When the Screams Come...
Magnus Pelander formed Witchcraft in 2000 with the ambition of creating a one-off homage to Pentagram’s ghostly enigma Bobby Liebling and the psychedelic sultan known as Roky Erickson—two artists whom he had a profound respect for. But from the moment tribute single “No Angel or Demon” was heard by Lee Dorrian (head of English record label Rise Above), Witchcraft began to flower into a band capable of lifting the hearts of those dismayed by sterile, modern recordings and bands who lack substance in both sound and content. Just like their forefathers in Black Sabbath, Witchcraft hold a certain aura—a quaint manner shrouded by a peculiar spectre that hides in the darkness almost bordering on the occult, but in no way expressively so. There is a sense of foreboding found within the lyrics and to a lesser extent—the music. Such observations mainly come from the reserved way in which they conduct themselves, their look, and how they were seemingly conjured and arrived in a cloud of mystery. And this intrigue has added to Witchcraft’s appeal without overshadowing the brilliance found in their music.
Eight years after the release of their eponymous debut, Witchcraft are set to de-robe their long-awaited fourth LP Legend this September, via Nuclear Blast—five years after their last album The Alchemist. In conjunction with this anticipated release, Metal Blade have reissued their three LPs—and in doing so—have thankfully re-illuminated Witchcraft’s doomy, psych-infused rock for the benefit of those who may have missed the magical Swedes the first time round.
Upon its release in 2004, debut Witchcraft was a breath of fresh air and even though it was solely intended to be a tribute to Pentagram (“Please Don’t Forget Me” and “Yes I Do” were written by Bobby Liebling), it has since proved a factor in the resurgence in popularity of vintage doom/psychedelic rock. This LP has also been publicised as being the catalyst for reunion of supergroup Down, who re-bonded over their love for what they heard and promoted Witchcraft with fan-boy fervour. From the second Pelander announces “Witchcraft: take one,” the band take you on a charming trip through corridors of smoky riffs, with Pelander’s aloof caterwaul leading the way. In stark contrast to the soulless production that was becoming more prevalent at the time of its release, Witchcraft wraps itself in warm, welcoming tones indicative of the ‘70s rock and proto-doom—a musty sound which thinly veils the guitars, accentuates the looseness of the rhythm section and rounds off the vintage vibes of the album. All of this comes adorned by the aesthetically pleasing print called “Merlin” by Aubrey Beardsley for a 1893-94 edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; a cover which looks as if it was fashioned solely for the album and perfectly captures the essence of the band in one distinctive image.
Witchcraft’s second album Firewood—released in 2005—swiftly followed suit and naturally clutched the sound they summoned on their debut; the production is crisp yet remains true to the spirit of analog production. The songs that shape Firewood are tightly structured and reveal a band in the midst of moving their song-writing past the overt Pentagram worship. But as a result of sharpening their approach, there is definitely some mystique mislaid and Firewood loses the nonchalant allure of the debut. It is also a much bluesier affair; opener “Chylde of Fire” and “If Wishes Were Horses” both work with increased tempos and are less introspective that what preceded them—clearly Witchcraft attempting to try something different within the context of their sound. But it is the folkish gloom of “Sorrow Evoker” that looms large as Firewood‘s highlight, and its addition was a distinct precursor to the esoteric transmutation that transpired on The Alchemist.
The Alchemist is the pinnacle of Witchcraft’s career; thus far. A progressive rock masterwork removed of the swollen self-indulgence that can detrimentally affect the genre. It is Witchcraft fully realizing their potential power and its run time—which barely crosses forty minutes—shows how focused they were on honing and progressing their song-writing; nothing is out of place on this album. The doom influence that powered the previous two albums is cleverly augmented by a sumptuous blend of prog, folk, and 13th Floor Elevators-style psychedelia/garage rock, and the heart of this album beats vigorously because of this deeper pool of inspiration. Confidence is the word that encapsulates The Alchemist; it can be heard in everyone one of Pelander’s distinctive, heavily accented vocal melodies—truly singing his heart out and aiming it right at the listener for the first time in his career. It can also be heard in the adventurous instrumentation: the surging “If Crimson Was Your Colour” partners the thrilling use of organ to some fruitful lead work from John Hoyles; “Walk Between the Lines” bolters Janssons’ beats with bongos; “Remembered” sees guest musician Anders Andersson release a jazzy sax solo that wafts into Witchcraft’s career climax—“The Alchemist”: a mind-blowing three part suite that is as enchanting as it is engrossing.
The proverbial gauntlet has been laid down ahead of fourth album Legend and it will take a herculean effort from Witchcraft—who have gone through a large line-up shuffle with only Pelander and bassist Ola Henriksson remaining— to surpass, if even match what they attained on The Alchemist. But as we wait to see what surprises are in store on their forthcoming album, these three re-issues provide ample sustenance for those wanting to discover/revisit a band who eschew contemporary traits and act as a portal to the days of yore when genres outside of rock were nascent, and when songs were enveloped by a haze of other-worldliness and earthy tradition, untarnished by the trappings of the digital age.