Saturday, 1 October 2016

Opeth – Sorceress (2016) / 92%

Make Opeth Metal Again?

Now one of the biggest metal/rock bands on the planet, Opeth’s career has taken an important detour with Heritage in 2011. Legions of fans and detractors alike are asking themselves what will be the sound explored on this new album. Let’s not burn the sorceress before hearing her plea, shall we?

The Swedish giant is a band in constant evolution and unlike their peer, In Flames, they managed to make the transition into softer territories in a good way. They were already showing signs of their evolution with their gorgeous 2003 opus Damnation but with Heritage, they went all in, and it displeased and divided their audience. While they will not win back the fans who wants them to be truly metal again with this new album, it might be viewed more favorably. Anyway, I don’t really care about what other people say about Opeth, I care only about what Mikael Åkerfeldt is doing since he’s been the leader of my favorite band since I discovered them in high school.

I will not let the suspense go on much longer, yes Sorceress is a good album but I do think Opeth never (and probably never will) released a bad album. I do have some reservations towards the album though. It’s clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. The band has always been somewhat disjointed as it’s usually the case with bands with long song structures. Nevertheless, it’s never been as apparent and obvious as it is here except for Heritage which is possibly their weakest album. Maybe it’s because of the eleven-tracks format (the most of any Opeth album) or the fact that the songs are a bit shorter and more self contained.

Opeth had the tendency to be meandering and includes a wide array of styles within the same songs. Sure, there’s exceptions found in their past career with songs like “Harvest” or “To Bid You Farewell”, but Sorceress feels much more like an amalgam of different styles than any other of their other albums (extreme metal excluded, no they’re not coming back to their death metal blend...). You have the folky Jethro Tull-influenced ballad “Will o the Wisp” or the heavy metal/hard rock of “Chrysalis” and the different elements are a bit less melded together than before. Furthermore, “The Seventh Sojourn” is even a track similar to the Fertile Crescent sound, and it works as a sort of smooth interlude similar to the non-metal tracks found on Melechesh’s excellent albums The Epigenesis and Enki. Oh man speaking of that, an Opeth/Melechesh tour would be killer. Make this happen, Nuclear Blast.

The final important negative point would be the abrupt end of the album. It ends with a short, one minute outro after the hard rocking “Era” and it was a bit like if the waiter removed your plate from the table while you’re eating it. It was a sudden and unexpected finale to an otherwise great album. The introduction right before the title track works though. It’s classical guitars with some ethereal female spoken word, and it sets the tone in a good way. It’s not unlike “Coil” from Watershed but it’s not a “complete” song.

Still, I reckon my criticisms are pretty small. I’ve learned to disregard those aspects after four or five spins and it remains a collection of great songs. Regardless, the album isn’t as condensed as their previous one. The cohesion is lacking and the flow isn’t perfect. Still, it’s not as incoherent as Heritage and doesn’t have as many disposable moments. I’d say that “Sorceress 2” is the only truly weak point found on this record. It’s a boring four-minute acoustic ballad with unremarkable vocal lines. It’s the total opposite of the aforementioned and super great folky “Wisp” and it has to be one of the weakest tracks Opeth ever composed.

While Pale Communion was pretty much Opeth without the extreme metal elements, Sorceress is less limited and feels it could be another transitional album. Nevertheless, I do think Opeth never did a real transitional album except Watershed. They’re just creating landscapes based on a large amalgam of approaches and themes, and it turned out their 2008 record was the last one with death metal components. Still, the tracks without Mikael’s harsh vocals like “Porcelain Heart” or “Burden” were signs of their future incarnation. I can’t help but think that Sorceress could be interpreted as a new watershed for the Swedes. It’s hard what to predict what they’ll do next, but based on the lyrics of “Era”, it could be the conclusion of their current manifestation. It’s the “end of an era, we’ll start a new...” so maybe they’ll go back to their prog death sound and tour with Amorphis like it’s 2002 all over again?!

As far as their evolution is concerned, Sorceress is still Opeth exploring progressive rock in their own way but it probably has their heavier moments since the album that gave us “Lotus Eater” and “Heir Apparent.” To answer my own Trump reference in the title, yes this is (probably??) a metal album ,and the heavy parts possess a new sense of perspective. They added some stoner flavors to their newfound metallic formula and it’s heavier than Pale Communion when it actually decides to be. The title track released as the first single is a good example of Sorceress’ metallic identity. While this is still Opeth, it’s a widely different album even if there’s their usual tropes.

Compared to the previous album, the jazz influence are gone and the combination of heavy metal, progressive rock and folk took their rightful place. We already had heavy rock parts on Heritage (“Slither”, a song dedicated to Dio) but those parts are boosted on this album. This side of the band’s identity took time to appear and knowing how much Mikael is a lover of 70s and 80s heavy metal and hard rock, it was simply a matter of time. He’s a massive Michael Schenker fan and it’s obvious that UFO, Uriah Heep and the NWOBHM scene were huge influences on the compositions. Those classic rock influences were included into the idiosyncratic sound of Opeth, they never were and never will be a cheap throwback or a “vintage rock” band. They’re innovative while looking at the rightful musical identities of the past.

Concerning the individual performances of this opus, Martín Méndez’ bass is a shining beacon. He’s been playing a role within the band’s sound recently and it’s a good thing; the dude is on fire and deserves more credit and praise. Another key element: The keys of Joakim Svalberg (his second album with the band) are thunderous and give Opeth their well-deserved rich sound. The chemistry between the keys and the guitars is certainly something to behold.

There is a voice surrounding me...” -Mikael Åkerfeldt on “Strange Brew”

About the leader himself, he’s always been one of my favorite singers but he has been improving his clean vocals for a while now and probably offers his best performance ever as a clean singer on this 12th album. He shines on the rougher moments, and he’s been expanding his pallet for the softer parts. While I’ll admit I do miss the growls at times, even if they wouldn’t fit here, he’s masterful on Sorceress. He’s soulful, charismatic and sensual on the heavy bits, and sensible and mystic during the calm instants. My favorite Mikael moment of the album has to be the memorable chorus of “The Wilde Flowers”.

Production-wise, I dig the guitar tones, they have this old school feel but with strong doom sensibilities. The riffs on tracks like “Chrysalis” or the truly sole epic they did “Strange Brew” (the most varied track of the album) are killer and absolutely well written. The acoustic guitars are back in full force too and their inclusion on tracks like “A Fleeting Glance” are pertinent. Fredrik Åkesson and Åkerfeldt are expert guitarists, this is known. Their guitar parts range from being subtle to over the top in a matter of instant (listen to the soloing of “The Wilde Flowers” or the Blackwater Park/Ghost Reveries-esque calm parts in some songs). Nonetheless, they’re a bit too mechanical during the “stoner” moments (such as the debut of “Era”) but overall, the two guitarists keep things interesting, uncomplicated and tidy. It’s yet another strong slab of strong and creative musicianship.

To conclude, the new influences ranging from stoner rock to heavy metal made this a fresh record without being overly modern or distasteful. That’s a feat in itself in this saturated musical age full of bands trying to mix everything together in the hopes of creating something unusual or redesigned. Twenty-one years after their debut album, the Swedish monolithic entity still has the upper hand.

It may be the most chaotic album they ever did and the direction they took isn’t quite clear to me. Are they coming back to a more metallic sound to please the fans? Anyhow, the mixture of elements is working. It almost sounds like the perfect marriage of Ghost Reveries, Watershed and Pale Communion into one potent magical spell but it has the main downfall of Heritage, the incoherence of its tracklist.

Make Opeth Great Again? They’ve always been great and they’ll always be the best band. Metal or not. Is this album even metal? Who cares? It’s Opeth, and they’re awesome.

Originally written for The Metal Observer.

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