This is a real important release for Opeth, at least when it comes to how I view the band. Just to clear up any doubt, Opeth are one of my absolute favorite bands. Ever. I have the Opeth logo as my desktop background. Yeah, I love them that much. Blackwater Park is an absolute desert island disc in my book, and several other of their classic albums aren’t far behind either. But, as much as it pains me to say it, the last two records from these proggy Swede’s, while absolutely stunning from a musicianship standpoint, really missed the target from a songwriting standpoint. In addition to jettisoning the death metal aspect of the band’s sound, the songwriting took on a labyrinthine structure that, at least in my opinion, became really unfocused in parts.
Suffice to say, I was really worried going into this album. Heritage didn’t really work for me, and Pale Communion, while a step up from the preceding recording, still had many of the same problems. Sorceress, I can say for sure, really brings back some of the heaviness from earlier Opeth. No growling, but there’s more riffs here and a darker production than the bright polish of the last two. The title track (after a swinging’ fusion keyboard intro) especially reminds me of “Bury Me In Smoke” by Down with it’s Drop-A tuned guitar sound and the mid-tempo chug chug ch-ch-chuggin rhythm that pervades the song. It’s sort of gratifying to have Opeth doing something that going for something this visceral and succinct. In fact, that’s something that this whole album seems to have running through it. Most of these tracks seem to get going right away; there’s a lot less of the meandering that characterized their last two records, and contrary to what one might expect expect from Opeth, no tracks break the ten minute mark. I feel like had this record come out directly after Watershed in 2008, the transition between the two phases of Opeth would have seemed a lot smoother.
But the heaviness and renewed focus aren’t the only things that help this rise above what came before. The production here differs from the sound the band captured on Heritage and Pale Communion. The band chose not to go with regular collaborator Steven Wilson to mix this record, and his razor sharp sound has been traded for something a little dirtier but more hard-hitting. Even the quieter moments here pack more menace as the darker mix brings out more of the sinister undertones in Opeth’s music.
The band here seem to be taking a lot of cues from classic seventies heavy metal on many songs. A lot of the riffs are doubled with Marshall-stacked hammond organs, giving a very Deep Purple vibe, especially on “The Wilde Flowers” and “Era”, the latter of which is one of the most straightforward rockers the band have ever written. Special mention as usual needs to go to drummer Martin Axenrot, whose infinitely intricate, jazz influenced drum parts are key in keeping everything moving. His flashy cymbal work on “Strange Brew”, which disappointingly is not a cover of the Cream song of the same name, is especially impressive. Mikael Åkerfeldt brings his usual smooth singing minus his famous death growl, but it seems as if his vocal range is expanding with each release, as this record probably contains his most ambitious clean vocals to date. All of the musicianship here is top-notch as usual. These guys are one of the tightest units in rock music and can navigate around really technical lines but also play it subtle and quiet on a dime, something that a lot of technically talented players in the metal scene have some trouble with. I really like some of the sonic experiments Opeth try out on this one. The low tunings on the title track are a welcome change of pace for a band that has almost always played in E-standard or D. Another interesting addition is the incorporation of world music on the instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn”. They’ve played around with this before, but this is the first fully fledged track the band has done in this idiom and I really enjoy the sound they come up with on it.
While I think I may be past the point of really going head-over-heels an album from Opeth album in this new style they’ve adopted, this is definitely the best of those albums and is worth a listen, even if you haven’t liked their previous output.
-A Fleeting Glance
-The Seventh Sojourn