The Northern Sanctuary
Century Media Records/Sony Music Australia
Reviewed By Chris Gibbs
Dan Swanö. The name is royalty amongst the world of the metal elite, and has been at the forefront of Swedish melodic death metal and production for well over two decades. Any self-respecting metal head is aware of the man and his plethora of projects and contributions, and if you aren't by now, you're doing yourself and the genre a major disservice.
From the classic 40 minute progressive death metal Edge of Sanity masterpiece that is Crimson, to his excellent solo efforts like the Odyssey EP and Moontower. With his brother Dag, there's the '80s synth inspired heavy metal of Nightingale to the bludgeoning, vintage buzz saw death metal of Bloodbath with members of Opeth & Katatonia. Combined with countless guest appearances and production credits, right up to what must be one of his crowning achievements in 2013, the debut Witherscape record The Inheritance; take your pick.
Dan and his multi-instrumentalist side kick Ragnar Widerberg are back with their sophomore effort, The Northern Sanctuary. Both reprise their roles with Dan performing clean and growled vocals, drums, and keyboards, while Ragnar cements the fact he is essentially a virtuoso on the guitar and bass. Once again, lyrics were written by Paul Kuhr, vocalist of Novembers Doom who is an excellent lyricist and storyteller in his own right and fronts a great band, The Northern Sanctuary continues on with the spooky fable from where The Inheritance left off.
There are no doubts the likes of catchy but killer tracks from The Inheritance such as “Dead for a Day” have heavily influenced the writing and structuring of many of these songs as they’re of a similar style and length. With a consistent switch between melodic and growled verses and choruses, they simply stick in your head for days. Just listen to “In the Eyes of Idols” and tell me that vocal melody of the chorus does not burn into your brain?
That '80s inspired metal is still in full swing, and the likes of ballads “The Examiner” and “Marionette” are just brilliant. The former primarily dominated by clean vocals, which is very reminiscent of something off 2014's Nightingale record Retribution, the other dominated by that brutal growl. While I absolutely loved The Inheritance, it was a lot more chaotic, diverse, and progressive. I would have to say this is definitely a much more up tempo and accessible record than its predecessor that immediately grabs you from the opening track; perhaps they're targeting a wider audience?
That's not to imply it isn't still heavily rooted in all things Swedish melodic death metal as the epic, almost 14 minute title track definitely marks the high point and climax of the record, complete with an Edge of Sanity Crimson vibe. I would have loved for Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt to have been brought in on this for a guest vocal contribution, just for old time’s sake. Dan has definitely shown he still has it in him to pen and record such brilliant compositions. I recall reading something that this one particular song was in response to a fan calling him out for "playing it safe” in recent years. Well, here are two middle fingers to that "fan" and two thumbs up to Witherscape!