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Well-crafted retro-70s doom metal / stoner rock - 80%

NausikaDalazBlindaz, November 26th, 2007

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.