Personnel: Dan Swanö (vocals, keyboards, drums); Ragnar Widerberg (guitar).
Audio Mixer: Dan Swanö.
Recording information: Granvägen 26; Studio Finesse; Unisound.
Photographers: Michael Keel; Ragnar Widerberg.
When Swedish duo Witherscape issued its 2013 debut project The Inheritance, death metal punters loved it so much they made offerings to the nether gods it wouldn't be a one-off. Given Dan Swanö's prolific and voluminous track record, that was entirely possible. He even figured the album might be perceived that way, so he and musical partner Ragnar Widerberg (Shadowquest) issued the ten-song New Tomorrow EP a year later. Swanö handles vocals, keyboards, and drums, with Widerberg on guitars and basses. Like its full-length predecessor, The Northern Sanctuary is a concept recording, but the narrative picks up some 50 years after the song "The New Tomorrow" left off. (Lyrics were again written by Paul Kuhr of Novembers Doom. Witherscape expands its brand of melodic death metal as nods toward classic metal, prog, and hard rock are woven carefully into the mix. Swanö's gruff, emotive singing style employs the select use of alternate clean vocals in these songs, adding depth and dimension to their narratives. "Wake of Infinity" is a crusher that commences with Symphony X-esque keyboards, Edge of Sanity power riffs, and manic double-kick drums. It's progressive death metal with knotty arpeggios, chug and plenty of power -- and a melodic hook in the bridge that c,omes straight out of '80s hard rock. "In the Eyes of Idols" is a midtempo, hooky, melo-death rocker with dirty vocals over the keyboard and a guitar vamp through the bridge, adding a King Diamond-esque twist. "Rapture Ballet" offers an angular, arpeggiated dual lead-guitar riff wound inside spiraling keyboards and slamming, adrenalized waltz time on the kick drums and snare. The breakdown is a nasty death vamp where guitars and vocals vie for dominance. Some deathheads may have trouble with "The Examiner" and "Marionette," the two songs at the heart of the record. The former is a rich, melodic, moody power ballad dripping with emotion and bluesy, riff-abundant, hard rock interludes à la the early Scorpions. The latter, another ballad, begins almost acoustically, with transparent vocals. In plodding 4/4, it turns doomy, nearly gothic, but the string-like keys undergird Swanö, who shifts to dirty vocals in the additional verses and bridge. Melo-death claims it, though Widerberg's slow, lyrical guitar break expands that frame to the breaking point. Both are great songs. The nearly 14-minute title track is an aggressive and progressive jam that changes gears many times, referencing everyone from Edge of Sanity, Moontower, Ghost Reveries-era Opeth, and more. The bottom line is that as purposely referential as this music is, Swanö is the sonic architect who helped to create their histories; only he could plot it all out so specifically. As fine as The Inheritance was -- and remains -- The Northern Sanctuary is a step beyond -- it's a much more balanced, diverse, and ultimately satisfying record. ~ Thom Jurek