A Sanctuary For Dynamics

Despite the laundry list of projects Dan “The Man” Swanö has been associated with, most fans know of Dan from his years of service with Bloodbath or as the singular mastermind behind Edge of Sanity. Sure, his solo record, 1999’s Moontower, was stellar too, and so is some of his more recent output with his brother Dag under the Nightingale moniker, but it is really the first two aforementioned projects that everyone associates as “classic” Swanö.

But I also think his latest project, Witherscape, may soon be held in the same high esteem as some of those earlier seminal works too, as its debut, 2013’s The Inheritance, and now its recently released followup, The Northern Sanctuary, have also both been hailed as some of Dan’s finest work to date as well. In fact, our very good friend Steel Druhm over at AMG reviewed Inheritance calling it a “major triumph,” and that as a project, Witherscape has “compressed the various eras of Swanö’s work into a cohesive, memorable platter full of interesting music, slick arrangements and hard hitting songs.” Steel had even higher praise for Sanctuary, stating that he “was very taken by The Inheritance, but this is a superior album in all ways.”, and then concluded, “This will be on many a year end list so don’t miss out.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet what really makes Dan “The Man” is not just his musical chops, but his engineering ones too. You might not know it, but Dan has been a highly sought after engineer for quite some time now, and has mixed and mastered a myriad array of famous releases from bands like Incantation, Omnium Gatherum, and Asphyx to name just a few. In addition to that, Dan is a big proponent of bringing back dynamics to metal, and has been using his more recent output as a platform to promote dynamics by offering an alternative FDR mix with each successive release. In fact, if you check out Witherscape‘s official Century Media bio, it reads:

Having worked as a mixing engineer and producer for bands such as Opeth, Katatonia, Asphyx, etc at his Unisound Studio, Swanö has been a proponent in combating the modern mixing approach. He elaborates, “We support the ending of the stupid “loudness war” that has been plaguing CD’s for the last 15-20 years now. As a reaction to this, we have included the mix (found on the bonus disc of the limited edition Mediabook version) as it would sound if that war never happened. One just has to turn the volume knob up a few notches and then it’s “Full Dynamic Metal!”

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Indeed. If you recall, Inheritance came out with an alternative vinyl MP3 mix embedded as a data track on the CD. Dave wrote about it extensively in his Take the Swanö Challenge article, where he demonstrated that the differences between the two were easily discernible, even with the most basic of setups, provided you level match the two. Same is true with the last Nightingale record, 2014’s Retribution, as well.

But even though most would generally agree that Dan’s highly dynamic vinyl mixes are superior to their heavily compressed counterparts, the fact that they were both delivered as MP3s makes them a tad less so. Don’t get me wrong, MP3s are fine for your listening enjoyment, but as an archival format, not so much. Regardless, I still think what Dan did was remarkable, and perhaps a real industry first. But even more to the point, it gave headbangers a golden opportunity to hear what the record should have sounded like if the Loudness War never existed. A gift typically only reserved for those with a penchant for wax.

Luckily, for Sanctuary, Dan planned from day one to have a full blown CD release just for its FDR DR13 mix. Century agreed, and that’s why Sanctuary comes as both a standard CD in addition to a double CD mediabook, with the second silvery coaster housing a full dynamic mix as well as an instrumental one too. The instrumental mix is again embedded as a data track just like the vinyl mix was on Inheritance.

So with all of the above in mind, should you go out and spend a few extra bucks on the mediabook for that FDR mix or just settle on the standard CD? The answer to that question is a bit more tricky than it would seem.

You see unlike Inheritance, which clocked in at an obviously bricked DR6, Sanctuary‘s standard release now measures at a brisk DR8. That makes the level-matched comparison between its standard mix and the FDR one far less dramatic. In fact, in many respects, Dan’s engineering talents here are his own worst enemy; listening back and forth through iTunes with Sound Check on, the FDR mix is only subtly better, mainly in the more aurally dense parts sprinkled throughout the album. With the FDR mix, I found that instrument separation, especially when things get hoping, sounds a lot more spacious, and it adds a bit of punch to those quiet to loud buildups on some of the more progressive tracks as well. But it’s subtle, and if you’re just a casual listener you’re probably not going to notice much of a difference (of course if you are casual listener I doubt you’re reading this anyway).

So are these subtle improvements really worth a few extra bucks? I think so. Again, I’ll be the first one to admit, I think the CD sounds great, and I would be perfectly content with it if that’s all Dan was offering. But it’s not, and this is one of the best records of the year regardless of which version you get. So if you want the absolute best version of it, then get the mediabook and bathe in all that dynamic metal glory. You can also certainly do the wax too as it shares that FDR mix as well.

Hopefully, one day, that FDR mix will be the standard one and articles like this one won’t need to exist. But until then, FDR or bust!