posted on 10/2007 By:
Take a walk around any fairly hip block in Oakland and you’ll catch a familiar whiff of the mothball and mold riddled uniforms of the foppish Army of Rod Stewarts that have slowly taken over this town. You literally cannot throw a rock in the Bay Area without hitting a retro lookin’ dude in the head. Why the negative vibe? It’s not that I’ve reached some sort of self-imposed threshold in interacting with squirrelly fellows sporting bellbottoms and bangs -- to each his/her own, I say -- it’s just that over the course of the last few years, the retro-scene in my area has become absolutely saturated with the loathsome, brain-hungry trend-hoppers that eventually latch on, water down, and ultimately bankrupt nearly every craze that manages to crop up. Unfortunately, the douching of Oakland by these coat-tailing nards has also stirred the superficial prick-gene in more than a few of us, causing extreme caution when it comes to checking out bands who happen to sport “the look” and fly the flag of fealty to the Rock Godz of Yore. Conclusion? I’ve mostly avoided this band for absolutely narrow-minded reasons, and I’ve really missed out because of my stupidity; Witchcraft is as genuine within their scene as the most frostbitten, wolf-pelted, panda-face-painted black metal band is to their own.
So, with foot firmly placed in mouth, my free time for the past couple of weeks has been filled with me consuming of a solid mixture of the band’s self-titled debut, its follow-up, Firewood, this record, and a bottle of Bushmills. The results? Well, my initial forum-based remarks of “The Alchemist easily being the band’s best material to date” have since changed ever so slightly to, “The Alchemist is an amazing record, but Firewood truthfully edges it out by the smallest of margins”. Keep in mind, however, this is basically equivalent to my comparing an album like Powerslave to Piece of Mind: one might be considered slightly better than the other, but when compared to the rest of the players on the field, it’s a good ol’ fashioned ass whoopin’. Similarly, stack The Alchemist against many of the other offerings in the retro-rock world (soooo many releases come to mind), and it’s basically like matching up Chuck Liddell vs. Dave Navarro in a cage match -- splintered jaw, cracked eye sockets, and a complete brain hemorrhage within fifteen short seconds.
The Alchemist still follows the 70’s soaked formula that flashes considerable influence from heavyweights such as Sabbath, Pentagram, and any number of classic hard rockers of yesteryear (seriously, you'll hear smidges of any number of heavily guitar-based rock from the 70's in Witchcraft’s music), but this is quite a different beast when dissected directly alongside the band’s incredible sophomore effort, Firewood. The sloooower, more plodding moments that flourished tunes such as “Queen of Bees” and “Sorrow Evoker” are more tempered with a greazzzy groove on The Alchemist, making room for a fresher, considerably brighter output this time around. It still has a dark flavor, but we now hear a greater influence of the epic-ness of Led Zeppelin, the proggishness of King Crimson, and even moments of Fly By Night era Rush within these walls. But fear not, fans of the godly Iommi-styled riff, there’s still a huge Sabbath influence sewn into the core of these tunes as well. In fact, “Hey Doctor” easily stands as the most compelling Sabbath-swipe these ears have heard in years. Seriously.
It ain’t all a reflection of yesteryear, however. The truly great news is that Witchcraft really seems to have developed a sound they can now comfortably call their own. Yes, there are obviously many influences involved, but it's all swaddled together and stamped fervently with something you can easily refer to as a "Witchcraft-ian" sound. Each player's expertise is called upon equally on The Alchemist, and Magnus Pelander’s smooth vocals sound even more confident and emotive than ever -- a far cry from the heavily effected vocals from the band's first effort. My only criticisms point towards the slightly abrupt breaks into a couple of the time signature shifts, and the fact that the production is so damned clear that you can actually hear Magnus taking breaths before singing during the quieter moments of the epic title track. Apart from that, the band has once again come damned near to achieving perfection. Not quite there yet, but so-bloody-close.
In the end, the last couple of weeks have taught me two important lessons: 1. (and I just can’t seem to pound this one deep enough into my thick skull) DON’T judge a book by its cover, and 2. Witchcraft are indeed a force to be reckoned with. The Alchemist is gonna hit loads of peoples’ top-ten lists at year end…perhaps even a number of top spots. Unsurprising, really -- this record is yet another example of a band further developing an unfuckwithable signature sound. I certainly count myself as one of the lucky ones to have finally seen the light, and If you haven’t yet done so, I suggest you get off your ass and give The Alchemist a proper shot. Very rewarding and highly, highly recommended.
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