Monday, July 11, 2016

Album Review: Witherscape - The Northern Sanctuary

Dan Swano is riding a new crest of creativity. After taking several years off from recording material of his own, recent years have seen him release an epic melodic rock album with his band Nightingale, and a very good progressive death metal album with this project, Witherscape. That debut was something that happened unexpectedly, and was the first death metal album in many a year that brought to mind Swano's brilliant "Moontower". It didn't quite reach those heights, but it was an album that reminded us of a better time for death metal, and the news that Witherscape was not a one-off project gave hope that the band would grow into an even more immense monster.

Which brings us to "The Northern Sanctuary", that second album. This is where Witherscape can expand into a band that lives up to their promise, or it could be where they stumble, having exhausted their bag of tricks already. That's the danger of sophomore albums.

"Wake Of Infinity" opens the album by showing the two sides of Witherscape. A gentle piano starts the song off, leading to a riff that is pure thrash to go along with Swano's massive growls. The man has the perfect blend of guttural power and intelligible clarity. For my money, no one does death metal vocals better. But while that would be enough to make the song enjoyable, there are touches of Nightingale's AOR that pop up, upping the melodic quotient. It picks up where the previous album started, but with a hint more polish on the product.

"In The Eyes Of Idols" has a more driving beat to it, and vocals that alternate outside of the verse/chorus pattern, but what really makes it stand out is how similar it sounds to "Moontower" in the moments before the solo kicks in. There are the hints of old-school prog in the keyboard sounds, and the vocal pattern fits in with that old album, which is the kind of little nugget that someone who holds the album in high esteem like I do can't help but salivate over.

What is noticeable about this album, compared to the debut, is how much better integrated the two sides of the equation are. The death metal and the melodic parts fit more seamlessly together, and no longer sound like two sounds being put together, but instead one holistic identity that is Witherscape. In that sense, this album is more successful than the first one, because it gives us a better, deeper understanding of who this band is.

I particularly enjoy "Marionette", which flips the usual script to have sung verses lead into a giant, doomy, death metal chorus. It's the highlight of the album, for me, which leads me to my main criticism of the record. While it is a very good record, and in many ways better than the debut, it's missing those one or two tracks that are unforgettable. The first album had "Dead For A Day", which is a stone-cold killer of a track, and we don't get that here. They tried with the fourteen minute title track, but it's more a collection of parts than it is an amazing song.

Which leaves us with this conundrum. "The Northern Sanctuary", I believe, is a better album than "The Inheritance". But, because of the novelty of a new Swano album, and the lack of a truly killer track this time around, I'm not sure "The Northern Sanctuary" will be remembered as fondly. It's not a bad problem to have, but it does make the landing a bit rockier than it should be. But that doesn't discount that this is my kind of death metal. Witherscape is doing it right, and "The Northern Sanctuary" is likely to be the best death metal album of the year.

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