Witherscape is the brainchild of two men. One, Ragnar Widerberg you might know from his work in Shadowquest or his very hip mustache. The other, you might know from any one of the literally 715 albums on which he is credited (90 for music performance and the rest for various production duties). That man, Dan Swanö, is a beast of metal. His work in the early to mid 1990s, and what he did for not only Swedish metal but death metal as a global phenomenon, simply cannot be understated.
As of late Swanö has been working primarily with two bands: Nightingale and Witherscape. The former has morphed from a solo gothic project into something of a progressive rock band that might perform at your best friend’s wedding in the basement of your local church. Witherscape has stayed a bit more true to the heavier side. Tracks like “Examiner” may beg to disagree with that statement but, for the most part, The Northern Sanctuary is a work of melodic death metal with progressive touches across the board and plenty of classic Swanö subtleties. And the opening track, with its dissonant keyboards, soul-grabbing lead guitar work and stuck-in-your-head-for-hours chorus is an instant attention grabber.
Unfortunately, tracks like the aforementioned “Examiner” and its follow up “Marionette” have a very languid, mid 1990s feel to them. Laced with keyboard work, syrupy vocals dripping with sap and emotion and big, stacked harmonies, Witherscape is easily seen as a band headed for catchiness and arenas than filthy basements and cavernous industrial spaces. But for all the minor criticism and shade I have just leveled, I can attest that both tracks are saved by excellent guitarwork. The melody and professionalism in the solos cannot be denied. Think of it as Baroness-if-Baroness-was-metal type stuff.
Other tracks, for example “Divinity” and “In the Eyes of Idols” reveal a bit more of an Ihsahn touch. Particularly, “Divinity” with its choir vocals and harmonic keyboards lays out nicely the divergent paths of both Swedish and Norwegian death metal. “In the Eyes of Idols” is full of beefy Ratt-style riffs and drum breaks complete with driving inspirational vocals that are melodic (and even bluesy) despite their shouting nature. It might just be the second most catchy track on the album.
The inexplicable portions of the album include a nearly 14-minute monster title track that doesn’t go anywhere. That seems to have been ripe for release on it’s own but, on an album full of five minutes bangers with hooks, seems to be hurled in from out of nowhere. With The Northern Sanctuary pushing 47 minutes of run time, the title track could have easily been cut down to a quality six minutes without issue. Further compounding the mess is the outro which drops suddenly from a moderately paced dirge into an all out shredding guitars, crashing cymbals exclamation point slapped onto the a sentence not entirely deserving of extreme punctuation.
At this stage of his career Swanö may be spread too thin to spend the time and provide the focus that his projects deserve. And should he ever stop isolating his projects into neatly categorized genre cubes he may have another Edge of Sanity or Moontower on his hands. But, until that happens, he will remain a prolific “quantity over quality” type of musician putting out material languishing in the waters of the mid-1990s. Still, despite its pitfalls, The Northern Sanctuary is indeed a solid work as palatable as a Nilla Wafer.