Wearing earplugs at extreme metal concerts is practically a must these days, but for Watain shows, it’s equally advisable to bring a surgical mask. The stench of Watain is nauseating, whether it’s emanating from the members themselves, who cover their bodies in animal blood and sometimes splash it into the crowd, or the fetid carcasses they use to construct an onstage altar. But the Swedish black metal band is a spectacle to behold. The horrific smell becomes part of the overall experience of death and decay, and the ugliness, evil and ferocity create a type of sensory overload that evokes elation as much as revulsion.
Watain haven’t yet figured out a way to express their malodorous aesthetic on record, but they keep finding new methods of shocking listeners. Before 2007, Watain were fairly straightforward, going for the jugular with ferocious passages at inhuman tempos, and only occasionally unclenching for an eerie instrumental. Then on 2010′s Lawless Darkness, the band strived to be more musically complex, adding unexpected rhythmic shifts into their assault and drawing influence from multifaceted melodic black metal bands including Dissection and Emperor, while still growling about ghastly abominations, occult rituals and the end of time (three of the songs include “death” in their titles).
Watain’s fifth and latest release, The Wild Hunt, is just as dark and sinister, or as the band puts it in “De Profundis,” it’s “the defiant chords of dissonance, to rape the symphony of God.” Yet the album is far more eclectic than Lawless Darkness, blending together a multitude of musical elements ranging from the blastbeat fury of “Outlaw” to the dark acoustic folk dirge “They Rode On,” which includes clean vocals by Erik Danielsen that resemble Nick Cave or Death in June. For black metal purists, it’s definitely a “what the fuck” moment, or rather eight minutes, 42 seconds of what the fuck. In short, it separates the lions from the sheep, dividing those interested in dark, morose art from those seeking cheap, predictable thrills.
Lyrically, The Wild Hunt cover familiar territory, but musically Watain take black metal to new places, mixing up rhythms, meters and styles with a playful sneer. “Black Flames March” features a spoken word passage delivered over an aggression-free, atmospheric guitar line, “The Child Must Die” injects a dose of spaghetti Western atmospherics and “Sleepless Evil” includes a cinematic keyboard interlude. Elsewhere, there are plenty of devil horn-inducing savagery and sky-lacerating solos, but the progressive elements are what make The Wild Hunt exceptional.