For a band that’s been around more than a dozen years, there’s precious little information available about Witchcraft. Allmusic offers only a couple of paragraphs, Wikipedia offers those same paragraphs, the band’s website is more or less an order form and Encyclopedia Metallum barely makes the distinction between two different Swedish bands named Witchcraft. Hell, the band’s digital press release that comes with the album from Nuclear Blast doesn’t even have the band members’ names on it. So who is Witchcraft, and what are we doing here?
Not to retrace the few widely known facts about the band, but the band began as a one-off project to record a single in tribute to old-school psychedelic rock/metallers Pentagram. That accomplished, it remains cloudy whether or not anyone intended the project to move along farther than that. Nonetheless, the band was signed to Rise Above records, released a few albums, and those albums were recently re-released by Metal Blade (as you saw on this site earlier this year.) Now, with a contract from Nuclear Blast in hand, the band is returned following a five-year hiatus to release their newest work, “Legend” onto the world. So that answers the first question.
The answer to the second question is that we’re here because Witchcraft exists to remind us of two very important things. Firstly, that heavy metal not need always be fast, abrasive and crunchy; that mood and form and mystery can be just as essential to the metal experience as guitar and attitude. Secondly, that rock and roll exists in complicated and intricate forms having nothing to do with machismo, puffery and the exhausting search for the ultimate party. (Corollary: we should really close the book on party rock. It’s been eleven years since Andrew WK’s “I Get Wet,” and no one has done party rock better since. Let’s all admit this and save ourselves some time. Looking at you, Buck Cherry.)
Witchcraft is always branded by the flimsy label of “doom,” but that subgenre requires hallmark dirges and slogging marches that “Legend” simply doesn’t have. I say that not as an insult; the album would be no better with them. I mention it simply as a clarification.
The label that does stick to Witchcraft’s new effort is “psychedelic rock,” and while that’s hardly the principle ingredient in the rock and metal stew, it may be the most important. The note-bending and paradigm shifting that takes place within single tracks on “Legend” are what serves to separate the album from bands occupying similar territory such as Grand Magus. Listen to album opener “Deconstruction” to hear a song that begins with the same exact vocal cadence as Anthrax’s “Refuse to be Denied,” but ends on an altogether different tone, dropping the bass down and powering through the finish line.
Further evidence comes at the halfway point of the album, as “Ghosts House” uses a repetition that’s just far enough off-base to create a unique, unbalanced feeling appropriate for the song’s title and theme. While perhaps not the toe-tappingest song on the playlist, “Ghosts House” is undoubtedly the most interesting.
What impresses the most about Witchcraft isn’t their evolution and maturation over the course of their musical lifetime (though there it that, too,) but their flexibility within their chosen idiom. “Legend” showcases four or five different styles of songwriting, from the moment-to-moment emotional appeal of “It’s Not Because of You,” to the sleepy-eyed buildup of “Democracy.”
When not writing songs in any particular vein, Witchcraft’s album, particularly tracks like “Flag of Fate,” can sound like an imitation of Ronnie James Dio’s best solo work. While vocalist Magnus Pelander can’t stretch to the range or appeal of Dio’s singular talent, he can faithfully reproduce the kind of clear-cut, no effect vocal performance that is easy and clean to the ear. Meanwhile, the band is fully capable of pumping out some straight-ahead, rock influenced metal without succumbing to the flavors of modern rock. It’s a nice combination.
Like any effort of this nature however, Witchcraft can get awfully lost if they get off track without a direction. Album closer “Dead End” is anything but, lingering over the course of a twelve minute runtime. As an exploratory rock effort, the meaning is lost for whole songs, and the album gets drowned in its own analog wanderlust.
Apart from that, “Legend” is a musically accomplished album without being a wholly engaging one. From a listenability standpoint, it’s easy to tune Witchcraft out, particularly in their weaker moments, and I found it difficult to concentrate on the album if it wasn’t the sole focus of my attention. The conspicuous absence of smashing and banging, while a welcome change among rock/metal artists, does undeniably leave the album without a signature hook. “Legend” is written more for quiet rooms with black lights than it is popping in the car stereo on a road trip.
Witchcraft has done some growing up between the albums Metal Blade re-released earlier this year and the one Nuclear Blast is releasing now. They are musically more diverse and imaginative, but the double-edged sword is that they're simply not as catchy. Listeners should at least check this album out to hear a record that displays rock and roll without being pumped full of bullshit, and is genuinely musically interesting. Be advised though, “Legend” may not be for everyday listening.