In the spirit of honesty, I have a confession I must make; there has never been a black metal album I have enjoyed. While I can understand the mental state that leads to its creation, and the ethos is not philosophically unappealing, the actual music that falls under the banner has the same effect on me as fingernails streaking across a chalkboard (a sound that, ironically, does not bother me). I have tried listening to modern black metal, the 'classics', and random recommendations I've picked up in various places, but the end result is always the same. No matter what I try, black metal is the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma.
And so I move on to my latest experiment with the genre, Watain's “The Wild Hunt”. As the instrumental opener “Night Vision” slowly unfolds, I'm grateful on two fronts; I was not thrown headlong into an onslaught of fury, and the band has not adhered to the common perception that black metal must sound awful. The guitars build from simple clean lines into something stronger, with a buzzy yet still clear tone that isn't going to sound like a bee caught inside your skull, slowly driving you mad enough to trephine yourself.
Less than a minute into the first real track, “De Profundis”, I'm back at the same thought I always have when listening to black metal; what's the point? There are some nifty guitar runs that wouldn't seem out of place on a technical metal album, but the rest of the song baffles me. The drums pound so relentlessly that nothing else can get through, and the vocals are a weak rasp that offers neither melody nor rhythm. At least if there were power behind them, I could understand the outlet of rage that would embody, but this sort of performance is not that. It's not any different than dressing a small dog up like a shark, then trying to convince someone it's dangerous. I see what they want to achieve, but they miss the mark so badly I can't understand how this became the dominant approach.
All is not lost, however. Even within the same song, there are moments of redemption. When the song slows down, it becomes far more effective at conveying mood, and is in its own way enjoyable. “Black Flames March” is better, with its more reserved tempo and pulsing guitars. That kind of song makes better use of the howling and screeching, moving along at a pace that allows what you're hearing to sink in, rather than be replaced by more notes before you can understand what it is you're listening to.
“All That Bleed” and “The Child Must die” are songs that even I can enjoy, with plenty of appealing guitar work, and structures that feels more like a song than a street corner rant. The latter even gets close to having melody to the vocals, which instantly elevates these tracks over 90% of what calls itself black metal. “They Rode On” breaks convention by featuring clean vocals, and while the bluesy guitar solos peppering the track are beautifully executed, the song itself drags on and doesn't need to be a full eight and a half minutes.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed “The Wild Hunt” more than I thought I would. For being black metal, there's enough tying this to conventional metal for someone like me to enjoy it, which I realize may be the kiss of death. It's still not music I would want to listen to very often, and at more than an hour the album is far too long for this kind of abrasive music, but “The Wild Hunt” is about as good as I can imagine black metal getting.