Opeth – Sorceress (Moderbolaget Records / distributed by Nuclear Blast, 30 September 2016)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Abbey Road. “The White Album.” Widely considered to be hugely influential milestones in the history of recorded music. And yet the group responsible for these masterpieces began its career with mindless bubblegum-pop: stuff like “Love, love me do / You know I love you / I’ll always be true / So please love me do,” “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah / She loves you, yeah yeah yeah / She loves you, yeah yeah yeah yeah,” and “I wanna hold your hand / I wanna hold your hand / I wanna hold your hand / I wanna hold your hand.”
Certainly that’s a pretty extreme example, but the point here is that when a band experiences a seismic styistic shift, it isn’t always catastrophic, and can even be a positive thing. Naturally, when this occurs it can sometimes be unnerving to fans of the artist’s earlier work (and of course there have been plenty of moments where such a move did turn out to be a major misstep), but it never ceases to confound me, how often and how passionately hatred is spewed in the direction of Opeth for having developed a different sound over their quarter-century-plus career. This group of Swedes receives just as many nasty comments (particularly if the band is ever mentioned in the context of a metal festival or anything to do with metal music) for NOT making the same album over and over, as Six Feet Under does for essentially the exact opposite transgression.
The transition from death metal to progressive death metal occurred very early in this band’s existence, and it was the latter guise that caught most fans’ attention, gaining the ensemble a huge following. But throughout the course of a dozen full-length albums, gradually the elements of “death” had dropped away, and ultimately “metal” as well, landing Opeth squarely in the realm of “progressive” music, and leaving many earlier devotees feeling shortchanged. Nevertheless, in this reviewer’s opinion the band’s latest effort, last September’s Sorceress stands up quite well — when one judges it on its own merits, rather than attempting a side-by-side comparison with Still Life or Blackwater Park. And with that in mind, let’s jump right in.
As the album opens, the two-minute-long acoustic intro “Persephone” might make fans of the band’s earliest work especially fearful, because — to be perfectly frank, as lovely as this instrumental piece is, it could easily have been mistaken for the background part of a song by Enrique Iglesias or somebody, the sort of thing they’d play on the PA in a semi-fancy restaurant. But not to worry: this quickly gives way to the first proper song, the title track, which opens with a rather fuzzy stoner-groove intro riff, but then shifts to more of a doomy/traditional heavy metal fare.
From there onward, the album teeters between various aspects progressive rock, incorporating classic rock, hard rock, and folk rock — none of which will be likely to soothe the ire of the die-hard death-metalhead masses, but fans of (for example) Yes, Camel, or even early Genesis will surely find plenty to pique their interest here. The song structures often take wild twists and turns, veering out widely on various tangents — while also alternating between softer, acoustic fare (“Will O the Wisp,” for instance) and heavier, faster-paced, more rock-oriented tunes (the coincidentally-aptly-named “Chrysalis” which, with its distorted organ and heavier driving beat could easily have found itself slotted alongside the harder-rocking songs on an album like Aqualung or The Wall).
The mostly-instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” incorporates a more exotic sound with “Kashmir“-eqsue strings and guitar sounds, while “A Fleeting Glance” delves into more of an old English folk style with a harpsichord accompaniment. Some of the album’s gentler moments occur nearer the end of the running time, such as the quiet piano that introduces “Era” (although the rest of the song is a bit harder, featuring some serious guitar solos) and then returns after that track’s abrupt ending as the album’s closing reprise “Persephone (Slight Return)”; but “Strange Brew” (no relation to the Cream classic), one of the longer tracks here, is also one of the more varied: while it opens with a rather lethargic pace, it swaps back and forth into a much faster, and more technically and rhythmically complex style, and even into a moderately-slow heavy waltz-time section for a bit.
Of course, there’s no question that Opeth are talented musicians or that they can write a high-quality song. But clearly the biggest complaint of the band’s detractors has always been the lack of death metal vocals, which has been one of the side effects of the metamorphosis throughout their career. To those folks, again, it seems you’re going to be a bit disappointed. But for anyone who can appreciate some nicely-done melodic singing…
The title track introduces a blend of sort of deadpanned vocals with some that are a bit more melodic in a kind of Layne Staley way. But elsewhere the singing style more resembles Ian Anderson (“Will O the Wisp”), Eric Woolfson (“Sorceress 2”), or even sometimes a bit of an ELO feel (“A Fleeting Glance”) with the falsetto and the way the parts are layered together.
So ultimately, if you find yourself wanting to hear a band make another album identical to one you’ve heard before, maybe just go listen to those older albums again. Or jump on the AC/DC or Motörhead bandwagons. But if you’re someone with a bit broader taste and enjoy well-crafted music even if there is clean singing involved, you could certainly do worse than to give Sorceress a try.
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