Swedish multi-instrumentalist prog duo WITHERSCAPE hath returned with their sophomore album, The Northern Sanctuary. After the head-turning impression of their critically-acclaimed debut The Inheritance, which featured the marvellous Dead for a Day, the synth meddling and guitar wielding Swedes have a tough act to follow.
It’s kind of important then that they start off with a bang, and indeed they do. The spooky piano tinkling intro of Wake of Infinity brings chills to the spine, before spellbinding guitar arpeggios and atmospheric synths plunge you into the depths of darkness. The synths are a tad 70s – its like the Rocky Horror Show does prog – but this is what WITHERSCAPE are unashamedly all about. Long-winding journeys through different keys and textures are interpolated by a surprisingly singable and catchy chorus, which is almost radio friendly. Dan Swanö switches between death growls and cleans with ease – his vocal range is simply incredible.
In The Eyes of Idols is a different bag entirely, beginning with a meaty, hummable riff, which transcends into a track that is a mix of classic IN FLAMES death metal, with the progressive leanings of OPETH. It’s one of the most memorable songs on the album, packed with melodic hooks and one of the only tracks to follow a traditional song structure.
The duo’s genre-hopping continues, with power metal and even pop rock influences seeping through tracks such as The Examiner, which with its piano lead intro, sounds slightly like something you might hear on a MEAT LOAF album. Ultra-sensitive ears may also pick up on the uncanny similarity of the chorus melody and chord progression to that of FLEETWOOD MAC‘s Dreams (seriously, whack them both on and compare – they are almost identical). More piano balladry can be heard on Marionette, which features lots of reverb guitars and drums. Suddenly, we’re in the 80s again, complete with big hair and spandex trousers. Swanö‘s thunderous roars briefly interrupt the throwback, and strangely sound rather out of place here.
As we move on through the album, the sheer density of the record becomes more apparent. There is just so much of everything going on that at times, it is more of a curse than a blessing. By the end of the title-track, a 13 minute opus of epic proportions complete with dramatic choirs, we’re exhausted – but thankfully the soothing, though perhaps unnecessary outro Villa I Frid helps us wind down after all that overblown excitement.
Forgive us for saying this, but there are moments when WITHERSCAPE sound a bit old-fashioned. We get what the band are trying to achieve here though, and take our hats off to them for the masterful and nearly god-like wizardry of what these guys can do with their instruments. Remarkable, but sometimes unpalatable.
The Northern Sanctuary is out now via Century Media Records.
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