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Album review: Witchcraft – Black Metal

Black Metal is an intimate journey into the psyche of Magnus Pelander that, while well-performed, fails to resonate in its bleak isolation

Magnus Pelander originally put Witchcraft together in 2000 to do a one-song tribute to Bobby Liebling’s Pentagram, but it soon grew into a fully-fledged project that has taken on a life of its own. A leading light in the unofficial occult rock boom, they have astounded and delighted fans with the five albums they have released, each a progression on the last that has resulted in a sound all of their own. Their 2016 album, ‘Nucleus’ (their second release on Nuclear Blast Records – they were previously a gem on the Rise Above roster), was a heavier, doomier affair that laid into the riffs and gave the impression that Witchcraft were headed in a darker direction. As always, Pelander does what satisfies him artistically regardless of popular opinion or desire, and their new album is the direct opposite of ‘Nucleus’ if anything.

‘Black Metal’ (a completely mystifying title) is, on its most basic level, Pelander and a single guitar doing a completely acoustic collection of songs. Stripped down to bare bones with very little interference, we find him in a very melancholy mood, and each of the seven tracks appears to be him in front of a microphone utilising the first take. There is a lot of ambient sound (pick scrapes, movement in the room) and you can even hear him shifting around on his chair, but this all adds to the atmosphere of dropping the listener in the studio; intimate and emotional. His voice has always been a main attraction in Witchcraft music and it soars when he hits the ground running, even if he does waver somewhat in the quieter, lower-register moments. The guitar work is melodic and sparse, well-played and deeply personal, with little to no embellishment or flash.

The songs tend to get a little samey after a while, saved only by the warmth of the vocals and lyrical richness (but even in the short 33-minute run-time become a bit much). There is a striking similarity overall to the work of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith at their most personal, but this music lacks the invitation to become emotionally involved. Pelander is showing us around his innermost thoughts and feelings, but we don’t seem to be able to get to grips with them, this being more of an ‘I’m sad, but I can’t tell you why’ affair.

The opening song, Elegantly Expressed Depression, gives us an idea of the direction in which we’re heading. It’s sombre, quiet, and dripping with fragility, but it’s as if he’s showing us around his inner sanctuary without any reference; a collection of antiques and curios that we can look at but are not allowed to touch in case we break them (and then, as everyone in retail knows, we have to buy them). A Boy And A Girl is the shortest track and feels like a morose country ballad, complete with infused blues, and could have been the most interesting piece on here if it was fleshed out a bit more. The rest of the album flows with the same melancholic tone and slow, delicate pace, but once again, remains impenetrable and oppressive, and somewhat forgettable. The only saving grace is the lush vocal that gives off a murder ballad quality, but even that’s not enough to make it an experience that you would like to return to. And therein lies the glaring issue.

Ultimately, ‘Black Metal’ is a solo Pelander record and possibly should have been presented as such, as it will most probably confuse and bum out the rabid Witchcraft fans. If there had been some fluctuation of dynamics and light within the darkness, it could have carried the melancholy and made it a more listenable album but, as it sits, is a tough and fairly boring listen that shares painfully little. With repeated listens, it actually drags more and the attention-level drops out quicker each time, even for die-hard fans of Nick Drake. It will be interesting to see where Witchcraft head in the future with this as an official release – if they incorporate the gloomy vibe and acoustic fragility into their creepy 70s doom, it would make for some truly exciting listening. As it is, unfortunately, ‘Black Metal’ fails to make a connection and is impenetrably morose.

★★✩✩✩

FFO: Graveyard, Blood Ceremony, Acid King

Black Metal is out now via Nuclear Blast

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