Watain have been flying the flag of modern black metal for over a decade now, releasing some of the genre’s most talked about works in the process. Fans of the Swedish group’s black metal magic are divided into two groups: those who stop at ‘Casus Luciferi’ and those who regard their last two releases as modern black metal masterpieces. The newest offering to the Beast, ‘The Wild Hunt,’ will have fans divided along much less concrete lines.

The band, notorious for the stench that emits from their stage show -- which is derivative from covering themselves in pig’s blood and stringing up animal carcasses onstage -- have released their most musically ambitious album. Dynamics that began with ‘Sworn to the Dark’ come to full fruition here, which is sure to draw critics and fanatics. What is contained within are vocal hooks, clean singing, acoustic-driven songs, tribal drumming, and even an accordion.

The instrumental ‘Night Vision’ sets the mood before ‘De Profundis’ bursts onto the scene in violent and malevolent rapture. The song is your standard, dirty Watain cut through and through with a sense of urgency. The following two songs, ‘Black Flames March,’ which is reminiscent of Deströyer 666 at times, and ‘All That May Bleed’ continue the ferocious mentality, setting this album up to be the record fans expected from their beloved Watain. The riffing is savage and Erik Danielsson’s voice has even taken on a decidedly more black metal rasp than he has employed over the last two releases.

Where ‘The Wild Hunt’ starts to raise eyebrows is with ‘The Child Must Die,’ a song that has more in common with traditional metal song structure and ‘80s goth rock. It’s refreshing to hear Watain branch out a bit from their more stagnant black metal compositions. Despite changing the mentality of the album, this song is the last that fits in line thematically here, giving way to the epic “ballad” that will have fans torn.

‘They Rode On’ is a hypnotic dirge propelled by acoustic guitars and a Viking era Bathory influence like no other. Danielsson maintains a clean singing voice that has a noted Quorthon-like charm to his shakiness. The lead guitar harmonies are straight out of a Mournful Congregation album and texture this track beautifully. Danielsson is joined by Anna Norberg at the end of the song to really bring the ending to an emotional apex. The title track is performed in a somewhat linear fashion, though with harsh vocals trading off with cleans.

To show they haven’t gone all soft on us, Watain launch into ‘Sleepless Evil,’ which sounds like a Profanatica song, making for a disjointed transition after the wonderfully epic ‘They Rode On.’ ‘Outlaw’ follows suit after the title track and features tribal drumming, chanting, and maracas. It's like the band has taken a brief hiatus from their idolization of the Horned One in an effort to invoke Papa Legba to carry a dark message to Baron Samedi on the other side. The tug of war between mid-tempo ‘90s Bathory inflected tunes and primitive black metal continues with the instrumental ‘Ignem Veni Mittere,’ which sounds like an album closer to partner the instrumental opener. Instead, ‘Holocaust Dawn’ plods on, even featuring a waltz segment accompanied by an accordion, before the blast beat laden throwback to ‘Casus Luciferi’ to cap a rollercoaster of a record.

‘The Wild Hunt’ may have some fans crying foul, but over half of the album contains familiar elements that Watain have been composing for the last decade. This album is a natural progression for the group, experimenting with new sounds and styles. The Swedes haven’t abandoned their sound, just expanded upon what was already there and evolving as musicians and songwriters. Despite how disjointed the second half is, it is certain the intent was to craft tension to make the listener uncomfortable. ‘The Wild Hunt’ is Watain’s best release since the hostile black metal masterpiece ‘Casus Luciferi.’ Lay down your souls for Watain.

4 Stars