Friday, July 22, 2016

Witherscape (review by Matt Spall)

Artist: Witherscape
Album Title: The Northern Sanctuary
Label: Century Media Records
Date Of Release: 22 July 2016
Despite loving melodic death metal, I have to admit that there are very few bands within the genre that write music that stays lodged in my head for hours and hours after the music has stopped spinning. Early In Flames, mid-era Dark Tranquillity and recent Omnium Gatherum are a few of these artists but, to that list, you can now add the name Witherscape. Sophomore release ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is one of those records that I find myself humming and whistling with great gusto long after I have reluctantly pressed the ‘stop’ button. Mind you, that’s hardly surprising, not when I offer a bit of context around this particular band.
You see, Witherscape is the latest band that the hugely talented multi-instrumentalist Dan Swanö has put his name to. The chances are that if you are a fan of extreme or underground metal, this name will already be familiar to you. The drummer, keyboardist and vocalist has been around the scene for a while now, involved in the likes of Edge Of Sanity, Bloodbath and Nightingale .On top of this, Swanö has also assisted in some form or another with a frighteningly impressive list of artists, including Katatonia, Ghost and Incision. And that’s without mentioning the amazing solo album ‘Moontower’ or his impressive resume as a producer (Unisound). The guy’s talents literally know no bounds.
With Witherscape, Swanö has teamed up with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ragnar Widerberg (Shadowquest) who offers his skills with the guitar and bass on this record. And, rather unsurprisingly, the results are nothing short of marvellous.
However, to refer to Witherscape as purely a melodic death metal is a little misleading and slightly disingenuous as well. Theirs is a hybrid of styles that borrows from 90s death metal, melodic rock, AOR, progressive rock as well as classic metal and even an occasional touch of thrash for good measure. Blend into the mix a fair amount of atmospherics courtesy of Swano’s bold keyboard style and it’s fair to say that my mouth begins to water at the prospect.
After a short, eerie intro that segues into a slow and menacing section, ‘Wake Of Infinity’ suddenly burst into life in furious fashion. Led by some great riffs a pleasing tempo and some gruff vocals to die for, this is extreme metal nectar with an unashamed feel of yesteryear. Swanö really is blessed with a fabulously gritty and rumbling gruff delivery, the kind of sound that all of us wannabe growlers wish we could create. But then, as the track develops, out of nowhere comes a melody to raise the hairs on your neck dominated by a commanding and melodious clean croon. That’s not all because there’s time for an atmospheric and contemplative section that borders on ambient minimalism before the heaviness is reintroduced. The class of both Swanö and Widerberg is stamped all over this track and it sets the album in motion in superb fashion.
‘In The Eyes Of Idols’ follows and it’s a no-nonsense, adrenaline-fuelled romp of a track with strong extreme metal-meets-hard rock overtones to it. Once again, Swanö blends his growls with his rich cleaner delivery whilst Widerberg offers more super riffing to get my head nodding forcefully, as well as injecting some tasty and soulful lead guitar work. The chorus has more hooks than a fishing trawler and the synths come to the fore much more.
This high quality continues throughout the remaining seven tracks with no filler material whatsoever. ‘Rapture Ballet’ for example, reminds me a little of the early material from the much-loved and much-missed Sentenced in terms of the melodies, the guitar tones and the vocal delivery.
That said, what follows is arguably even better. ‘The Examiner’ is an absolute beast of a track that sees Swanö utilise his clean vocals almost exclusively to devastating effect. This track is a ballad of sorts that enters on a delicate piano melody and is soon joined by Swanö’s passionate voice that sends shivers down my spine. The introduction of Widerberg’s acoustic guitars is a lovely touch that adds an added layer of textured sophistication whereas later in the song, the riff is fantastic and highly memorable. There’s even a demonstrable progressive feel to the piece as it gathers together an interesting collection of ideas, delivering it in a smooth and unfussy manner. But again, the high point of the composition comes courtesy of the chorus which I simply can’t get out of my head as much as I try.
‘Marionette’ follows and is perhaps my favourite track on the album currently. Again it begins in quiet fashion accompanied by some delightfully soft and sensitive vocals. And then the chorus hits. I love the juxtaposition within it between some of Swanö’s most brutal vocals and an insanely catchy melody, which borders on AOR and that’s drenched in almost romantic-sounding synths. The entire song is utterly magnificent and completely addictive.
The other big highlight on ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is the near 14-minute title track. It is here where Widerberg and Swanö really unfurl their songwriting wings. A direct response to none-too-kind social media comments and apparently inspired by some of the epic tracks from Helloween and Queensryche, it is frightening how quickly the track runs its course. Incorporating more strong melodies with a more adventurous all-round structure, it is the most progressive that Witherscape have ever sounded. And yet, once again, it sounds homogenous and smooth.
Ushered in via sounds akin to a baby’s lullaby and then followed by some creepy synth sounds, the song flirts with a myriad of different styles and textures in very clever fashion. Passages of quiet introspection are bulldozed out of the way by frenetic and savage-sounding guitar riffs whilst flamboyant lead guitar and keyboard work segues into powerful melodic sections complete with more soothing clean vocals. Drama drips from every pore whilst there’s an almost childlike joy that permeates the composition as if the duo are revelling in the removal of the shackles and the subsequent controlled excess that surrounds them. 14 minutes long it may be, but blink and you miss it. Or so it feels anyway.
The album closes via a short but satisfying piano instrumental by the name of ‘Vil I Frid’. And, although I’d have loved more, this feels like the perfect ending to a fantastic record. ‘The Northern Sactuary’ contains a little bit of everything that I like in my metal these days. Yes it’s heavy but if you take the time to take a close listen to the music of Witherscape, you’ll hear so much more. ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is a beautiful album that blends the extremity of death metal with so many wonderfully engaging sounds and textures. Oh and I guarantee you’ll be humming several of these tracks for weeks on end. You have been warned.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.2
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