Rise Above

On the group’s lovingly retro doom debut, Magnus Pelander, the leader of Sweden’s Witchcraft, made it quite clear that he was one of the most studious pupils ever to have attended Rockwart’s School of Doom Metal and Psychedelic Music. The self-titled release could easily have fooled even the most suspicious of rock snobs into thinking that it was some lost relic of the early ’70s. The band was originally formed as a tribute to Pelander’s idols, Roky Erickson and Bobby Liebling. Recording was done on vintage equipment in a basement, and it was evident that Pelander and his cohorts were well-versed in such heady subjects as Dark Fantasy Lyrics, Haunting Riffs, and Ren-Faire Imagery. The band’s follow-up, Firewood, however, reveals that someone may have skipped a core class—perhaps Defense Against the Sophomore Slump. Witchcraft may still be the best, most authentic-sounding doom band extant, but there are troubling aspects to Firewood obvious before the disc is even out of the sleeve. The first record featured a spooky, medieval-etching cover design by Sunn0)))’s Stephen O’Malley. The new one has the band—some wearing contemporary garments—in front of a hearth. Now, if a doom band must be seen on a record’s cover, its members should be posing in a graveyard or a moonlit forest. No fan of the first record wants to see handsome lads in full color, much less Magnus giving the “shush” finger. Scholars of the genre are also aware of the significance of the Rock Gimmick. The only discernible gimmick on Firewood is the inclusion of a not-so-hidden track, a version of Pentagram’s “When the Screams Come.” This gambit comes off as retro, but in an irritating, early-’90s way: Wait through five minutes of silence for an overly faithful, uninspired cover. This is a special kind of bummer, because one of Witchcraft’s chief strengths has been the band’s ability to masterfully evoke doom idols without quoting them directly. But fans of Witchcraft shouldn’t completely despair. Pelander’s songwriting skills are still superb. “Mr Haze” is a delightful bluesy strutter, and “Sorrow Evoker” sounds like prime Tull—the perfect vehicle for Pelander’s sad, unprocessed vocals. When the first album came out, it was compared favorably to the very records that had inspired it. It’s strange, then, that Firewood suffers by comparison with the album that directly preceded it. Maybe a trip back to school—or at least the basement—is in order. —David Dunlap Jr.