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Many bands try to resurrect the early sounds of our wonderful genre, when founding fathers like Black Sabbath and Pentagram were starting to unveil the portrait of what would become heavy metal. Some make the cut and others do not, but I'm very certain that the top five doom revivalist squads out there can't hold a candle to Witchcraft. Witchcraft shares a moniker held by many, yet their Swedish roots and authentic sound make them rise above the rest. That's the perfect word to describe "The Alchemist" and Witchcraft in general: authentic. They not only appear like an early metal tribe, but remarkably conjure its vigor and atmosphere—you could pop this bad boy in and convince someone this was from 1972. Consequently, imitating something from a certain timeframe does not mean substantial content is ready to go on a silver platter, contrary to the beliefs of many. What Witchcraft does, though, will rock your socks off in a tripped-out journey of roasting retrogression.
Obviously the main hooking point of something like this is its temporal flavor, that being 70s rock/metal akin to Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Jethro Tull, insert a similar band here. "The Alchemist" generally does a sensational job wearing its 70s skin based on its analog production, which is full to the brim with quality reverb and equalized instruments; it's also really clear at the same time. You know how albums back then used to have a really dominating bass presence and that jam vibe going on? That's what "The Alchemist" sounds like. The riffs are clearly inspired by classic hard rock tribes like Uriah Heep or something close to the works of the aforementioned groups. On the downside, it's not an incredibly original album, because it, again, pretty much sounds how it wanted it to be. Still, the songs are catchy, the riffs pleasing, the songs entertaining.
This Magnus Pelander fellow definitely has the ideal voice for this kind of thing. His vocals are sublime yet very controlling, and he certainly shines during its duration. The wailing riffs and Pelander's desperate pleas on "Hey Doctor" are amazingly unique with its ballistic riffs slowly crawling over psychedelic leads and fantastic instrumentation. "Samaritan Barbarian" sounds jazzy before it expands into another crafty Witchcraft craft of doom-laden goodness. They just look so real and authentic throughout; it's really something. I don't view "Remembered" to be as compelling as its counterparts, although that saxophone solo definitely deserves some recognition for boldly going where few have gone beforehand. However, the epic title track returns the enthralling atmosphere back to where it started, making "The Alchemist" a potion stuffed with all the right ingredients.
To fully understand how this sounds, just look up a picture of Witchcraft or check out the artwork of their albums. You see old-school; you see retrogression; you see a band that honors their influences and has the capability to thrive from its fathers instead of mindlessly retracing them. "The Alchemist" makes for a nice diversion if you're almost always listening to heavier stuff on the metallic spectrum; reopening that door after a few years is definitely a fresh changeup. Honestly though, you really can't go wrong with any Witchcraft album as they all properly represent Pelander's creative colors, so give this a shot if you're feeling a little on the 70s side.
This review was written for: www.Thrashpit.com
“The Alchemist”, Witchcraft's third full length album, saw its release with the band on unsteady ground with consistent lineup turbulence. Following this album, founder, Magnus Pelander, put the band on an extended hiatus (ultimately lasting five years). Magnus and company's previous outings are held in very high regard in the retro doom revival scene, so the shoes that needed filling were quite large. Was Witchcraft able to deliver a solid album amidst the internal strife?
“The Alchemist” can be seen as the continuation of their eponymously named debut and their sophomore classic, “Firewood”. It's a continuation because, while Witchcraft does dabble with new elements, “The Alchemist” has the same analog sound and uncanny late 60's to early 70's classic rock vibe that was so prevalent earlier in their career. If nothing else, this can be seen as a journey into the more stoner rock occupied realms of music, while still retaining that classic, retro doom feel.
The guitars are layered with reverb and fuzz. The riffs are definitely Pentagram inspired, but contain far more groove than the doom legends. Groove laden licks and extrapolations trail just about every chorus, sounding vaguely similar to “The Elephant Riders” era Clutch. Witchcraft have always had a knack for writing catchy riffs that embody the essence of the 1970's doom scene, and “The Alchemist” is no exception, with sections venturing into Iommi inspired heaviness. The riffs are very classic rock inspired, like a slightly heavier, less proggy Uriah Heep. The soloing is casual with a very strong blues influence with hammer ons and pull offs. While some sloppy sections are present, it's a much more professional presentation than previous efforts.
Ola Henriksson's bass lines are as inventive as ever, wandering all over the place and filling any airspace left over behind the guitars. The bass performance is far from the ordinary follow the leader style, with constant fret walking. Fredrik Jansson's drumming is slightly faster paced than Witchcraft's earlier albums, but by no means is it fast. There is still a very laid back feel to the drumming, with rolling fills and heavy cymbal work. “Samaritan Burden” shows the rhythm section in top form, with jazz inspired drumming and a very funky walking bass line The strong classic rock vibe to the rhythm section highlights the excellent vocals and groove laden guitar lines.
Once again, the highlight of the album is vocalist slash guitarist, Magnus Pelander. Sounding similar to Bobby Liebling or a clearer, less whiny Ozzy Osbourne, only somehow sounding younger than both, the vocals are both captivating and slightly haunting. Magnus finally shows that he is not a one trick pony, adding some more elements to his retro doom styled approach. Previous releases showed that he could sing like the greats, but Magnus never added his own flair to the style. “The Alchemist” shows him bringing his own edge to the music, with an occasional gruffness trailing off at the end of lines and hints of deeper ranges mixed in, bordering on a quiet shout.
In continuing with the retro feel of the album, Witchcraft incorporate some additional instrumentation, including saxophone, mellotron and organ. The saxophone line over the prog influenced “Remembered” is tasteful, but I can't help but associate saxophone music with cheesy Steve Gutenburg movies. The mellotron work on the ending track (“The Alchemist”) is stellar, invoking “Deadwing” era Porcupine Tree, while still retaining the classic feel to the music. The extra instrumentation is most notable at the end of “Samaritan Burden”, where Jethro Tull inspired folk and flute is thrown into the mix.
The production on “The Alchemist” is a huge step up from previous Witchcraft releases. Every instrument still sounds like it was recorded on analog, but the muddiness and haze covering instruments and the vocals is gone, making a much cleaner presentation. The drums are less tinny, the vocals are clearer and the guitars sound like they were recorded in a proper studio rather than in a friend's garage.
“The Alchemist” is a much more approachable album than Witchcraft's previous outings, with increased production values present while retaining a retro vibe. Fans of Witchcraft's other albums will definitely enjoy this, as it's pretty much a continuation of what they've done before. Amidst the turmoil of constant line up changes, Magnus Pelander and crew were able to release an excellent album before, unfortunately, going on a five year break. “The Alchemist” is a great starting point for anyone looking to sample some retro doom revivalism.
Dust off those flairs, polish your lava lamp and shove your Wolfmother up your arse because Witchcraft hath returned with another slice of Pentagram worshipping 70s nostalgia. Skirting the borders between stoner and doom The Alchemist channels the aural essence of decades past through a sonic time warp.
It's an analogue masterpiece that's oozing with old school flair, Witchcraft once again managing to bring the crisp grain of vinyl to the digital masses. Subtle distortion meets jangly clean strumming, supported by groove soaked workhorse drumming and lively bass that dances between root notes like a court jester. The re-recorded 'If Crimson Was Your Colour' (previously seeing release on a limited vinyl) even adds authentic Moog to the mix.
The tracks themselves are some of the bands strongest to date. Never afraid to flaunt their influences, 'Hey Doctor' invokes the very spirit of Sabbath, driven by crunching riffs, vintage solo and Ward style drum breakdowns. Magnus Pelander's voice has never sounded stronger either, accented by some subtle vocal harmonies. Album highlight 'Samaritan Burden' is a grooving cacophony of funked up drumming and proggy leads. It simmers and flows to an expectedly climactic end, only to ebb away into Jethro Tull style folksy noodlings. 'Remembered' is really the only "duff" track, that whilst not bad in its own right just doesn't fit the flow of the rest of the album. It opens with a 60s styles bouncy intro and closes with a King Crimson-esque saxophone solo. It has more of an air of "bonus track" to it, and serves as a slight interruption before the lengthy epic title track. The only other problem is the length as at just over 40 minutes you'll find yourself repeating the album to sate your appetite.
As it stands, anybody spurting the old "they don't make music like they used to" really has no excuse. This is 70s heaven.
If there's one thing Swedish bands do really well, it's retro-psych pop / rock music, the kind that affectionately draws on the psychedelic rock music of the late 1960s and early 1970s to create original music with a more modern but not necessarily ironic attitude. I used to have an album by the band Dungen whose brand of kitsch retro-psych pop combined with improvised jazz was not bad and this group seems to be fairly well-known outside Sweden. They may soon have competition from their fellow retro colleagues Witchcraft though: on this album "The Alchemist", the guys of Witchcraft have an ear for a catchy melody and write well-crafted songs that vary in mood, style and levels of seriousness, and their level of musicianship is good and consistent. The early songs on "The Alchemist" are tight and straightforward while later songs are looser and allow for more instrumetnal improvised music with the title track probably having more passages of instrumental music than passages of singing.
Opener "Walking between the lines" is obvious singles material mixing swooping howling guitar riffs, teasing lyrics and bright melodies that hide an ambiguous mood. Another strong song is "If crimson was your colour" which has quite a lot going on: a synth here, an organ there, bright lead guitar melodies and strong driving rhythms. Singer Magnus Pelander has a strong youthful voice with clean pure tones and his enthusiasm is obvious but there are moments on "If crimson ..." and the following song "Leva", the only Swedish-language song on the album, where I suspect he could have gone higher but as it is he stays within his vocal confort zone. This is a pity as the songs become less than what they could have been, which is really passionate and full of feeling.
"Hey Doctor" introduces a more doom metal style of music with repeating Sabbath-style guitar riffs that have a sinister raw tone and a slower pace to the rhythms. Flighty bursts of lead guitar come in at about the halfway point and at this part of the song we probably could have had a few screams or wails from Pelander but once again he stays within the range he is most confident with.
The dark doom mood is maintained in "Samaritan Burden" which paradoxically has some rock-poppy moments especially when the song changes to a higher key and during the later acoustic guitar section. A late last gasp of melodic pop comes with "Remembered" which seems to be a pastiche of all kinds of retro-Seventies music including a bit of jazz rock at the end with the saxophone solo: this is what I'd call the "filler" track as it interrupts an otherwise more serious part of the album and serves as a light breather for the long title piece. In subject matter and style "The Alchemist" is what I guess most people would call stoner rock: the blues-tinged music is loose, spaced-out and sprawling and is aprt to travel in any direction regardless of where it's been before - country western rock (uhh - I can see that old 70s band The Allman Brothers looming on the horizon), folk-like music and melodic rock - yep, Witchcraft aren't afraid to boldly go where everyone else has gone before in the space of 11 minutes! A spacey synth-bubble ambient effect early in the track and other keyboard-based effects placed discreetly around the piece provide an exotic atmosphere to the song.
If Pelander can extend his vocal range to maybe include falsetto or at least be able to sing high notes in the way that, say, Ian Gillan did for Deep Purple and Rob Halford did for mid-70s "Rocka Rolla"-period Judas Priest, that would really boost Witchcraft's chances of becoming better known outside Sweden. The musicians are consistent and confident in their abilities and demonstrate they know and can play in a variety of retro-Seventies music genres so it would be a shame if there was just one thing holding the guys back. I just think Pelander needs to vary his singing more and inject more feeling into what he sings as there's a danger that because he has such a clear, almost boyish singing voice, after a while he can start to sound rather bland and a bit insincere especially when he goes "Whoa!" and "Woh!" at particular points during a song. A technique that was used by some 70s vocalists like Jon Anderson of the English band Yes was to have a blend of their singing voice and speaking voice doing the same lyrics in parallel on the same song and since Pelander's singing voice is comparable to Anderson's voice in tone and clarity, I think this might be something Witchcraft could consider using on future recordings.
With this kind of music, production values are not too big an issue: as long as there's no annoying background hiss, there's no need for a definite atmosphere or feel behind the music and in fact the album has the kind of slightly blunted feel that a lot of vintage 70s rock music has. In keeping with the retro theme, the CD package is a gatefold sleeve, though the artwork on the front does not extend to the back, and there are pictures of fairies, a beautiful but perhaps deadly young witch, birds and vegetation in various stages of life and decay, all tastefully done for a post-70s audience which means no gratuitous female nudity, garish clashing colours and mystical kitsch fluff of the kind found on old record covers like "In Search of the Lost Chord" by the English group The Moody Blues - not everything about that period of retro music is THAT good.
These Swedish blokes who go by the name Witchcraft are heavily influenced by Pentagram(US). Just thought I'd make that clear right at the beginning. They started off as a Pentagram tribute band in 2000. Go to their website and check out the member profiles and see Pentagram being mentioned first thing under influences/favourites and just to strengthen that argument, one listen to this album, their third so far, and we all know where majority of their sound comes from.
Singer-guitarist Magnus Pelander even manages to clone Bobby Leibling's psych and blues tinged vocal style. Hear it especially on Walk Between the Lines. The songs on the other hand are where Witchcraft fortunately venture out of this precinct and come into their own. Some songs here are clear examples of the prototype of doom as played in the late 60s and the early 70s. For example, a lot of Iommi influenced songwriting dynamics can be heard on Hey Doctor, especially when the tempo change happens mid-way through this song. Many others though, showcase their other influences from the same era.
They jam a little, there's a funky vibe to their grooves once in a while, their fluid blues rock-rooted leads are just beautiful in context. To complement their vintage sound, they use vintage equipment and go that extra mile when it comes to warm analog based recording. The production sounds amazingly retro but not dated; all the tones are top-notch.
One thing these guys do differently for a band that has its sound rooted in the late 60s is the usage of two guitars instead of sticking to the power trio format. Listen to these songs on a good pair of earphones and you'll hear the fantastic interplay between the two guitarists throughout this album. Rhythm guitars are multi-tracked even while there's some soloing going on, so it sounds full alright.
The beginning of Samaritan Burden is the band is at its funkiest and the vocal lines on the verse bit almost sounds like Tool on "Third Eye". With such a serene and unexpected ending, this is one of the picks of the album. The multipart epic title song that closes the album out is phenomenal too; acoustic melancholic guitar passages with subtle atmosphere (did I hear some flutes in there too?) and then going into the heavy chorus and back to showering us with a lot more beautifully arranged acoustic parts before returning to the main riff/verse/choruses again.
Special mentions to the moog on the excellent If Crimson Was Your Colour and the saxophone on Remembered; these things add a lot of additional flavour to this band's music.
To sum it all up, these guys do their tributes in style, write great original songs with great production values and are willing to try things out while they're at it. Highly recommended.