Shedding the metal and rock entirely, Magnus Pelander waxes philosophical like a Cumberland bluesman.
Words by Tyson Tillotson:
My discovery of WITCHCRAFT is synonymous with my discovery of heavy music itself. While watching Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey in mid-2012, I was introduced to the band BLUE CHEER. Naturally curious, I hopped onto iTunes and also found bands that had a similar sound like WITCHCRAFT and THE SWORD. While THE SWORD quickly became one of my favorites, WITCHCRAFT would keep me enraptured with their retro metal charm. Their self titled debut from 2004 was something that I could not believe had come out of the new millennium. It sounded as if it came straight out of 1972 with its raw production, bluesy riffing and dark lyrical themes. As time went on, I would grow to love subsequent releases like Firewood (2005), The Alchemist (2007) and the then newly released Legend (2012), which catapulted WITCHCRAFT to a new level of recognition. Polished production came as a result of leaving Rise Above Records after The Alchemist to current home Nuclear Blast Records.
Legend stood as a defining cornerstone in the rising stoner rock renaissance and it garnered the band much critical and commercial acclaim. Sadly, we would have to wait four more years for a follow up and during this time, nearly everyone in the band except for Magnus Pelander left the band. Nucleus came in 2016 with a massive overhaul of pure expansive darkness. It remains the longest and heftiest record in WITCHCRAFT’s discography, clocking in at a whopping 74 minutes. The album was also a major stylistic shift in tone for the band as the songs were not only longer as I mentioned before, but they also were much more riff oriented, plus it sounded ten times darker than any previous release. It had a stronger resemblance to old school doom metal rather than psych rock’s bouncy and playful atmosphere. If WITCHCRAFT had called it a day after this release, it would have been a rather interesting way to close out their career, but we come back four years later and we have Black Metal here to grace our ears. However, there's something that many fans will find extremely surprising on an album with a title such as this.
With a title like Black Metal, many probably assumed that Pelander would be taking WITCHCRAFT to its darkest logic conclusion, but it’s not in the way you’d expect. Instead of heavy handed doom riffs and 12 bar blues, the entire album is a minimalist acoustic musing with nothing but Pelander’s voice and a sole guitar. Now you’re probably thinking, “Well if it’s not a metal or rock album, why are you even reviewing it?” in some snotty elitist tone. To that I say, you obviously didn’t read the sign when you came in. This is Heaviest of ART, not Heaviest of Metal or Hardest of Rock. While this album ain’t gonna stand toe to toe with COSMIC PUTREFACTION, ULCERATE or CAUSTIC WOUND, it’s nonetheless heavy in an artistic sense. So with that in mind, shed all preconceived notions of what WITCHCRAFT were and dust off your old folk and acoustic records. It’s about to get really folking heavy.
While this is a very sparse acoustic record with simply voice and guitar, Magnus makes everything blend into a cohesive whole and it’s amazing what he’s able to do with this limited space. One can’t really comment on each individual track since they are all very similar, but I do have to give credit where credit is due. Even though most of the tracks do sound very similar, they do stand out enough to individually send shivers down my spine. While I continued to listen further and further in, I was also reminded of some other classic records that have taken a similar or fully realized approach to the style of acoustic folk music.
One of the initial sounds that immediately comes to mind is of the cult acoustic folk hero NICK DRAKE and his 1972 masterpiece Pink Moon. That album also featured very sparse instrumentation coupled with DRAKE’s husky baritone. On this WITCHCRAFT record, Magnus Pelander has a little bit higher of a register but the effort that he puts into sounding like NICK DRAKE is starkly fascinating and also very heartbreaking. You can hear bits and pieces of that forlorn emotion that they both evoke in their respective records and I have to give Magnus a lot of credit for that.
Another record that comes to mind when approaching Black Metal is ironically ULVER's Kveldssanger (1996). If you know your heavy-metal history, you will know that ULVER decided to break from black metal for a moment to record a fully acoustic folk album with many many touches of European atmosphere and influence. The comparison is obvious seeing the Black Metal album title and what ULVER did with Kveldssanger, which interestingly translates to Twilight Songs as if they're meant to be played at dusk, right before the encroaching darkness of the night. Pelander captures this side of one of black metal's early pioneers and is able to take those ingredients and run with it to create something that is fully his own. not to mention his voice almost sounds eerily similar to Garm’s vocals.
This third comparison might seem like more of a stretch, but hear me out on this one. I’ve heard a lot of people compare Magnus‘ vocals to Robert Plant. I’ve never really been able to hear it fully until I started listening to Black Metal. I’m not talking about how Robert Plant can shriek and howl, but how he croons like the bluesman he was raised as. Magnus is able to take the tender moments of what Plant did on Zeppelin records, more specifically Zeppelin III, to much more depressed pastures. Keep in mind, he’s coming from more of a doom metal background rather than a rock background in that he’s able to invoke more of a bleak outlook than Plant did.
While most will see that Black Metal contains zero traces of metal, true fans will see that Magnus Pelander has once again put his emotions on the line in a much more personable and haunting way. I was admittedly kind of upset that this was going to be nothing more than a glorified Unplugged session, but I dug into the music much more than I initially thought. It took me to the depths of a man’s broken soul and carried me away to a place that bleeds emotion. In the words Magnus Pelander penned for It’s Not Because of You, “I’m still in love with what I do.” As long as he’s happy, or sad, I’ll be there for whatever WITCHCRAFT conjures.
Black Metal is available now via Nuclear Blast Records. Get your copy HERE.