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Thursday, 29 September 2016

Monster Review: Opeth (Review By Paul)

Opeth: Sorceress (Nuclear Blast)

From their death metal roots of Orchid through to the creativity of Damnation and Deliverance and the recovery of Pale Communion after the relatively negative response to Heritage, Opeth are a band that has never stood still. Now in a position where they can sell out Wembley Arena, it's a long way from the mid 2000s where they played pubs and sweat boxes throughout Europe. It's been a steady, hard earned rise and one which most of their fans welcome. Their individual and imaginative style has rightly made them one of metal’s best kept secrets for many years. At long last the band are achieving international recognition with Pale Communion hitting 14 in the UK and 19 in the Billboard charts. Sorceress is therefore a heavily anticipated release.

What their rise in popularity has done is allow them to follow their own path. Studio album number 12, Sorceress demonstrates the sheer determination of a band unaffected by fashion, fads or the usual demands of the music industry. Recorded just down the road from us at the legendary Rockfield Studios, Sorceress fuses more of the 1970s progressive rock which has become the main flavour of recent albums with heavy dark riffage and more than a nod to the jazz world. We've been teased with the title track and its crazy looping intro for a few weeks now and the recent Damnation style Will O The Wisp single with its huge nod to Jethro Tull continued to whet the appetite.

The difficulty with reviewing any Opeth album is that it is now incredibly difficult to approach it with the impartiality that you would with an unknown band. Is Sorceress a creative masterpiece or a rather mixed palate with some rather uninspiring songs? Tom Dalgety’s production is not fantastic. Now, whether the 1970s inspiration rubbed off on him is unclear, but Mikael Akerfeldt’s vocals are often disappointingly lost in the mix.

So to start at the beginning. Persephone, a two minute acoustic number opens the album, book ending with closer Persephone (Slight Return). A deliciously fragile piece although one begins to wonder where the band are going with it. I expected Robin Hood to appear from the forest as it progressed. Sorceress follows, and having already played it to death I'm a big fan of the crazy meandering opening, the thick keyboard and rolling bass along with Martin Axenrot’s avant garde drumming before the massive crunching riff kicks in. Akerfeldt's voice is instantly recognisable, his clean vocals (no death growls on this album baby) fitting the haunting lyrics to perfection. Next up is The Wilde Flowers, a six and a half minute stomp with Joakim Svelberg’s keyboards rampant. The 1970s progressive rock feel of Camel and and Tull are present, whilst the heaviness of the opening retains some of the old school Opeth. Some excellent guitar work pops up half way through with a juicy hook on the chorus making this a memorable track.

Will O The Wisp takes us back to Harvest on Blackwater Park. More acoustic guitar, Martin Mendez’s comforting bass lines and some lovely layered synth chords underpin the whole track. It's either a routine average track or a thing of some beauty. Repeated listens lead me to the latter. Massive crashing riffs and frantic vocals launch the band headlong into Chrysalis, the second longest track on the album. There are flashes of real old school Opeth here with the galloping thump given extra emphasis with the gorgeous harmonies. For all the detractors who bemoan the recent changes in Opeth’s direction there are many more who are now beginning to appreciate the complexity and progressiveness of this band. 

To me, Chrysalis, with its massive nod to the duelling guitar/keyboard battles that Messrs Blackmore and Lord had in Deep Purple’s glory days, is a glorious example of the evolution that the Swedes have undergone, retaining the heaviness of Deliverance whilst maintaining the melody throughout . Slowing the pace towards the end of the track allows the guitar work of Akerfeldt and Fredrik Akesson to shine before the fade. So far, so very good. Sorceress 2 is next. A melancholic piece which slows the pace in the middle of the album, allowing the listener to catch breath and recover thought. Another huge nod to those prog influences, although I would say this is one of the weaker tracks on the album. Kudos to Akerfeldt and co though, with the arrival of a sitar on The Seventh Sojurn. A slow burner, reminiscent of the Eastern fusion which Led Zeppelin tasted in the mid 1970s, my problem with this five minute tune is that it takes forever to go anywhere and then when the piano riff kicks in, the vocals are strangely subdued before it dies.

Strange Brew is the longest track on the album at just under nine minutes. A slow opening with Akerfeldt’s vocal echoing eerily, a crafted piece of guitar followed by a wild jazz influenced assault. Intermittent time changes and Svelberg's Hammond organ swarm over the track before the guitars crash back in along with a monster out hook. Strange Brew is hard work on first listen but slowly grows, the variation of pace and tempo surprisingly comforting. However, it fades badly at the end, to real disappointment. A Fleeting Glance, complete with harpsichord introduction is completely confusing. Some uncomfortable high pitched opening vocals make it difficult to enjoy although it recovers with gusto with some soulful guitar work as it moves towards the end. Penultimate track Era opens with a solo piano before careering out of control with some of the heaviest riffs on the album. A fast paced track, some delicious harmonies and a hark back once more to the days of Blackmore and co. This is a real grower. With the calming piano of Persephone (Slight A Return) bringing things to a close, Sorceress is on first listen quite a difficult album.

However, although Sorceress is difficult to warm to at the beginning, repeated listens and time has provided more opportunity to sit back and appreciate its many layers. With much more use of harmonies in the choruses and vocals and a wider variety of unorthodox instruments, there is too much going on to appreciate all the subtle nuances in a mere couple of hits. The musicianship is of a very high standard, with Svalberg in particular prominent throughout. Whilst I fear that this will receive mixed reviews from the metal community, I'm excited to have a ticket for their Wembley show and the opportunity to hear a couple of these tracks in the live arena. Not my favourite album of the year but not far away. 9/10

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