Embers in the burning sky linger, flirting in shadow. Remnants of a battle forever cycling beneath a blackened sun sigh in the wind’s dance… De profundis, from the depths I have called out to you…
The Wild Hunt begins. There is a story to tell here: The album title is from Peter Nicolai Arbo’s 1872 painting “Åsgårdsreien,” (via the cover of Bathory’s 1988 album Blood Fire Death) which depicts a Norwegian folk legend in which spectral hunters madly race across the sky, an ominous portent of catastrophe. Over the course of the album, the Swedish black metal band Watain provides a kind of soundtrack to this legend in movements that flow together almost flawlessly, the perfect platform for Watain to paint its sonic spectrum across a dark, fiery sky.
The opening “Night Vision” entices us to open our inner self to darkness, a brief instrumental intro that opens the dark clouds to thunder. A bombastic blast drops and we’re off into “De Profundis,” a black metal epic. “Black Flames March,” kicks in with a fast reverb-coated drum roll and continues the grooving throb of “De Profundis.” About a minute in there are some “Hulk-Smash” call-and-response breaks that only accentuate the pounding of the horse hooves high above our heads. Head-banging? Check. I’m there with a sword in my hand ready for the eternal battle. Bring it on. These riffs burn and I’m galloping through the darkness! I can see dark lines waver over the bleak horizon where the hidden sun is swallowed by night and smoke. This fire burns, marches, sweeps, charges — reaching beyond flesh and mortal man, ending abruptly with a ceremonial horn — or is it a siren — calling for sacrifices to come. We are off to war.
Black metal genre production can often be drastically lo-fi, as if it had been recorded on a broken boombox in a dark cave, or it can be an overproduced glossy fixture where grandiose becomes the wrong kind of grotesque. The production here fits the music — I knew it was good on the first listen but it took really sitting with it and listening intently while the stereo was turned up to really appreciate the complexity and sophistication of this record.
“All That May Bleed” starts with a great flanged guitar (briefly like Judas Priest’s “Diamonds and Rust”) that chugs its way into the song. There are many bleeding souls here and the rhythm of the hunt is a pounding 4/4 drum beat with a power-chug riff to take you along for the ride. The vocal demands attention then quickly and subtly switches to an instant of desperation before switching right back, an anguished rallying cry to the ones who must bleed and die for the fire sacrifice. Singer Erik Danielsson is very much in control of the narrative and tells his story with honesty and passion. Did I mention that the guitar solos are awesome?
My favorite kind of black metal has always been the kind with banging riffs and a groove, and there’s a lot of that on this record, but it’s more than your “meat and potatoes” kinds of riffs and structures. It’s all well designed and executed, and the transitions between songs are superbly arranged. They really nail it on “The Child Must Die,” the way the anthemic intro ignites the flames for the killer guitar melody to come. It’s just powerfully epic and dark, and yet the melody leads the way for the blind hunters to see.
And then there’s “They Rode On,” which will probably cause a stir in the black metal world because everyone always freaks out when there’s clean singing. Now, I love a good ballad but, unfortunately, this isn’t a very good one. It works within the context of the record, though, as kind of a bookend to the first half of the record. But at eight minutes and 43 seconds, it’s about six minutes too long. Listening to it, I dropped my sword and fell into a weird black metal western, a haze of ’80s fog and predictable guitar solos. However, this is where the narrator tells more of the story — it’s like Danielsson is playing the roles of several different key characters in the story — so it makes sense within the overall concept of the album.
Then I find my sword again. OK. We’re back. “Sleepless Evil” rages from the first note. There is blood everywhere as Danielsson screams the words: “Out loud into the darkness/our praise is sung/On cloven hooves, in cloven tongues/From cloven hearts and from cloven heads.” Eventually, a piano breaks up the song and there’s a creepy passage before the vocals come roaring back in. This is when Watain’s progressive dynamics really kick into full gear.
There’s clean singing on the title track too, but this time it’s my favorite and most memorable vocal on the record. And the song is pretty damn epic; it’s a total success, reaching a convincing climax that is grandiose but not overdone. And it ends with a Spanish-sounding classical guitar part, which is pretty cool. “Outlaw” is a straight-ahead banger that any metalhead can appreciate — we’re winning the battle. The horses slow down on the instrumental “Ignem Veni Mittere,” but just when you think it’s safe to relax or reflect upon the cool guitar playing, the battle flares up again and doom hits on the closing track “Holocaust Dawn.” “At last, we are nearly there… Long was the winter/ And dark were the stars that eclipsed our dying hearts/And the snow fell while blind men waltzed with death/On tombs of mighty gods.”
Yes. A good way to close the album, reflecting on the wild journey but also holding fast to the Night Vision ahead. This is great black metal right here.