Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary – Album Review

Witherscape_-_The_Northern_Sanctuary_-_Cover

Artist: Witherscape

Album Title: The Northern Sanctuary

Label: Century Media Records

Date Of Release: 22 July 2016

Despite loving melodic death metal, I have to admit that there are very few bands within the genre that write music that stays lodged in my head for hours and hours after the music has stopped spinning. Early In Flames, mid-era Dark Tranquillity and recent Omnium Gatherum are a few of these artists but, to that list, you can now add the name Witherscape. Sophomore release ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is one of those records that I find myself humming and whistling with great gusto long after I have reluctantly pressed the ‘stop’ button. Mind you, that’s hardly surprising, not when I offer a bit of context around this particular band.

You see, Witherscape is the latest band that the hugely talented multi-instrumentalist Dan Swanö has put his name to. The chances are that if you are a fan of extreme or underground metal, this name will already be familiar to you. The drummer, keyboardist and vocalist has been around the scene for a while now, involved in the likes of Edge Of Sanity, Bloodbath and Nightingale .On top of this, Swanö has also assisted in some form or another with a frighteningly impressive list of artists, including Katatonia, Ghost and Incision. And that’s without mentioning the amazing solo album ‘Moontower’ or his impressive resume as a producer (Unisound). The guy’s talents literally know no bounds.

With Witherscape, Swanö has teamed up with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ragnar Widerberg (Shadowquest) who offers his skills with the guitar and bass on this record. And, rather unsurprisingly, the results are nothing short of marvellous.

However, to refer to Witherscape as purely a melodic death metal is a little misleading and slightly disingenuous as well. Theirs is a hybrid of styles that borrows from 90s death metal, melodic rock, AOR, progressive rock as well as classic metal and even an occasional touch of thrash for good measure. Blend into the mix a fair amount of atmospherics courtesy of Swano’s bold keyboard style and it’s fair to say that my mouth begins to water at the prospect.

After a short, eerie intro that segues into a slow and menacing section, ‘Wake Of Infinity’ suddenly burst into life in furious fashion. Led by some great riffs a pleasing tempo and some gruff vocals to die for, this is extreme metal nectar with an unashamed feel of yesteryear. Swanö really is blessed with a fabulously gritty and rumbling gruff delivery, the kind of sound that all of us wannabe growlers wish we could create. But then, as the track develops, out of nowhere comes a melody to raise the hairs on your neck dominated by a commanding and melodious clean croon. That’s not all because there’s time for an atmospheric and contemplative section that borders on ambient minimalism before the heaviness is reintroduced. The class of both Swanö and Widerberg is stamped all over this track and it sets the album in motion in superb fashion.

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‘In The Eyes Of Idols’ follows and it’s a no-nonsense, adrenaline-fuelled romp of a track with strong extreme metal-meets-hard rock overtones to it. Once again, Swanö blends his growls with his rich cleaner delivery whilst Widerberg offers more super riffing to get my head nodding forcefully, as well as injecting some tasty and soulful lead guitar work. The chorus has more hooks than a fishing trawler and the synths come to the fore much more.

This high quality continues throughout the remaining seven tracks with no filler material whatsoever. ‘Rapture Ballet’ for example, reminds me a little of the early material from the much-loved and much-missed Sentenced in terms of the melodies, the guitar tones and the vocal delivery.

That said, what follows is arguably even better. ‘The Examiner’ is an absolute beast of a track that sees Swanö utilise his clean vocals almost exclusively to devastating effect. This track is a ballad of sorts that enters on a delicate piano melody and is soon joined by Swanö’s passionate voice that sends shivers down my spine. The introduction of Widerberg’s acoustic guitars is a lovely touch that adds an added layer of textured sophistication whereas later in the song, the riff is fantastic and highly memorable. There’s even a demonstrable progressive feel to the piece as it gathers together an interesting collection of ideas, delivering it in a smooth and unfussy manner. But again, the high point of the composition comes courtesy of the chorus which I simply can’t get out of my head as much as I try.

‘Marionette’ follows and is perhaps my favourite track on the album currently. Again it begins in quiet fashion accompanied by some delightfully soft and sensitive vocals. And then the chorus hits. I love the juxtaposition within it between some of Swanö’s most brutal vocals and an insanely catchy melody, which borders on AOR and that’s drenched in almost romantic-sounding synths. The entire song is utterly magnificent and completely addictive.

The other big highlight on ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is the near 14-minute title track. It is here where Widerberg and Swanö really unfurl their songwriting wings. A direct response to none-too-kind social media comments and apparently inspired by some of the epic tracks from Helloween and Queensryche, it is frightening how quickly the track runs its course. Incorporating more strong melodies with a more adventurous all-round structure, it is the most progressive that Witherscape have ever sounded. And yet, once again, it sounds homogenous and smooth.

Ushered in via sounds akin to a baby’s lullaby and then followed by some creepy synth sounds, the song flirts with a myriad of different styles and textures in very clever fashion. Passages of quiet introspection are bulldozed out of the way by frenetic and savage-sounding guitar riffs whilst flamboyant lead guitar and keyboard work segues into powerful melodic sections complete with more soothing clean vocals. Drama drips from every pore whilst there’s an almost childlike joy that permeates the composition as if the duo are revelling in the removal of the shackles and the subsequent controlled excess that surrounds them. 14 minutes long it may be, but blink and you miss it. Or so it feels anyway.

The album closes via a short but satisfying piano instrumental by the name of ‘Vil I Frid’. And, although I’d have loved more, this feels like the perfect ending to a fantastic record. ‘The Northern Sactuary’ contains a little bit of everything that I like in my metal these days. Yes it’s heavy but if you take the time to take a close listen to the music of Witherscape, you’ll hear so much more. ‘The Northern Sanctuary’ is a beautiful album that blends the extremity of death metal with so many wonderfully engaging sounds and textures. Oh and I guarantee you’ll be humming several of these tracks for weeks on end. You have been warned.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.2

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

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Tilt – Hinterland
Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight
Wolverine – Machina Viva
Be’lakor – Vessels
Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Big Big Train – Folklore
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

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One thought on “Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary – Album Review

  1. Denys

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