To date, across five albums, Sweden’s Witchcraft have never repeated themselves. Even their first two outings, 2004’s landmark self-titled debut and 2005’s similarly-intentioned Firewood, showed marked progression one into the next. Those records have become landmarks of heavy ’70s retro methodology in the decade-plus since their release, a brand of classic doom that Witchcraft founder Magnus Pelander first began to foster in Norrsken alongside members of what would become Graveyard. Following the more prog-rock vintage styling of Witchcraft‘s third album, The Alchemist, the band took a five-year break, and when they resurfaced in 2012 with Legend (review here), it was clear some changes had taken place. Amid a more modern production than ever before, Pelander led a five-piece incarnation of the band in which bassist Ola Henriksson (now Troubled Horse) was the only other founding member.
Four years after Legend, Pelander brings Witchcraft to places both familiar and strange on their fifth full-length and second for Nuclear Blast, Nucleus, stripping back some of Legend‘s grandiosity for a nine-track/69-minute 2LP that, while it still maintains the modern crispness of its predecessor, is arguably the doomiest atmosphere they’ve conjured on an album. Witchcraft 2016 being comprised of Pelander on guitar/vocals, Tobias Anger (ex-2 Ton Predator) on bass and Rage Widerberg on drums, it’s a completely revamped outfit, and Nucleus marks the first time the band has ever worked as a trio. And perhaps the title is meant directly to speak to that notion of stripping things down to their core, to expose the basic element at the center of it all, I don’t really know, but if that’s the case, then it seems like Nucleus does that even before it’s started. At the center of it all for Witchcraft, there’s always been change.
And if it seems strange to think of a 69-minute album — the longest Witchcraft has produced by 13 minutes over its predecessor — as also being “stripped down,” that very contrast seems to be the beating hard that pumps the record along. Witchcraft continue to have grand aspirations, and the band show them in the side-consuming finales of each of its two LPs, “Nucleus” (14:08) first and album closer “Breakdown” (15:55) second. Each component record in the whole also receives a somewhat-less extended opener, whether it’s the morose album launch “Malstroem” (8:31) or the contemplative build of “An Exorcism of Doubts,” which shifts from open-spaced minimalism to some of Nucleus‘ most bombastic output, and then shifts back, unexpectedly. Pelander, long since the master of his domain in terms of making the band what he wants it to be, also produced in cooperation with Philip Gabriel Saxin and Anton Sundell, and when it wants to, as on “Malstroem,” or the trudging final five minutes of “Breakdown,” the album can be an absolute slog, and that’s clearly something done on purpose.
It’s not intended to be simple or forgettable in its impact, even if what’s really at work across much of it is guitar, bass, drums, vocals and keys — maybe plus some percussion and flute on the more shuffling “The Outcast,” one of the more upbeat and catchier inclusions here — and though much of its material stretches well beyond, the two-minute second cut, “Theory of Consequence” stands in as an analogy for a lot of what follows; it is riff-led doom, still driven by a classic dynamic as I think Witchcraft almost can’t help but be, but taken to a darker place atmospherically than the band have ever taken it before. Arrangement flourishes are subtle throughout compared to some of what hits hardest, but keys and acoustic guitars in the title-track set an expansive tone early and with guest vocals and slow-push crashing at the end, “Nucleus” rounds out the first LP in surprisingly large fashion and gives way to CD centerpiece “An Exorcism of Doubts,” which toys back and forth with volume before bursting into a central nod that holds sway onto relinquish to a quiet, almost Graveyard-ian finish.
“An Exorcism of Doubts,” with its rolling riff and accompanying organ, swaying shifts one way or the other in volume, emergent chorus, etc., is responsible in no small part for setting the more brooding ambience of Nucleus‘ second LP, but even it has its brighter moments. To wit, “The Obsessed” has a lead-in riff and bounce worthy of its namesake trio, even if Pelander‘s vocals remain so thoroughly his own, though “To Transcend Bitterness” reaffirms a moody swirl and emotional tumult even as it also highlights a nascent chemistry between Pelander, Anger and Widerberg (also one between Pelander, anger and rage) instrumentally. Its apex-into-finish satisfies like a miniature “Nucleus” and leads to the softer beginnings of the penultimate “Helpless,” which channels the tension built up over the record’s tempestuous course into a linear build that starts at guitar alone and crests with the album’s best solo over a lurching rhythm before finishing out with the full-toned fuzz riffing out.
That would be a suitable conclusion to Nucleus on its own, but “Breakdown” is the thick underline beneath all the emotional chaos preceding, comprised of two parts demarcated by misanthropic samples as a far-back psychedelic minimalism gives way circa seven minutes in to the doomed march that continues through the remainder of the track, only growing more unhinged — are those strings? — as it makes its way toward the chorus-topped finish, and instead of the fuzz guitar, it’s a single string plucked in the same rhythm that caps the album. Perhaps that’s Witchcraft hitting the titular nucleus after all the careening and lumbering. Maybe it’s that last few seconds that Nucleus is inextricably pushing toward. One way or another, it is a significant journey to get there. Could Witchcraft have cut this down to make it a single LP? Probably, but the fact that the stretch is challenging in form and execution seems like part of the intent. Their breadth of influence may continue to stem from their earliest work, but Witchcraft, and Pelander as the band’s own nucleus, have never stopped growing. Whatever they do next, don’t be surprised when it’s not this.