REVIEW: WITHERSCAPE – “The Northern Sanctuary”
We were introduced to Witherscape in 2013 when they released their debut album. What I thought was a Dan Swanö side project turned out to be one of my favourite albums of that year. What’s more I was introduced to the incredible riffage of Ragnar Widerberg. After a small trip to EP land the boys are back with a new album ‘The Northern Sanctuary’. Can they recreate the magic?
‘The Northern Sanctuary’ borrows certain musical themes from ‘The Inheritance’ but is a different experience all together. There is still a hint of the 70s hard rock that heavily influenced their earlier album, but they seemed to have moved forward in time when it comes to influences. The songs contain more straight-to-the-point metal riffs reminiscent of what was coming out of the 80s metal scene. And before you jump to the conclusion that this is just another throwback 80s metal album do remember that this is Dan Swanö and Ragnar Widerberg we are talking about here.
Although the core seems to be 80s metal, this album is definitely not a nostalgia fest. Both the artists infuse their unique brand of songwriting to the songs. Huge orchestration brings depth to the songs by adding atmosphere and emotion which elevates what could be a boring listening experience to another level. There are even some, dare I say radio friendly riffing here which sound pulled straight out of a glam metal song; but Dan and Ragnar twist the whole thing into a catchy but intelligent piece of music. And just like the previous album we have a wonderful ballad that drops in the middle of the album which kind of slows the pace and lets the listener catch their breath.
Most of the songs on the album are quite short with very few crossing the five minute mark, all of them building to the epic thirteen and a half minute title track. Drenched in proggy goodness, this song is a slow build; it requires a lot of patience and is not quite as accessible as the other songs on the album, which are more straightforward and monolithic in theme. The title track jumps all over the place when it comes to styles of music and themes. With jarring transitions between acoustic guitars and clean singing to brutal death growls and distorted fast guitars that blind-side you, it is not an easily digestible piece of music. But with time you may come to appreciate the song. I must say; however, that this track has almost nothing memorable about it and frankly takes away more from the album than it contributes.
Coming to the production side of the album: it sounds absolutely perfect. Dan and Ragnar have outdone their previous album by leaps. The mix sounds great and none of the instruments sound like they are overwhelming the others. Dan Swanö on vocals, keyboards and drums seems to be the master of all. From innovative keyboard melodies which complement the guitars, to some sweet drum work and the versatile vocal range he delivers, he hits the nail on the head each time. Ragnar Widerberg on guitars and bass is starting to become one of my favourite players. The guitar tone he has achieved on this album is indescribable: it’s heavy but bright, distorted but open at the same time. And from what I’ve heard from his work on the last album and this one, he sure knows his way around some catchy riffs and melodies; it’s like an encyclopedia in his head!
Witherscape’s ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is a wonderful album packed from top to bottom with some of the most interesting music I’ve heard this year. Although it does fall short in maintaining its momentum throughout, with the somewhat less than perfect title track, it is brilliant in every other aspect. Having gone through the 70s and 80s, are we supposed to expect a 90s influenced album next? All we can do is wait for these two musical geniuses to spawn their next twisted baby.