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
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
"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."