ruined landscape, the song gives Danielsson a chance to prove that there’s more to his vocals than his standard feral snarl, and that goes for the rest of the band as well, as they expand into realms unknown yet utterly enthralling. Here the creeping melodies of old entwine with a mature, classic rock sensibility which is more made for flaming torches than lighters in the air, but emphatically states that Watain have arrived among the big boys and don’t intend to leave.
The naysayers who still hark on about ‘ripping off Dissection’ can quite frankly fuck off. While the malign spectre of Jon Nödtveidt may be glimpsed from time to time through the swirling darkness, the powers channelled by the band are entirely at their own disposal. The songwriting is stellar, improving on the near-flawless yet slightly over-long “Lawless Darkness” and while there may not be an instant crowd-pleaser to thrill the hordes, “The Wild Hunt”, like its title is a journey through peril and adventure with a thoroughly bloody outcome as the psychedelia-tinged grimoire that is closing track ‘Holocaust Dawn’ so defiantly proves. If black metal really is the Devil’s Law as it has so often been described, then Watain are Judge, Jury and Executioner. On your knees, for you are not worthy.