Somewhere in the north of Sweden, there is a bed and breakfast . . . from hell!
At least, I think that’s the gist of The Northern Sanctuary, the second album by Witherscape, which continues a tale begun on the band’s first album and their subsequent EP. The lyrics come courtesy of Paul Kuhr of November’s Doom; the music is all Dan Swanö (the great, I am tempted to add) and Ragnar Widerberg (the aggressively mustachioed, according to images on their website), with a couple of guests. Swanö, of course, has recorded and performed with many bands, and produced many others.
But let’s not have him overshadow Widerberg: both are Swedes who are very good at playing several instruments and have a knack for music at the intersection of death metal and prog—heavy, punishing moments embedded in songs that, overall, are fairly easy on the ears. At first, I wondered if Swanö pulled this one off from soup to nuts, as he’s done in the past (on his solo album Moontower, for instance, or, nearly alone, on Edge of Sanity’s Crimson II). But The Northern Sanctuary is a team effort, and Widerberg is responsible for the stringed instruments while Swanö handles vocals, drums, and keyboards. Their cohesion is impressive, despite the band’s built-in tension between melodic impulses and grittier urges—the kind of tension that sinks many a lesser band when it’s handled clumsily or too conventionally. But, as a duo, Swanö and Widerberg know what they want and how to get there: they sound confident, balanced, and—an appraisal I found myself returning to as I listened and re-listened—tasteful.
Fans of Opeth, perhaps not surprisingly, will find much to like on The Northern Sanctuary—especially fans who miss that band’s aggressive side. But if Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt seems to be always channeling a certain elegant, moody strain of Seventies prog, Swanö’s heart belongs to a riffier, somewhat kitschier classic heavy metal sound. Listen to his band Nightingale and you’ll know what I mean, or just listen to his vocals here. When it comes to bowel-rumbling death growls, Swanö is no slouch—he lets it rip with the best of them. But he’ll often switch to a clean register that, depending on your perspective, is either tuneful and earnest or irredeemably cheesy. I belong to the first camp, but I get it: when Swanö bellows out certain lines, it’s sometimes impossible not to imagine him striking a particular pose, his eyes squeezed shut, head uplifted, a single clenched fist raised skyward, yowling into the mic. You’re either on board with this kind of thing or you aren’t (though to doubters I say, the appeal of metal is in the indulgences it offers—to be hostile, misanthropic, whatever—but the best of these is the indulgence of being willfully cheesy).
Speaking of indulgences, keyboards suffuse this album, mostly unobtrusively, conjuring textures of unease, filling out Widerberg’s more angular riffs, or providing searing leads. But Witherscape is occasionally guilty of prog metal’s ubiquitous sin: overloading perfectly good songs with big, syrupy chords and irritating melodies. Then again, who am I to tell Dan Swanö to go easy on the keyboards? After all, The Northern Sanctuary is loaded with subtle hooks and inviting passages thanks to Swanö’s musical sensibilities, matched with Widerberg’s astute and intuitive—but never showy—guitar work. The album is a surprisingly restrained and deeply enjoyable variation on the melodic-death-meets-prog sound that Swanö has approached from various angles through his entire career. In Widerberg, he has a valuable partner, and in The Northern Sanctuary, Witherscape has crafted a real achievement . . . from hell!