Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way here first. Yes this is one of the most anticipated black metal records coming out in 2013, a big three if you will alongside records by Darkthrone and Satyricon. Yes their last album was considered by many to be brilliant, and yes if you didn’t find anything to like about previous Watain offerings, you should avoid this like Taco Bell. Watain are what they are, either you’ll find something to like about them or you won’t, because this isn’t a band that strives towards innovation or makes a point of reinventing the black metal wheel. And yet I hate saying that, first because its a little unfair, and secondly because there will be differences in a band’s sound from album to album, simply because the most minute details can produce that change (guitar tone, mixing engineer, freaking recording studio). The question to ask I suppose with a band’s new album is what are these differences, and do they matter overall enough to change someone’s mind one way or another?
I’m particularly interested to hear the take of a friend of mine, who might be the biggest Watain fan in Texas. I’m sure he’ll turn into a spittle-flying maniac when we drive up to see them in Austin a few months from now. He turned me on to the band, and I’ll admit that I was indifferent… for awhile. Then I realized that every time I’d ride as a passenger in his car he would have their 2010 Lawless Darkness album insistently blasting in all its ugly glory — and I began to suspect that it was the only album he actually had in the car. I don’t care who you are or what you like, if you’re force blasted something that long, it WILL eventually seep into your brain and lo and behold, there I was, agitatedly driving home from work, unsatisfied with my iPod randomization and realized that I wanted to listen to the chorus I was hearing in my head. The chorus was from “Reaping Death”, the vicious highpoint of that particular album. And so now when I come back home from work or anywhere else feeling particularly aggravated, the Lawless Darkness has been one of a couple anger management records that I turn to as a soothing balm — like Swedish massage but black metal. That’s a thing right?
And so its in light of my enjoyment of their previous album that The Wild Hunt comes as something of a let down to me. Just like their fellow big three brethren, Watain have decided to mix up their formula a bit with this new album. Some of it works for sure, but there’s some rather baffling stuff going on here. First off the good stuff: Props to the band for coming up with a great album title and not self-titling their record (enjoy the artwork by the way). There’s some Lawless Darkness worthy face-ripping moments here, as on opening pair “De Profundis”, and slow (by Watain standards) stomper “Black Flames March”. The former in particular boasts the most ferocious riffs on the entire album, along with a mid-song hurtle into a vortex of some really really nasty background vocal effects and speed metal tempos. There’s a couple gems in “Outlaw”, “Sleepless Nights”, and most strikingly “The Child Must Die”, which in addition to its almost King Diamond-esque riffs and lyrics features an incredibly effective melodic intro that really catches you off guard. Vocalist Erik Danielsson is one of black metal’s finer vocalists, and he’s as reliable as ever on all of these cuts. Its when he decides to deviate from his normal gutteralic (yes we’ll make that a word) vocal approach that he begins to lose me.
Most reviews of this album will no doubt spend a few sentences analyzing Watain’s attempt at a ballad on this record, “They Rode On”, what the surprisingly succinct reviewer at Pitchfork aptly described as the band’s stab at a tune akin to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”. I can see that, and look I love when metal bands try their hands at ballads. It interests me on a fundamental music level… I think that ballads are far more interesting when done by an artist who normally concentrates the vast majority of their musical output on rockin’, being loud and abrasive, and you know, heavy. Some bands can pull them off and others just don’t have the songwriting chops for it (and I’m really forgiving when it comes to ballads too). But in black metal it seems that the stylistic limitations of the genre would prevent a band from ever getting close to anything approximating balladry — perhaps the closest example we’ve seen has been Cradle of Filth’s “Nymphetamine”, but they’re not black metal as we understand it anymore, and they had to employ female vocals… so, yeah, cheating a bit. The adventurous stretch in black metal has seemingly been to attempt to get more melodic through symphonic elements as well as the introduction of clean vocals (albeit still within the context of a black metal style song).
I applaud Watain for going out on a limb with “They Rode On” but it fails as a song in general simply because its meandering and boring. The instrumentation is interesting for a short while, but then it too fades to a dull murmur — strummed chords that take no shape or have no direction. Its almost as if they wrote the song lyrics first and retrofit the music around them, there is no melodic through line and in a song with this much ambient space that deficiency becomes quite glaring. There’s a mildly nice, Scorpions-esque solo in the middle that is really the instrumental high point, but its not worth the price of admission alone (I could just go and listen to the Scorpions). What really burns the baking pan here is Danielsson’s woeful clean vocal performance. I realize that this is out of his wheelhouse and he’s branching out here, but you call it like you hear it and this is Anders Friden thinking he can do clean vocals live levels of bad. I’m sure a good many people will find his clean vocals endearing and to each their own, but they’re distracting to me. A good vocal melody for one would’ve gone a long way here.
They also come up empty on the album closer “Holocaust Dawn” (you’d figure at this point in their career with the storied visa problems they’ve experienced that they would avoid hot words like that in their song titles but whatever), this is a song that tackles doom metal levels of tempo and is heavy on plod n’ trod, light on anything remotely interesting. Well, there is the sheer oddness of the circus theme sounding mid-section but it stops as soon as it starts. Then comes a few more minutes of meandering plodding and by the time a heavy riff does finally kick in you’d probably have skipped backwards a few tracks anyway. Its a chore to listen to and one of the more unfortunate bits of experimentation on offer. But Watain’s attempts to branch out creatively aren’t all misguided, and I feel that they were really onto something with large parts of the title track, a six minute mid-tempo grinder of a track that juxtaposes excellently done whispered vocals with choral chants. Suitably moody yet melodically informed guitars blanket these unique vocal pairings with strong melodic lines, and the guitar solos throughout are really the best I’ve heard on any Watain track to date. Also Danielsson delivers a really effective agonized clean vocal here that makes you wonder what the hell was going on with “They Rode On”. I dig the spanish guitar at the end as well — nice touch.
I applaud bands for trying new things and being open to experimentation within their defined sound. I mean, at the end of the day, this is still undeniably a Watain album, its just that within that framework it might not hit the same breathless pace that older records had. I know its not a competition, but if I had to make it into one I’d give Darkthrone the nod on their experimental album released earlier this year, with one major footnote, that Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance couldn’t really be called black metal… at least I don’t think so. Watain adheres, for better or worse, to a stylistic approach to black metal that is shuttered, focused, and very steeped in tradition. You could practically call their sound a dying art. That doesn’t make an album better persay but it does count for something.