Album: The Northern Sanctuary
Label: Century Media
Progressive death metal duo Witherscape’s debut album, The Inheritance (2013), was my introduction to the wonderful world of the multi-talented Dan Swanö, whose projects I’ve been following ever since then. After 3 years, he and partner in crime Ragnar Widerberg return with another concept album. The main character of The Northern Sanctuary is “the man in white,” who has bought the estate where the events of The Inheritance took place. He rents out rooms in the house to other people, but things start to go awry when the man is possessed by the evil entity haunting the place.
In the promo bio, Swanö name-checks “Dead for a Day,” “Astrid Falls,” and “The Math of the Myth” from the debut as the songs whose direction he wanted to explore further while adding in new elements. This comment isn’t baseless, as the melodicism of those songs has clearly paved the way for a lot of the material on The Northern Sanctuary, and the role of keyboards is stronger this time around. I don’t mind though, as the aforementioned three tunes were among my favorites from the debut.
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The opening pair, “Wake of Infinity” and “In the Eyes of Idols,” sums up the Witherscape sound fairly well: besides tight riffing, haunting chords, and double bass drumming, there’s room for clean guitar bits, rocking solos, and sing-along choruses. “Rapture Ballet” starts off in a ‘Rush meets death metal’ style, reminiscent of Swanö’s solo album, Moontower (1998), before moving on to an Opeth-y triplet section. “The Examiner,” on the other hand, is a beautifully melancholic tune for the most part and has an anthemic chorus that is a guaranteed earworm. A special mention has got to be given to Swanö’s performance behind the mic – plenty of melodic death metal vocalists know how to growl like a demon and sing like an angel, but few of them handle raspy rock singing as skilfully as Swanö does.
“Marionette” is a Nightingale-sounding track, but the AOR synth strings in its chorus are contrasted by growling. The combination sounds tacky on paper, but it works brilliantly. The song concludes with a glorious solo that you can imagine Widerberg playing on a mountaintop while the sun is setting – simply epic! The heaviest song is the fast “Divinity,” which is followed by the slower “God of Ruin.” The ambitious 14-minute title-track is the album’s culmination point that includes both the prettiest and the heaviest parts of the album, as well as a short Gothic bit with whispered vocals in vein of Nightingale’s The Breathing Shadow (1995). Long songs can be risky – sometimes either too repetitive or chaotic – but Witherscape manages to craft an adventurous yet cohesive musical journey. “Vila i frid” is a piano outro that closes the album in a similar fashion as the title-track did on The Inheritance.
Although I’m a fan of melodies and there are no weak points on the album, I feel like it would benefit from having another aggressive and riff-oriented track, especially since Swanö’s growling voice is in such fine shape. That said, this is just a minor complaint, and it’s possible that the storyline simply doesn’t warrant more songs in that style – one of the downsides of listening to an advance promo is that you don’t get to read the lyrics. Either way, The Northern Sanctuary is a continuation of Dan Swanö’s creative renaissance and far from a sophomore slump for Witherscape. Hopefully the dynamic duo will extend the saga into a trilogy!
Rating: 8½/10, 4½ stars
1. Wake of Infinity
2. In the Eyes of Idols
3. Rapture Ballet
4. The Examiner
7. God of Ruin
8. The Northern Sanctuary
9. Vila i frid
Text: Ville Karttunen | Ed: Amy Wiseman | Photos: Witherscape The Northern Sanctuary promotional photos, 2016