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CD Review: WITCHCRAFT Witchcraft / Firewood / The Alchemist (reissues)

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It's a long journey from paying tribute to being tribute-worthy oneself. It's a common pitfall among many artists: hamstringing themselves with their own sense of reverence toward their idols, as if adding something of their own to the combined legacy constitutes an actual diluting of the idol's purity somehow.

Magnus Pelander formed Witchcraft in 2000 with the sole purpose of paying tribute to his two favorite singers: Bobby Liebling (Pentagram) and Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators). If he'd have simply covered a song apiece by the two pioneers he might have gotten it all out of his system and moved on to something else; instead Pelander made the novel choice to pen brand new music in the style of his idols, resulting in the belated 2002 single "No Angel or Demon" b/w "You Bury Your Head". The sleeve notes failed to indicate which artist each song was intended for, the implication being that the spirit of both men permeated everything escaping Pelander's pen.

This 7" caught the attention of Lee Dorian (Cathedral), who quickly pegged Witchcraft as exactly the type of kindred spirits he had created his influential Rise Above record label to disseminate. Over the course of four years, Dorian would release the three albums that make up the band's discography to date, those now being reissued by Metal Blade in the lead up to the first Witchcraft album in five years, Legend (which will actually be released on Nuclear Blast).

It's doubtful Pelander intends that title to refer to his own band… neither his voice nor his lyrics betray any brash sense of self importance. More often than not he portrays himself as the unwitting victim of some malevolent force or ill fortune rather than asserting his will on others. On the first album's "I Want You to Know", he admits "can't find the lyrics to explain how I feel / these troubling feelings, they are so unreal". Uncertainty and displacement are certainly two characteristics he shares in common with Erickson.

Pelander wouldn't get around to actually trying his hand at an Erickson tune until 2007 – when he laid down a rendition of "Sweet Honey Pie" for Scandinavian Friends: A Tribute to Roky Erickson – but from the word go he was laying into Pentagram, covering "Please Don't Forget Me" for 2004's Witchcraft standard edition as well as "Yes I Do" for the vinyl and Japanese bonus tracks.

Musically Pentagram and Sabbath were the two most frequently exhibited influences early on, with the band utilizing vintage analog equipment to replicate that compressed, stuffy sound of low budget 70's recordings. One aspect of 70's hard rock that is often lost on most modern doom practitioners is an overt preservation of the blues. If anything, valid blues chops were the trump card Witchcraft brought to the table, crying leads and stinging licks punctuating whatever sullen pathos Pelander happened to be singing about at the time. As co-lead guitarist, John Hoyles proved a capable match in both tone and skill for Pelander, harmonizing in classic British fashion on the main riffs then alternating solos in full tribute to those 70's gods.

Firewood followed quickly in 2005, being somewhat of a retread of the debut with the exception of cleaner (still vintage) production and a defter hand at songwriting. "Queen of Bees" and "Chylde of Fire" find Pelander extending his reach beyond mere stylistic worship and coming into his own as a legitimate craftsman of melody, while "Sorrow Evoker" marks the band's first genuine stab at folk in the John Martyn sense (his Stormbringer album seems a major touchstone). While not taking any great strides forward, Firewood made enough important strides on existing elements so as to render the debut one dimensional in retrospect.

Similarly, while The Alchemist provided the band their much needed breakthrough, it did so by also making incremental tweaks to the group's ready made strengths. Pelander's vocals in particular are much clearer and more self-assured here, his Ozzy-meets-Roky quaver finally asserting itself as the primary vehicle for the Witchcraft sound. The band as a whole are done with associating 70's retro with an inherently muddy production, and Henriksson's bass in particular benefits tremendously from the opened up arrangements.

"If Crimson Was Your Colour" is The Alchemist's biggest revelation, which finally sees Witchcraft embracing psychedelic rock wholeheartedly after years of subtly dancing around its influence. Guest musician Tom Hakava steps in to add some period organ and mellotron to glorious effect. Speaking of guest musicians, Anders Andersson shows up to add some Beefheartian free jazz sax to the finale of "Remembered"; if anything sets The Alchemist apart its Pelander's willingness to shrug off melancholy and let his inner freak loose.

In the end, it seems likely that title track "The Alchemist" will prove to be one of the band's most lasting, a 14+ minute workout that combines all of the above influences while also making you realize just how much Tull you'd missed throughout the band's career up until that point.

Demand for live appearances virtually ensured that a follow up wouldn't happen with the same kind of turnaround time that fans had become accustomed to, but no one imagined that Witchcraft would just up and disappear for half a decade (Pelander quietly released a solo EP in 2010; otherwise: radio silence). Without explicating where the band has been all this time, Nuclear Blast finally announced Legend for release on September 21st.

Not so much a comeback as a rebirth, Legend features a largely revamped lineup: Pelander recruited two new guitarists – Tom Jondelius and Simon Solomon – and brought in new drummer Oscar Johannson, retaining only bassist Henriksson and with Pelander himself focusing entirely on vocals from here on. Time will tell what impact this overhaul has on the Witchcraft sound, but in the interim Metal Blade is making their bulletproof oeuvre available once again to a wider audience. And just like that, within half a generation Pelander finds himself transformed from an awkward, idolizing upstart to an accomplished band leader with a legacy of his own worth paying tribute to.


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