Reviewed: [June 2020]
Released [2020 Nuclear Blast Records]
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
So let’s start with the obvious. Despite its title, the sixth album from Swedish occult rockers Witchcraft may be “black,” but it is most definitely not “metal” by any stretch – at least in the execution. In its minimalist intent, though, there is some “true black metal” spirit for sure.
For Black Metal, Witchcraft mainman Magnus Pelander has stripped things bare in every sense. Always the lone constant in Witchcraft, he indeed now seems to be its sole member – if only for this album, which is in essence a solo project under the band’s name. And on the musical end of things, “Spartan” only begins to describe the sound and approach.
Black Metal is essentially Witchcraft – or Pelander – unplugged. The languid plucking of an acoustic guitar and the plaintive moan of Pelander’s voice are really all there is here, captured with the raw-boned feel of a vintage field recording. It is as if Pelander set up on his front porch – I’m picturing a cabin out in the country, well away from everyone else – and poured out his soul into his iPhone.
The seven songs take folk music and channel the somber spirit of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave or Elliot Smith through it to produce some profound melancholia. Sadness reigns here, as one might guess from tracks like “Sad People” and “Sad Dog.” Pelander perhaps describes the mood best in the fittingly titled opener – “Elegantly Expressed Depression.”
The almost singular tone of the album – save for some spry guitar jangle on the closing number “Take Him Away” – ensures that dark cloud never lifts, for better or worse. Pelander seems to realize this, and gives away some of his motivation on “Free Country:” “By now you’re probably tired, Of listening to my requiem, But sadness has a way, To give way to happiness.”
Yet while there is perhaps something empowering, cathartic or even uplifting about laying out one’s feelings of longing or despair in such stark detail, at times Black Metal feels like a suicide note. “Don’t just call me bitter and depressed,” he notes at the conclusion of “Elegantly Expressed Depression,” “I open up my heart to no success.”
Because it is so utterly personal and uncharacteristic, and since it seems to be the very definition of a “solo” album, why Pelander chose to release this under the Witchcraft moniker is a bit of a mystery. Many fans who have been waiting four years for more of the band’s typical Pentagram-inspired doom are likely to be less than pleased. And even those open-minded enough to accept the radically different, bare bones approach, may soon tire for the relentlessly dreary vibe – especially given where things are in the world right now.