It makes a weird kind of sense. It’s been five years since Witchcraft released their third album, The Alchemist, and the long-awaited follow-up — dubbed Legend — finds them making their debut on Nuclear Blast and finds guitarist/vocalist Magnus Pelander surrounded by an almost entirely different band. Now a double-guitar five-piece, Witchcraft‘s Legend marks the first appearances of guitarists Simon Solomon and Tom Jondelius and drummer Oscar Johansson (aka Pezo of Truckfighters). So with just Pelander and bassist Ola Henriksson returning, why not reinvent Witchcraft‘s sound at the beginning of this new era?
Perhaps that’s not fair. A lot can happen over five years, and I doubt it’s as simple or as calculated as that. Nonetheless, Pelander — who’s always been the central figure songwriting-wise — has overseen a recasting of aesthetic to match the recasting of the lineup, and the tonal fullness and modernity of Legend opener “Deconstruction” has more in common with Scorpions than Pentagram, who were the core influence across 2004’s landmark self-titled debut and 2005’s follow-up, Firewood. Immediately, Witchcraft are different. They’ve shirked off most of the vintage stylization that marked their previous work and boldly opted for something new.
And whether it’s good or bad, that right away makes Legend the most fascinating Witchcraft record since the first one. The last five years and the rise of countrymen act Graveyard (who share a lineage with Pelander going back to the days of the obscure but pioneering outfit Norrsken) have led to an entire crop of bands in and around Sweden caked in a retro style defined in part by Witchcraft, so for the band to come back now and even expand on the more progressive elements of The Alchemist while keeping the same retro mindset — well, it would’ve been expected, if nothing else.
But Legend isn’t what you’d expect if you’ve followed Witchcraft before. Its distortion is modern and heavy, its production is crisp, and one need only to look at tracks like “An Alternative to Freedom,” “White Light Suicide,” “Democracy” and “Dystopia” to get a sense of an emergent sociopolitical viewpoint in the music. Some of the old Witchcraft methods are there — Pelander‘s vocals on the well-chosen single “It’s Not Because of You” hint at prior glories, and though it starts out with a riff nearer to country rock, “An Alternative to Freedom” settles into a creeping guitar line of a style present throughout the back catalog — but the slide in that song, the clap-ready swagger in “White Light Suicide,” the screaming lead in “Democracy” (not to mention the “fuck your heroes/fuck your icons” lyrics) and the darker heaviness of 12-minute closer “Dead End” are a long, long way from the humble, blown-out proto-metal melodies of old.
Songwriting remains consistent, however. Pelander isn’t quite a master of this form — they’re not Dixie Witch… yet — but he does well nonetheless in crafting memorable tracks, and the performances of Henriksson and the new members of the band prove suited to the surge in centerpiece “Ghosts House” or the moodier vibe of the penultimate “Dystopia.” And it’s actually Pelander‘s lack of mastery here that makes Legend so intriguing, because where it’s pretty easy to argue Witchcraft had their shit down pat as regards retro rocking, this is new ground. It’s interesting to think of Witchcraft as a band 12 years on, purposefully making themselves less comfortable in their process. And admirable.
And who knows, maybe Witchcraft‘s example will once more serve for others to follow. I can’t think of another act who’ve successfully navigated themselves out of a retro style, so perhaps the boldness Witchcraft show on Legend will bleed into others tired of their tube amps and tape machines. It’s entirely possible that Witchcraft‘s fourth will make their most resonant impact yet, and even if it’s probably not what I’ll reach for every time — I don’t think anything could replace the first album in my mind — these are quality songs that mark a new beginning for the band and the more I hear them, the more I see their appeal, both conceptually and in practice. The change is going to be a lot for some to swallow, but for the potential Legend presents, Witchcraft may yet come out on top in deliberately working against what they once were.Legend, Nuclear Blast Records, Sweden, Witchcraft, Witchcraft Legend