On their own terms

November 23, 2007


The heavy-metal underground is obsessed with labels, and fans and writers never tire of coining new hyphenated sub-genres -- even if the distinctions between, say, "black-metal" and "symphonic-metal" can be difficult to discern.

At various times, Witchcraft has been branded "doom-metal," "stoner-rock," "prog-metal," "old-school metal" and "hipster-metal" -- a term that's being tossed around a lot these days to describe groups such as Mastodon and the Sword, or metal bands that are cool enough for indie-rock hipsters to endorse. But none of those terms mean much to the Swedish quartet's founder, guitarist and vocalist Magnus Pelander.

"I'm interested in songwriting in general," Pelander says. "Making a good song -- that's what interests me. But I think on the metal scene, a lot of people maybe forget about that now. ... With the early metal bands, they tried a lot of different things, and they weren't afraid to stretch out. I think nowadays people are so used to being labeled that they maybe subconsciously constrain themselves to the genre they're supposed to be in, thinking they have to sound like this or that or they may get in trouble!"

In the late '60s and early '70s, the original progenitors of heavy metal, including bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Iron Butterfly, forged their sounds from elements of psychedelic rock and heavy electric blues. These pioneers never felt constrained by genre, and they often stretched out in any direction the songwriting muse might suggest. (You want a 10-minute sitar jam? Sure!) A legacy of psychedelic exploration, this open-minded attitude also is evident in Witchcraft.

"Personally, I think psychedelic goes hand in hand with the term 'suggestive,'" Pelander says. "Really what people mean when they say a record is psychedelic is that there are some spaced-out parts. I'd rather call it a suggestive record, because it suggests someplace different and mysterious, and some kind of transcendental feeling, instead of just keeping on very simple and direct and commercial. It's something deeper."

Pelander first made his mark on the Swedish rock scene in the '90s as a member of a hard-rock band called Norrsken ("Northern Lights"). In 2000, he launched Witchcraft as a solo project to release a D.I.Y. single, and that disc hinted at the band's primary influences: One side was dedicated to psychedelic-rock pioneer Roky Erickson and the other to Bobby Liebling, the singer with Pentagram, the Virginia band that pursued a sound similar to Sabbath in the early '70s.

"That 7-inch was dedicated to Roky and Bobby because these guys had a very big influence on me in the early days when it came to singing," Pelander says. "I used to only play guitar back in the '90s. But I felt connected to these two artists, and they made me feel that I could do the same thing [with my own vocals]."

Witchcraft had become a proper band by the time it released its self-titled 2004 debut and the 2005 follow-up, "Firewood." (The current lineup is completed by Pelander's fellow guitarist and songwriting partner, John Hoyles, bassist Ola Henriksson and new drummer Fredrik Jansson.) The musicians were aware that American listeners were connecting with their recordings, and that metal icons such as Phil Anselmo of Pantera and Down had begun dropping their name. But the Swedish musicians were surprised nonetheless by the enthusiastic reception for their first U.S. tour last year. Now, on their second trip to the States, Pelander says the shows are even better.

"We tend to get a really different mix [of fans] at our shows -- everything from old-school metalheads to doom fans to younger kids who are more into indie-rock stuff. Overall, people are even more excited than we thought -- it's just been fantastic."

There's good reason for this excitement: The band's third album, "The Alchemist," is all at once its head-banging heaviest (with songs such as "If Crimson Was Your Color" and "Samaritan Burden" nicely evoking the Sabbath/Pentagram rhythmic stomp), most melodic (with hooks galore in "Hey Doctor" and "Walk Between the Lines") and freak-out trippiest (witness the 14-minute title track).

"We knew we had reached more people with 'Firewood,' but I don't think there was too much pressure in general for coming up with the follow-up. Although, for me, speaking personally about the vocals, I wasn't very happy with 'Firewood.' I was very, very -- how would you say it? -- energetic about doing vocals this time, and it turned out great. And when the new drummer came along, everything seemed just perfect."

Perfect, that is, for everyone except the handful of people who prefer their metal neatly labeled.

"It's not very usual for a band like us to come out of Sweden and not be a black-metal or death-metal band," Pelander concluded in another recent interview with MTV.com. "We're a crossover band, and that's a good thing, I think. ... It makes us more unique."