Released: 2013, Century Media Records
Reviewer: Metal-Rules.com UK Team
Legendary Swedish sonic maestro Dan Swanö has set aside his thousand-and-one musical fruit baskets to pair up with multi-instrumentalist and general badass Ragnar Widerberg. The result is the atmospheric Witherscape, and their inaugural effort is no less prismatic than one might expect from a leading industry figure, whose repertoire boasts involvement with some of the finest progressive and ambient metal acts in the current sphere.
Let's kick off the party by announcing that this debut release is an unusual concept album. Having enlisted the lyrical aptitude of November's Doom's Paul Kuhr, some of whose albums Swanö has lent his production talents to, the story depicts remote 19th Century Stockholm, where a recently-bereaved gent is informed that he's been left an enormous estate up north by his wealthy family. The weird shit kicks in after he goes up there to investigate, and after a classic case of geography dictating the paranormal, we're left to absorb the soundtrack to this cool little fantasy tale.
The ingredients for a melancholic brew are all here in abundance. Thematic structures, intense vocal harmonies, gorgeous picked extension chords and the blend of haunting melody and brutality simply scream Mikael Akerfeldt (unsurprisingly, since both Bloodbath and Opeth are ticked off on Swanö's musical hit list, either in the production or instrumental realm).
In fact, the majority of track openings might as well be off an unreleased edition of Blackwater Park. But far from mining tribute-band terrain, Witherscape's breed of doominess also evokes the likes of Katatonia, Paradise Lost and Amorphis: the dark and sombre lords whose musical output is aimed to be aurally commensurate to a passage from Byron or Keats. Technically stunning, the injection of synths and lush soundscapes against tumbling deathy riffs and Swanö's guttural pipes lends yet another dimension to the record, landing Edge of Sanity in a fisticuffs face-off with Moontower, and Rush in a brawl with Type-O Negative.
For all the credentials of its fathers and the hallmarks of promise within, however, this is definitely a disc that improves with repeated listens. At times, I still feel as though there is something missing: are its influences woven in too obvious a pastiche for it to forge an identity of its own? Are the ideas within strong enough to be enjoyed when standing alone, without the favourable comparisons to a slew of stellar acts? I think so, but you need to absorb those ideas again and again, in their own right, to really appreciate the album and what it has to offer. Besides that, the work is innovative enough to capture attention, but relevant enough to what dark metal's elite sector bow their heads approvingly at to garner respect.
It both adheres to and contravenes the formula it knows to be successful, for the kind of audience it wants to appeal to. Such sophistication is testament to the rigorous industry expertise and application of both Swanö and Winderberg, and even though the material within could be a little bolder and more confrontational, the duo have enough knowledge of playing it safe to know when breaking the rules will work seamlessly and effectively. A powerful and original example of modern progressive death metal, well worth checking out.
Review by Rhiannon Marley