It’s time once again to turn loose the Swanös! Well, the Swanö named Dan anyway. That’s because the mega-man is back with his Witherscape project, and as before he’s brought along his mustachioed compadre, Ragner Widerberg to provide multi-instrumental support. Those who heard the massive debut, The Inheritance know what to expect – rich, melodic, somewhat progressive death metal with a cosmic ass-ton of hooks, mood and memorability. The Northern Sanctuary cleaves close to the style of the debut while expanding the scope and breadth of the band’s vision. Basically it’s like a collaboration between Yes and early Opeth, or if you prefer, Swanö’s Nightingale project mashed up with Edge of Sanity‘s timeless Crimson opus. It’s emotional and melodic as hell but still a death metal album at heart and it’s actually amazing just how musical and beautiful these two can make the material without it feeling too soft or watered down.
The goods are dropped at your doorstep immediately with mammoth opener “Wake of Infinity” which serves up the best of Omnium Gatherum, Edge of Sanity and Symphony X all stuffed into one glorious musical empanada of awesomeness. There are wild and inventive riffs, crazy keyboard runs and a tasty mix of death roars and uber-dramatic clean singing from Mr. Swanö. This results in a wondrously addictive song that’ll stick in your head like a rusty Bowie knife. It’s a tremendous way to open an album and the best is yet to come.
Follow up “In the Eyes of Idols” has a rock style mixed with classic melo-death as Dan’s vocals (both deathy and cleans) sometimes take on an arena rock vibe, and “Rapture Ballet” is one of the best songs so far in 2016. It’s just a monster of a tune featuring all the things I’ve come to love about Swanö’s work: first-rate riff-craft, excellent vocal melodies and a keen ear toward hooks. It reminds me of vintage Stratovarius mixed with classic King Diamond with some quality melo-death added for depth and body. Also impressive is the grim, brooding emotion and angst of “The Examiner,” and the doomy heft of “Marionette” where Dan outdoes himself vocally, balancing slick clean singing with guttural death roars.
The centerpiece is the 14 minute title track which has a strong Edge of Sanity vibe running throughout as it jumps from mega-melodic to doomy to deathy. As with any long song, the quality of the writing can be weighed by how fast the time goes by and here it flies! The Hand ov Swanö keeps things moving and engaging throughout and with Ragnar’s unquestionable guitar chops things stay technical but always accessible and compelling. It isn’t quite as immediate as the shorter tracks but it’s a grower with a lot of quality moments waiting to be discovered within.
As the 14 minutes of the title track flies by, so do the 47 minutes that compose The Northern Sanctuary. It’s got a great flow and it’s one of those albums you put on and spin straight through to the end. There are no duds and even the weakest track (“God of Ruin”) is still a pretty righteous song loaded with atmosphere and high caliber performances. Since the album was produced by Captain Dan, you know it will sound first-rate and it does, with a rich mix. I can’t speak to any potential forthcoming vinyl mixes, but this sounds just fine as it is.
You’d certainly never know this was a two-man project with all that’s going on musically. Dan handles vocals, keyboards and drums and does his usual high level job. His vocals in particular have gotten better and better and when he sings he sounds a lot like Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) with a bit of Piet Sielck’s (Iron Savior) gruffness. The highly dramatic style of his singing can seem over-the-top at times but it works and his cleans are used sparingly enough to achieve maximum effect whenever they pop in. His keyboard and piano work is also strong, and the understated closing piano interlude “Vila i Frid” is especially touching. The guitar-work by the ever mysterious Ragnar is once again impressive, ranging from Michael Romeo-esque corkscrew riffs to wild solos and soft, nuances pluckery. The man has game and he brought it here. Though a technical wiz kid he shows admirable restraint across the album, never wanking when winking would suffice. I don’t know where Dan found this character, but he was lucky he did so.
I was very taken by The Inheritance, but this is a superior album in all ways. The songs are bigger, the writing more confident and inspired and everything just feels larger than life. Dan Swanö has been successful at everything he’s done in the metal world and The Northern Sanctuary is yet another trophy for his already cluttered Hall of Fame. This will be on many a year end list so don’t miss out. Now kindly gets these other swanos off my damn lawn!