For many, "Swedish Death Metal" is automatically synonymous with the country's popular, and sometimes even commercial, melodeath style popularized by the likes of AT THE GATES, IN FLAMES and DARK TRANQUILLITY. But the Scandinavian nation was responsible for a much grittier and darker side of death metal that predated the aforementioned, comparatively more melodic style, which has run amok concurrently and to this day. Two seminal bands in particular stand out due to the quality of the corrosive content and because they spawned several notable bands. CARNAGE was the precursor to DISMEMBER and ARCH ENEMY. And Johnny Hedlund left NIHILIST and launched UNLEASHED, as the remaining members of the band reformed as ENTOMBED. There haven't been significant stylistic shifts from album-to-album, but UNLEASHED has certainly become a more polished beast over time. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the tenacious Swedish band has continued along the same path with its thirteenth long-player: "The Hunt for White Christ".
UNLEASHED was one of the first metal bands to delve into the barbaric tales of the Vikings, but that hasn't been a perpetual and exclusive focal point. "The Hunt for White Christ" is the fourth album to carry forth Hedlund's tale of the World of Odalheim that originally surfaced on 2010's "As Yggdrasil Trembles". There's enough clarity and enunciation in Hedlund's delivery of the story line for fans to easily appreciate, and his raspy growling is as likable as ever. It's the buzz-saw riff assault and thoughtful arrangements that prove to be most memorable.
UNLEASHED wastes no time diving right in with the rapid, pummeling opener, "Lead Us Into War". Sure, it's almost black metal-like sense of darkness helps paint a picture of epic battles, god-like figures and magnificent longboats to the extent that the music is effectively the soundtrack for the tales inspired by Nordic mythology, but the infectious and catchy nature of songs like "Stand Your Ground", replete with a massive, stadium-friendly chorus, might render non-metal fans to utter, "Hmm. This isn't too bad." UNLEASHED can be quite melodic as it is with this track, in a much bleaker manner compared to its melodeath peddling countrymen; however, it's also groove-laden to the point that UNLEASHED now has the capacity to recruit groove metal fans while sacrificing a certain portion of fans of its early material. The title track winds toward a full-on metalcore-esque breakdown, in fact. "Gram" and "Terror Christ", on the other hand, are much bleaker and serve as an updated take on the unit's classic material.
The slick production and sound quality present another potentially divisive conundrum. While a band's development is admirable—here, UNLEASHED exhibits a grandiosity comparable to BEHEMOTH—at what point is it the same band if some of its core traits are long since abandoned? A band has the right to do whatever it wants, which is true to the spirit of metal. However, bands are regularly seen through the prism of a purist and conservative hive mind, which is simply the reality of metal. In spite of some obvious meandering on tracks like "Vidaurgelmthul" and possible derision from the old guard, "The Hunt for White Christ" is ultimately a good album from a band that's been resiliently wielding the sword and axe for three decades now.