Uncertainty is Principal
In 2000, Witchcraft joined the already swollen ranks of bands making music in the 1970s-style stoner / hard rock / psychedelic / progressive / blues / Sabbath worship vein. However, their mission was specific: to record No Angel or Demon, a single (w/ b-side) paying tribute to Roky Erickson and Bobby Liebling. Witchcraft soon became a full-fledged band in their own right, and are still kicking today. However, despite output of several albums over the years, multiple lineup changes have robbed the band of the sweet nectar of continuity. The only founding member remaining is vocalist and guitarist Magnus Pelander. With new bassist Tobias Anger and new drummer Rage Widerberg in tow, Witchcraft have chosen 2016 full-length Nucleus as the venue for their debut as a blistering, grind-influenced crust punk band.
Just kidding. Witchcraft still draw much of their sound from American Rock and/or Roll, but the way those ingredients manifest on Nucleus is not quite as one-to-one as on past works. That is to say, those looking for familiar sounds and vintage tones may find themselves scratching their heads. Unfortunately, those open-minded fans looking for new aesthetics may find themselves bewildered as well, due to the somewhat capricious and vaguely-defined shape of the music here.
“Malstroem,” begins with an intro that sounds almost Celtic (that flute or woodwind really conjures the highlands). This gives way to big, post-metallic doom, which descends into crunchy metallic riffage. Pelander’s tremulous, woeful vocals take flight above the sturm and drang, pealing out writerly lyrics about personal failures and unhappy times.
Just when you have buckled in for a long journey through ash-filled wastelands of regret and powerlessness, “Theory of Consequence” comes on like a cross between Eyehategod and the gosh-darned Black Keys. The confusion does not end there. “The Outcast” is relatively upbeat and poppy, with prominent flute (or woodwind). It includes the lyrics “Save a nation from a bad economy / It’s like sailing away on an endless sea.” “Nucleus” is a whopping 14 minutes long, rising from humble beginnings to a bombastic, synth-infused crescendo, then doing it all over again with choirs and female vocals.
The dynamic duo of Anger and Rage are indeed dynamic, tight also. At times, the synergy of the group is reminiscent of heavy metal band YOB, whose dynamo frontman uses his axe and pipes to carry the listener through a profound and punishing spiritual journey – when the music is sufficiently composed. Nucleus suffers a bit from drift – especially in the stretch between “Nucleus” and nigh-16-minute closer “Breakdown,” (though “Helpless” is notable for its limpid metal riff and bleakly decrepit guitar solo) – the same drift that can make YOB’s minor works feel like a chore to get through.
It’s not that the music on Nucleus is really good or really bad. What is difficult to determine here is where much of it falls on the pretty-good scale. Some would say that music straying from the beaten path should be afforded some leeway, to protect it from reductive judgments of the objective variety. As a critic, one must sometimes think instead about the secondary questions: Is it distinctive? Is it memorable? Is it true to its own aesthetic? Does it have vision? Does it contain pleasant surprises – ones that have the power to surprise again and again?
Unfortunately, the answer for Nucleus on the above counts is “not quite enough.” There is definitely some strange and adventurous songwriting going on here, and one can practically hear Pelander’s creative gears cranking away. However, it seems like Witchcraft are trying to get away with careening all over the genre map from song to song, without making sure that those songs are strong and distinctive enough to stand on their own. Nucleus’ level of impact is just not where it could be. Even on repeated listens, the album is still a miasma.
“Breakdown” has two clear phases, going from an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic meditation to a stark-but-crushing doom ordeal, which features a vocal style that could be described as the sound of Johnny Bravo being tortured. A strange recording of a phone conversation ends the album on a decidedly gothic note. Nucleus is an impressive, fairly cohesive collection of ideas. However, it is an album that seems to rest on, or hide behind, the laurels of its ambition. It’s not hard to imagine it striking a chord with some listeners, but it’s also pretty easy to imagine it exhausting the patience of others.