“Meditation is a very slow and painful process. It is indeed the practice of death yet a celebration of life.” – Ronald P. Vincent, 1947
This quote is printed on the inside gatefold of “Nucleus” and is, essentially, the mission statement singer/guitarist/songwriter Magnus Pelander follows for the fifth Witchcraft album. It’s a heavy, hypnotic, trippy musical journey brimming with atmosphere and worship of the almighty guitar riff.
Pelander originally formed Witchcraft solely for the purpose of recording a Pentagram cover for a Bobby Leibling tribute album. That single track immediately caught the attention of Lee Dorian (Cathedral, Napalm Death) who signed them to his label Rise Above and whisked them off to record their debut full-length album.
That eponymous release, recorded in analog in a basement studio using only vintage gear was a glorious concoction. Sounding more like a long-lost album from 1972 than a current album from 2004 it captured my imagination immediately.
It sounded authentic; the songwriting having just the right flavor for that musical era and unlike many retro groups that pick a single point of influence it was obvious that Pelander had a wide and varied appreciation for music from the late 60s and early 70s.
They would record two more fine albums using the same analog template; “Firewood” from 2005 and the very proggy “The Alchemist” from 2007; both highly recommended. Then the band went dormant for 5 years, reappearing with “Legend” in 2012 with only Pelander and bassist Ola Henriksson remaining from the earlier lineup.
“Legend” was a departure from their prior albums as the vintage approach was dropped in favor of a very modern, punchy sound. In addition Magnus decided to put down the guitar to concentrate solely on vocals and hired a dual-guitar tandem. It was a very good album, but personally seemed to be lacking some of the atmosphere of the earlier Witchcraft releases and Magnus’ guitar playing was sorely missed.
Thankfully he decided to pick up the guitar again and has reconfigured Witchcraft as a power trio for the first time in their career with new members T. Anger (bass) and Rage Widerberg (drums) holding down the rhythm section chairs. (Anger and Rage, that can’t be a coincidence)
The opening track Malstroem begins with a cool little arrangement fake-out; a lovely acoustic guitar and flute introduction leads to a driving little staccato riff that gives the impression the song is going to increase in speed and intensity but, when the expected massive riff comes, the tempo drops in half. It’s a great little moment that feels like the floor just vanished below your feet and you have a split second to contemplate that prior to plummeting downward into the abyss.
The title of this track is apt, it’s a roiling concoction; Pelander’s grinding guitar (which would get Tony Iommi’s seal of approval I’m sure) intermingles with sci-fi tinged pipe organ and acoustic guitar stabs propelled by the lumbering brontosaurus groove of the rhythm section.
Pelander uses the simplicity of the arrangement to his advantage, the dirge-like gate providing the perfect foundation for his impassioned vocals. I sampled a lot of retro bands from Sweden during the late ‘00s and Witchcraft really stood out primarily because of his voice. You can hear echoes of Roky Erickson, Jim Morrison, Marc Bolan and the aforementioned Bobby Leibling in addition to the expected Ozzy references. “Nucleus” is his finest performance to date.
The punchy Theory Of Consequence is the shortest track here, clocking in at just under 3 minutes it’s a fun little rocker in the Uriah Heep mode. The advance single The Outcast is more reminiscent of the earlier Witchcraft albums, the first half of the song an uptempo flute-driven rocker and then settling into more of a Zeppelin-meets-Wishbone Ash laidback jam for the second half. These two songs add some variety in tempo to the proceedings, which for the most part is slow and deliberate.
My favorite track on the album is the bluesy Helpless, it has attitude to spare with Magnus building the intensity to full jet engine roar by the conclusion. The guitar solo on this song is killer, I just love the Gibson + Orange Amplifier sound.
The remainder of “Nucleus” consists of a balance of shorter mid-tempo doomy rockers like the excellent An Exorcism of Doubts (very much a Black Sabbath homage) and the extended progressive excursions of the title track and album-closer Breakdown.
These longer pieces will probably either delight or infuriate depending on the listener. There are certain musical styles that seem to reach their full potential through repetition; funk grooves get funkier the longer you ride them, psychedelia needs space to weave its spell and doom riffs seem to get heavier the longer you play them.
Pelander approaches these tracks like meditative mantras, allowing them to stretch and build slowly, combined they equal 30 minutes of the running time.
The title track is the most “prog” song on the album and the addition of cello and female backing vocals really enhance the atmosphere. The arrangement ebbs and flows going from the quiet and pastoral to the aggressive and edgy, it’s an enticing journey. The only real problem is it just goes on a little too long, a slow 30-second fadeout around the 10-minute mark would have worked in its favor.
Breakdown is the better of the two epics and is a great way to close out the album (although the addition of a bonus track tacked on the end kind of negates that a little bit). The song is a dirge constructed in two contrasting segments. The opening half is built on a single clean-toned guitar pattern that repeats and is reminiscent of the more recent albums from the Portland-based band Earth. The second half is pure menace, malevolent and crushing with the Magnus sounding particularly unhinged with his most extroverted vocal performance of the album. It’s an intense journey.
As a whole “Nucleus” is the most experimental and searching album Witchcraft has done to date. It’s quite the left turn from the rather straightforward approach of “Legend” and personally I applaud the decision to defy expectations. It’s an intense, ballsy record and one that I recommend to adventurous listeners…and worshippers of “the riff”.
Released 15th January 2016