The Alchemist, the third studio album from Swedish rockers Witchcraft, was a direct encapsulation of psychedelic rock at its most essential. The feeling of exhilaration the record imparted on those who embraced it was akin to discovering some musty ‘70s gem at a flea market, bringing the moth-eaten cover and dusty vinyl home, placing it in your turntable, and to your surprise—being taken on a magical trip that visited the sophisticated, charismatic and exotic world of psychedelic rock and picturesque prog, distilled into a vital 40 minutes. It was its peculiar individuality that made The Alchemist such a delightful surprise, especially when compared the band’s Pentagram-heavy predecessors, not to mention the entire landscape of metal and heavy rock. In short, the record was a complete breath of fresh air. Witchcraft reached a zenith with this record, and it was if The Alchemist’s line-up, led by Magnus Pelander, realized this and splintered (although there was probably less romantic reasoning behind the split). Guitarist John Hoyles moved onto Spiders; a rather exciting garage rock band who released a barn-burner of an albumFlash Point this year. He also joined Troubled Horse alongside Witchcraft bassist Ola Henriksson, who in the aftermath of The Alchemist is the only other member to remain in Witchcraft besides Pelander.
This leads us to Legend, Witchcraft’s fourth studio release and first for the mammoth metal label, Nuclear Blast (the band having left the retro-womb of Rise Above). With a new cast of cohorts—Tom Jondelius (guitars), Simon Solomon (guitars) and Oscar Johansson (drums) —joining Pelander and Henriksson in the Witchcraft camp, it seems like a new beginning for the band. Not only that, Legend sounds like a new beginning. However, in the context of being the follow up to The Alchemist, initially, this record sounds like a massive disappointment. Gone is the vintage production that made Witchcraft sound so alluring, and shoved in its place is a modern and muscular sound courtesy of Jens Bogren. This isn’t the only change, however. The psychedelia and progressive rock leanings are non- existent—no Jethro Tull-style explorations, no Nuggets of 13th Floor Elevators. It’s change that will stick in the craw of that those who worshipped Witchcraft’s 2007 masterpiece. It’s a change that may even lead to past fans to tar Witchcraft as a band that has lost what made it exceptional. But it’s also a change that may draw in a fresh crowd of followers, and if given the opportunity of repeat listens, will endeavour to satisfy those who were disheartened initially.
Witchcraft has made a point never to make the same record twice—just compare each record and there are notable differences with each. This is a hard thing to remember when you subconsciously compare the masculine saunter of “Deconstruction” with the lithe “Walk Between the Lines”. But judged objectively “Deconstruction” is as good an opener as Witchcraft has ever produced. Songwriting nous and vocal hooks are key to unlocking Legend: Pelander’s eccentric vocal style will always make Witchcraft sound like Witchcraft, whether the instrumentation is heaving during the classy “Flag of Fate” or tenderly whispering in your ear during the fragile moments of “Dystopia”. And now that he has two guitarists taking the weight of that instrument off his hands, Pelander has unified his focus on song-craft and confident vocal melodies. Granted it does take patience to notice this, but if time is spend, the original feeling of deflation is replaced by elation for the persistent vocal melodies, as heard best on lead single “It’s Not Because of You”—one of the songs on Legend where the instrumentation and vocals soar together; the power of which cannot be denied.
Heavy-sounding, well constructed songs are the name of the game here, and for the most part the new line-up have a great understanding of what is required to pull this off. Sure, they lack the sleight of hand of the The Alchemist players, but within the confines of the Tommy Petty-esque “An Alternative to Freedom” and the winding “Ghosts House” these guys follow the master plan with aplomb. “White Light Suicide” is by far the most interesting and dynamically sounding of the nine (ten if you include bonus “By Your Definition”). In fact, it stands as one of the strongest songs Witchcraft has ever written. Its gentler verses are brimming with intricacies mostly stemming from the Dire Straits influenced guitars and Johansson’s hi-hat patterns and tom fills, but the kick when the song takes off is truly levelling, even greater so when Witchcraft spiral into monstrous doom riffs with Pelander delivering the lines: “Walk courageously into the fire ... Magic ritualistic funeral pyre” with some real aggression—an emotion not normally associated with him. It’s a show-stopper which cannot be outshined.
This impression is cemented on closer “Dead End”—which happens to be the longest song here and is appropriately titled—the band stumbling through its unnecessary 12 minute running time, and considering the scope and ground covered on the title track from the last album (which ran just two minutes longer than “Dead End”) it comes up short and fails to retain attention. For past fans of Witchcraft, sure it’s acceptable to be infuriated with this record, and because of such initial disappointment dismiss it entirely, but if you can manage to peer over the monumental summit of The Alchemist, and overlook Legend’s modern approach and occasional missteps, Witchcraft’s assured song-writing will eventually win you over. This is a record worth spending time with.
// Notes from the Road
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