(DGR provides this extended review of the new second album by Sweden’s Witherscape.)
Witherscape’s debut album The Inheritance is one of those albums where I’m not sure where the internet fell on it as a whole. Usually you can get a pretty good sense of the fan consensus around albums a while after release, once we’ve all gotten off of the shiny new high and hindsight takes over. But The Inheritance is one of those rare albums where it seems like some folks really loved it and others were content to look at it as an interesting experiment with some odd quirks. I fell into the latter camp.
I thought The Inheritance had some incredible highs but overall it felt a bit like Witherscape were throwing caution to the wind, which is an awesome thing for a new project, but by the same token it also means that some parts just don’t work together. However, with a release like that comes the ability to analyze what really worked for you and what didn’t. If done correctly, a followup disc could make a band like this sound stronger than ever before and really execute upon the premise that (in this case) Witherscape was founded upon — which admittedly, I’m not quite sure of to this day.
Witherscape traverse the strange realm that Barren Earth did, which is an off-kilter mix of prog-rock and death metal combined with elements of folk metal harmonies, leading to some synth-heavy death metal, hard driving at times and rotating between clean singing and full-on growling. It is a very melodious style that is hard to pin down. You want to drop the term “progressive death metal” on it, but that is a scene that has been so amorphous for the last decade or so that prog-death gets slapped on anything that either a) has long songs or b) isn’t an extremely rigid throwback act. If you bring any sort of other element into it, then the genre itself becomes a wash and you become prog-death.
Late July saw Witherscape release their second album, The Northern Sanctuary, and revealed the duo of Ragnar Widerberg and Dan Swanö really pulling off the aforementioned premise of what Witherscape is supposed to be. It is an exceptionally strong followup to The Inheritance that has the band nailing down exactly what worked for them and, for most of the disc, using those strengths as guidelines to write some absolutely killer music, with the occasional experiment proving they’re still brave enough to try something new.
To Witherscape’s credit, not a lot of bands are doing what they are doing and so it becomes difficult to try and draw comparisons to other bands without feeling like you’re discrediting the full work of Northern Sanctuary or desperately trying to slam a square peg into a round hole. Northern Sanctuary hammers that distinctiveness home, and much more strongly than The Inheritance did. It takes all the elements of the previous disc and forges nine songs into a pretty well-rounded forty-five minutes of music — with an odd bump here and there.
Like a lot of albums, Northern Sanctuary is a little front-loaded — with a lot of the more musically playful stuff located in its middle and the back parts going for a more epic tone, with the title track clearing the thirteen-minute mark with ease. Witherscape’s oddness does play out almost immediately, though, with opener “Wake Of Infinity” and its criminally catchy vocal work. The song is defined by its horror-movie-worthy keyboard track as the running undercurrent for the whole song, but on top of that you have Swanö rotating between a thick death metal yell and a much stronger clean singing performance than before. He was good on that front on The Inheritance, but on Northern Sanctuary he really lends credence to the idea that he can belt it out and he really goes for it in the opening moments of “Wake Of Infinity”.
Following track “In The Eyes Of Idols” is a faster-moving song that expounds upon the poppier side of “Wake Of Infinity”. To put it in my grandfather’s terms, if there were a song on Northern Sanctuary that could be defined as a toe-tapper, it’s probably “In The Eyes Of Idols”. The song continues the interplay of clean and death metal vocals, which is pretty much the vocal formula for the first handful of songs, but “Eyes Of Idols” is more classically guitar-driven than its predecessor.
The song following it, “Rapture Ballet”, is the first time when Witherscape get “heavy” in all of their instrumentation, but you can also hear a Dream Theater-style keyboard/guitar combination as they worm their way up and down a wall of notes, going full prog-metal for a bit. However, “Rapture Ballet” is the part of the opening three songs that really sets the precedent for the rest of Northern Sanctuary, although Witherscape give in to an urge to write balladry in the middle of the disc, with “The Examiner” and “Marionette” feeling like two sides of the same coin, both built upon sweeping chorus sections and hefty keyboard work. The difference lies in their vocal approaches, with Swanö belting it out on “The Examiner” and then growling it out on “Marionette”. The songs are similar in run-time as well, with “Examiner” being about twenty seconds longer, but the whole ten-minute block feels like the lighters-in-the-sky, power-chorus-fueled seciton of the disc.
I can, however, vouch for “Divinity” wiping a lot of that off the table if that’s not your speed of metal. “Divinity” is one of the better songs in the back section of Northern Sanctuary, returning to the guitar-driven efforts of “In The Eyes Of Idols”, though its lead melody is probably the catchier part of the song, especially as it sounds like a classic twin-guitar lead. “Divinity” is more classically prog in its keyboard aspects, but the guitar gallop is pulled from mid-tempo Judas Priest. It’s a slower and hammering song, but the guitar melody bits really elevate the track as a whole to make it one of the highlights of Northern Santuary.
One band that Witherscape do seem to draw the occasional comparison to is Opeth, though to be fair, you can’t really fall under the prog-death genre umbrella without drawing a few of those comparisons. I can somewhat see it, as the comparison relies a lot on the vocalists — in both cases you have prog-minded bands fronted by strong death metal growlers who have great singing voices to boot. Witherscape’s heavier keyboard emphasis is different from Opeth’s though, and I think that comes into the picture more so on the title track to Northern Sanctuary, which is a dynamic and intensely interesting song.
It’s hard not to stay locked in to that whole song because it really does travel places. On the keyboard front, though, Witherscape’s work feels more synth-based, and contains a lot more classic piano than Opeth has used, where that band has recently fallen heavily into a mood-fueled reverie for its last few albums. Witherscape again feel more like Dream Theater on that front, though a lot less wall-of-notes-focused than Petrucci and company. That said, the title track is a proper prog-metal epic, taking everything that makes up Witherscape as a band and ramping it up exponentially.
“Northern Sanctuary” is one of the few songs on the album you could legitimately describe as a journey, and it’s a fun trip to take. The vocal lines are some of the most enjoyable on the disc and the rapid switching from metric-fuckton heavy to light acoustic guitar and sweeping chorus happens constantly. The whole song just builds and builds to a pyrotechnic conclusion. One listen to “Northern Sanctuary” (the song) and you can see why they chose to name the whole album after it.
What makes Northern Sanctuary such an enjoyable release is that it really does feel like the band have come into their own and have found what works for them. There’s a couple of oddballs on the disc as a whole, but nothing so odious as to ruin a whole run-through, and much of the music on the album rocks really hard. You have a title track that is killer from front-to-back and an opening three songs that are fantastic introductions to the styles with which Witherscape build their “Sanctuary”. While I thought that The Inheritance was an interesting release, Northern Sanctuary is the album where Witherscape have really won me over with sweeping songwriting that jumps from style to style so fluidly that you’d think the band had a black belt in all of them. Northern Sanctuary is the exact opposite of a sophomore-slump disc; it is instead potential fulfilled, and then some.
The Northern Sanctuary is out now on Century Media.