(2016, Nuclear Blast)
After spending years as a cult secret amongst prog and death metal fans, Opeth find themselves in 2016 as one of Sweden’s most successful musical exports of recent times. However, not all long-term fans have been happy with the notable change in direction on Opeth’s most recent albums; 2011’s Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion are completely lacking in death metal elements as well as, according to some, the dynamic variety that made Opeth such an attractive proposition in the first place. Nevertheless, while new album Sorceress, their 12th full-length effort, takes several listens to reveal all its secrets, it contains plenty to please Opeth fans of all shapes and sizes.
Firstly, the acoustic guitars and pianos are present in spades on Sorceress; 5 of its 11 tracks are either wholly or primarily acoustic, making it arguably Opeth’s quietest album since 2003’s Damnation. “Persephone” is a thoroughly pleasant introduction, with expertly played Spanish guitar that evokes images of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to The Princess Bride. “Will O the Wisp” is probably the band’s best light song since “Harvest” from 2001’s Blackwater Park; a serene pastoral melody combines with smooth jazz guitar leads and a sublime vocal performance. And the largely instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” is an attempt at something new, with its oriental percussion and strings (an updated version of The Beatles “Within You, Without You” perhaps?) complete with characteristically haunting piano and vocals towards the end. Boxes are nicely ticked as far as showing Opeth’s talent for the lighter side of prog rock goes.
But what about the heavier stuff? Well this is Opeth’s third consecutive album to contain no death metal vocals, and I would not be surprised if they never return to that style of music. The heavy parts of Sorceress owe less to the influence of the 80s and 90s metal scenes that Mikael Åkerfeldt grew up with and more to the fuzzy rock of the 70s of which he is famously a connoisseur. The title-track/lead single is full of dirty organ riffs and jazzy drums; straight out of the 70s prog rock playbook. Staccato, chugging, sludgy guitar riffs evoke an effective doom atmosphere, a la the best work of Blood Ceremony or Candlemass; combined with a steady marching pace and accessible vocal melody, it all comes together nicely.
“Chrysalis” is easily the heaviest song on Sorceress, the only one that properly hearkens back to earlier albums like Still Life or Ghost Reveries. The fast-paced interplay between guitar and organ is superb, with plenty of technical parts to rival the intricacy of Dream Theater. “Strange Brew” is a bit all over the place, with several seemingly unconnected sections, but is ultimately quite engaging. Stark, isolated piano and clean guitars fade to a frenetic, jazzy breakdown, before an impassioned vocal cry gives way to a BIG Sabbath-esque riff and solo; a very cool 70s vibe. The album ends on a high point too with “Era”; beginning with a piano solo, it quickly shifts gear to what is essentially a fast-paced homage to Rush (I can hear “YYZ” in the main riff and “Something for Nothing” in the solo). Sorceress was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, the same place where the likes of Rush and Led Zeppelin recorded some of their most celebrated albums, so maybe it’s only natural that all these 70s influences have rubbed off on Opeth so blatantly.
Judging all the tracks on Sorceress objectively by their respective merits, there isn’t really much to criticise in terms of either composition or delivery. My main gripe is that the album flows poorly and lacks cohesion; the frequent change of pace and style results in a disjointed feel, making Sorceress a hard album to get into (it took me a good 5 or 6 listens to properly “get” it). This album is a quintessential “grower”, which I suppose is something to be applauded in this disposable digital age. Opeth have always had an “old school” mentality; this is an album you’re supposed to sit down and properly listen to (preferably on vinyl, on a big old-fashioned stereo).
It can also be argued that Sorceress is a bit too derivative, with more emphasis on paying homage to old influences, rather than on creating something new. While Opeth firmly, and unashamedly, wear their influences on their sleeves, I feel they perform with enough idiosyncrasy for this not to be a problem. This album couldn’t be the work of anyone else; sure, Opeth have used plenty of ideas that are 40 years old but their trademark melancholic, experimental stamp is all over them. When all is said and done, Sorceress should satisfy most Opeth fans (particularly if they’re big 70s rock fans too); approach it with an open mind and a great deal of patience and you’ll be happy.