It’s fitting somehow that Time should ask more questions than it answers. Six years ago, Witchcraft frontman and retro heavy rock innovator Magnus Pelander (also previously of Örebro forebears Norrsken) issued his four-song solo outing, titled simply EP, on Svart Records. It was an intricate, intimate and progressive offering, if short, and the context in which it arrived was wholly different from that which sees Time arrive via Nuclear Blast.
In 2010, it had already been three years since Witchcraft‘s third album, The Alchemist added elements of classic prog to the vintage stylization of 2005’s sophomore effort, Firewood, which had already cleaned up the band’s presentation from the live-feeling rawness of their 2004 self-titled debut (discussed here); still a landmark in helping define the tenets its subgenre continues to follow.
In 2016, in addition to Pelander taking his last name for a solo moniker as he puts forth the six-song/37-minute Time, Witchcraft released their fifth LP, the sprawling, fully-modernized, 69-minute Nucleus (review here), building on the massive shift in lineup and crisper production style that their 2012 return and Nuclear Blast debut, Legend (review here), began.
All the more curious, then, that Time should arrive with such stripped-down, minimal arrangements — a sweet combination of guitars, strings and voices on “The Irony of Man,” or the UK-style folk flute on opener “Umbrella,” or Pelander and his accompanying guest vocalist backed by acoustic guitar, bass and simple, intermittent percussion on the closing title-track — bearing his name as its banner, since it’s so far removed from the direction his songwriting has taken over the course of the last half-decade. Maybe that’s the point.
One way or another, Time presents the most willfully organic production in which Pelander has taken part at least since Firewood if not since Witchcraft‘s self-titled. I’m reasonably sure that isn’t how he’d want it measured, but it’s true nonetheless. Beginning with the warm welcome of “Umbrella”‘s folksy balladry and classic lyrical patterning — “Never thought I,” and so on — the album holds to a clean but natural sound that, at least in some degree, still translates to a full-band fullness. That is, though parts are quiet, minimalist, rarely is Pelander actually sounding alone on this solo album.
There’s flourish of violin and the aforementioned flute and backing vocals to go with the guitar, bass and percussion working under his lead on “Umbrella,” and a quick ’60s-style psychedelic electric guitar solo even shows up briefly before the acoustic guitar takes the fore once again in a final movement that seems to be referencing Black Sabbath‘s “Sweet Leaf.” Bottom line is it’s not like all Time is working from is Magnus Pelander and an acoustic guitar, but it has an intimate vibe in part due to personal-feeling lyrics like “Family Song,” which directly names mother, father, brother, sister and self as characters early on to a humble strum and some sweet fret work setting up a powerful vocal push as the track moves into its second half.
Some kind of keys — might just be piano — are introduced briefly but not out of place in their coming and going before the last verse section, and “Family Song” ends with a quieter feel, suitable for the transition into the soft open of “The Irony of Man.” The aforementioned backing vocals — I don’t know accompanies Pelander throughout, but her harmonies add enough to the tracks on which she appears that I’d give credit if I could — and another showcase of melodic prowess, this time over a more melancholic instrumental arrangement, driven once more by acoustic guitar but building outward with strings as it moves through toward the two longest cuts on Time, “True Colour” and “Precious Swan.”
Between them, “True Colour” (8:57) and “Precious Swan” (9:53) comprise more than half of the total 36:50 runtime of Time, and with Pelander having proved his mettle in structure and creating a full-album flow across five Witchcraft full-lengths, it’s hard to imagine their placement next to each other is an accident.
Back to back, they make for the most immersive section of the record — admittedly less if you get the version with the bonus track “Rebecka” — broadening the context with Spanish-style guitar and more active percussion before the halfway point of “True Colour” only to dip back into the quiet verse like nothing ever happened before stretching out with broader strumming, progressive string turns in the back end and a subtle, wistful finish with a ticking clock at close. The play in “Precious Swan” is “precious one.” The song starts with that line and individually plucked notes to set up a patient development that, once it starts unfolding with the drawn violin and more forceful vocals, does not seem to stop.
Tension rises with electric guitar leading to start-stop bass and far-back swirl of guitar that fades out to let piano and acoustics take hold at the halfway mark, building in volume and arrangement to a noisy cacophony that, at 6:29, finally cuts to let a strummed electric guitar play the central line of the song. Then, only then, does the acoustic figure return, Pelander once again crooning “precious one” or “precious swan,” whichever it might be. Strings come back in the instrumental meandering that follows, and there’s a sample of a woman singing in what seems to be Swedish — unsure who or when, but regardless the sense of nostalgia is palpable.
That emotional resonance would seem to stand in direct contrast to the actual last lines of the album, in which Pelander, with an audible sigh, declares, “I don’t want to live here/My enemy is time.” This comes after clever plays off words that rhyme with the title, delivered in succession, a flash of percussion, and a final guest vocal appearance that seems to tie everything together as it gives way to the final movement of subdued acoustic guitar that closes the song and the record as whole.
In its last moments, Time brings listeners back to that sense of asking questions. We don’t, in the end, know whether time is an enemy or an ally, as “Precious Swan” might lead one to believe. We don’t know whether it’s a sense of looking back on his career that caused Pelander to revive this solo-project, or if the very sound of Time itself is an acknowledgement of the role that notions of the bygone have played out in his work aesthetically over the course of his career.
And we don’t know how, or if at all, Magnus Pelander will continue to develop Pelander as an entity separate from Witchcraft, or if Time is a one-off as collections of its ilk sometimes can be; a collection of tracks accumulated over some measure of time — there’s that word again — that he felt it was finally time to get out of his system. All of these things, and more, have yet to be answered, but there’s value in the asking, and for as much as it revels in the uncertain, Pelander‘s Time is guided by the surest of hands.