Dan Swano is as much an extreme metal legend as you can get. From his work with the seminal Edge Of Sanity, to his years spent behind the desk making every band he worked with sound better than they ever had before, he is one of the key figures in the history of European extreme metal. And all of that is before even mentioning “Moontower”, his solo triumph. That album, in my eyes, is the single greatest death metal record ever made, and a towering achievement that single-handedly proves the merit of growled vocals. All these years later, there is still nothing that sounds like it, and it's impact has never dulled.
Witherscape is Swano's first metal project in many a year, one that has conjured up comparisons to that landmark album. Invoking that spirit is dangerous, because as much as I would love to hear the second coming of “Moontower”, echoing its name also heightens the potential disappointment. After many passes through “The Inheritance”, one thing I can say for sure is that this is not a new “Moontower”.
Given the stage I set, that might sound like criticism, but it's simply the truth. “The Inheritance” is not a new “Moontower”, because they're entirely different beasts. Witherscape is not a death metal band bringing in elements of rock and prog, they're a prog band bringing in elements of death metal. The equation is flipped, which means we have to approach it from a different perspective.
The one thing you're not going to get from “The Inheritance” are straight-ahead, simple songs. These compositions twist and wind, pulling themselves off the traditional framework at just the right moments to catch you off guard. “Astrid Falls” stops and starts with abandon, herking and jerking like a rusted roller-coaster climbing the first hill. Initially, it sounds like a misshapen lump of music, but in time the bigger picture becomes clear.
Even the most accessible song on the album, the amazing “Dead For A Day” can't manage to stay straight for four minutes. Boasting a huge, roared chorus that would have fit perfectly on “Moontower”, the pop meets death metal gets interrupted when the bridge introduces an odd time signature, before the song twists yet again and finishes with a pure pop call and response between Swano's clean and harsh vocals. Hearing it is so out of place that the genius can't be mistaken.
The album is centered around Swano, who shows all the pretenders how to properly do the dual vocal approach. His clean singing is the rich baritone that has made Nightingale such a melodically appealing band, while his growl is the stuff of legend. No one else has ever been able to inject such fury into a vocal while maintaining humanity and musicality. Time hasn't taken anything from him in that regard.
“The Inheritance” is a concept album, but what's most important are how the songs survive on their own. What's most noticeable about these songs is the insistence that each song carry a strong hook, something most anything associated with death metal forgets. Anchored by those clean vocals, Swano sells the hell out of these songs, giving each and every one of them teeth. Sure, there's one or two that aren't quite as strong as others, but those are minor quibbles.
What Witherscape has done with their debut album is put together one of the finest blends of prog and death metal since Opeth's beastly “Blackwater Park”. “The Inheritance” might not be groundbreaking in the way Swano's earlier works were, but it's class all the way. It's not “Moontower”, but nothing was ever going to be. “The Inheritance” stands on it's own, and it stands proud.