I've been chomping at the bit to hear the new Opeth record ever since frontman and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt started talking about it later on in 2013. As a general statement, I liked Heritage but I thought it could've been a little more focused at times. So when Åkerfeldt said the new stuff would be heavier and "all over the place," I was simultaneously concerned and very interested. Where the hell could this new record go that would really, truly shock fans at this point? Well now I can tell you.
So here's how this is going to work…
- The record has no name and the songs have no titles, so each song I'm going to title as the numbered track with the track length next to it. This way when the record comes out we'll at least know which songs I was referring to.
- The songs are also apparently not "sequenced," which is an industry term for them not being in the final order for the album, so I'm going to leave the flow from song to song out of this review.
- I'm going to go track by track here and then make a statement at the end about the record overall. Think of that last part as a straightforward review.
- Oh, and there's no growls or death metal vocals on this record. So if you're going to skim this review for any mention of them, save your time and go read something else.
So let's get to reviewin' us some new Opeth (that is probably out this June), yeah?
Track One (6:46)
If you would have told me this was a lost track written between Ghost Reveries and Damnation I wouldn't have even questioned it. The song kicks off with some organ and drum runs that settle into a little groove, another distant keyboard that sounds like a mix between strings and a theremin joins in and then everything explodes into the full band. The song sticks with the Ghost Reveries groove-vibe for a little and then calms down into Damnation pianos and mellotrons with the classic clean-toned droning guitar over top. Vocals come in around three-minutes and they're really layered over top what feels like a beefier version of the first section. Think Heritage with teeth. There's a killer guitar solo and then right before it's all over, there's a really interesting instrumental section that's a little shreddier than anything Opeth have done up to now. Not shreddy as in wanky, but this big full-band unison thing going on that's just really cool. Then a string section and organ fade the song out.
Track Two (5:36)
The track opens with an oscillating noise that sounds like an effected guitar and underneath comes this big, full band groove. I mean one seriously fat motherfucker of a riff. "Track Two" is a lot less progressively influenced than "Track One." There's a few verses, a chorus, a guitar solo and a few little four-or-eight-bar runs between the sections. Where the song lacks in progressive grandiosity, it makes up for by being a straight up headbanger. You know how when "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen comes on and there's that one part everyone head bangs to? This whole song is like that. One of the best moments is the guitar solo, not only because it just rips like mad, but because there's this punctuated, stop-and-go riff underneath that absolutely demands a foot tap at the very least. I would not suggest listening to this song in public because you're going to be forced to react to it in some capacity.
Track Three (10:53)
"Track Three" is one of those songs where you don't even realize eleven minutes has passed because you're enjoying the music so much. It's a really, really intense sounding song. I'm not precisely sure what makes it so sinister but there's a lot going on instrumentally that melds, yet clashes, in a really interesting way. The song evokes feelings of dread, like something bad that's about to happen any second now… it's coming for you. In my notes I wrote "4:40 is downright evil," and upon a second listen I was dead on with that. There's some back-masked vocals, sounds of something distant clattering and foggy keyboards. Whatever the dread being evoked before was for, it's there in that moment. Then out of the blue the song cuts to a vocals-only section followed closely by xylophones and acoustic guitars. Or at least for that section that goes until about 6:50 where the first section's mood gets revisited and slowly evolves into a mournful major key.
Vocals play a huge part in this song with their layering and general prominence, but that seems to be the story of this album so far.
Track Four (4:46)
It's hard not to compare this track to something off Damnation. Åkerfeldt croons "I don't want to bear my scars for you," acoustic guitars caress your ears with cold, bony fingers, a mellotron quietly plays a muted string patch in the background and the rhythm section tries to keep it as quiet as possible. The reliance on acoustic guitars in this one is strong, and it's such a simple chord progression that carries the song… but the structure around it is just beyond bleak mood-wise. If there were ever a song one could name as "the darkest" song Opeth have ever written, this one is a contender. "Track Four" is a testament to the band's ability to write heavy music without really incorporating any instruments that convey "heavy." This one weighs on the mind.
Track Five (4:32)
For what it's worth, this is a sick instrumental that strips away a lot of the instrumentation used throughout the rest of the record. This is Opeth doing Opeth without the aid of vocals, so the determination of song quality lies solely in the riffs. Which are delivered in abundance. The intro also sounds like it might be a fade in from another song, though if this one ends up being a standalone thing I'm not sure anyone is going to complain. The focus of half the instrumental is a phased, swirling, palm-muted guitar line that pokes through like a thousand dull pin pricks, letting tiny streams of light come through the foundations laid by the rest of the band. The other half is just a monster riff fest.
Track Six (7:31)
After listening to this album maybe five or six times in one day (particularly yesterday), I still cannot believe this song is Opeth. "Track Six" is Opeth doing an emulation of 1970's pop-meets-rock in such a way where it's still identifiably them. Like, if this song cut out a few sections and was performed by a band like Boston or Bachman Turner Overdrive, nobody would even question it. Even the guitar solo and instrumental sections wear the influence on their sleeves. This is also one of my favorite songs off the record. Some of it is going to get stuck in your head forever, some of it is going to open your eyes to an entirely new side of Opeth that you didn't know you wanted until the first time you've heard it and all of it is going to blow you right the hell away.
"Musical boundaries? What musical boundaries?"
Track Seven (7:47)
Here's another song where Opeth take a bit of a detour from what you might expect. Reliance on guitars and keyboards might be a mainstay for the group, but what about the lower family of strings? I'm talking about upright basses and cellos chugging along with their raspy voices while Åkerfeldt sings over top of them with the occasional keyboard flourish. If anything, "Track Seven" sounds like it should be in the soundtrack to a movie. The song also boasts one of my favorite endings to a song so far (until you get to "Track Eight," as I've found out). As the song grows in intensity and the throaty strings reach monolithic proportions in all frequencies, Åkerfeldt simply asks "have you ever seen the aftermath of giving up?" Boom. The last minute of the song is just a rhodes keyboard and talk of giving up in the winter. If this song really is about dying and giving up, then the conveyance of that mood or final moments is nailed.
Track Eight (8:02)
"Track Eight" would work really well as the closer to the record or as a palette cleanser between the bigger, heavier songs. I've made the comparison before in this review, but this song happens to also sound like a much bigger rendition of something that was on Damnation. The addition of a much more present string section, big choirs, slightly distorted guitars, the string section, the string section, the string section… did I mention how the string section makes this song? Because it does. It's a present element through the track, disappears for a little while some acoustic guitars take over with ghostly electric guitars and a piano, and then comes back in a big way. Or at least for the last minute when it's just strings and some vocals. It's such a mournful, sorrow-drenched arrangement that as the last notes play your heart almost wants to go with it. There's just this underlying sadness to it like you're walking about out your best friend's funeral. Whatever follows this song has to hit hard immediately, and if this really is the end of the record… wow. Wow. Wow. WOW. PERFECT ENDING. Seriously, you're going to hear the last three minutes of this song and never be able to look at another song the same way again. Prepare to have your heart torn in two.
Honestly? This is the best record Opeth have put out since Ghost Reveries. The band continues their tradition of not repeating themselves but in a much better, more accessible way than they have in the past. The melodies and riffs from each song are instantly identifiable as that particular song, the new elements incorporated into the music fit extremely well and it seems like the record was written with each separate song in mind. As in it doesn't sound like any particular song revolves around one singular instrument or riff, but has everything beautifully play off each other. Where Heritage and Watershed may have been a little unfocused at time or lost in their own adventure of a new song, this record knows exactly what it's doing and nails it through and through. I'll even go as far as saying this record conveys the widest range of emotions I think I've ever heard Opeth convey, and with unbelievable grace and style. Absolutely none of the writing is heavy-handed in trying to get a point across.
As a point of reference, I'd say this record is either the missing link between Damnation and Ghost Reveries or if Heritage was written directly after Ghost Reveries without Watershed having ever existed. You get the idea.
So hey, Opeth. If any of you are reading this- thanks. You've written one of my favorite records of 2014. If not my favorite record of 2014.
If not my favorite record of the last few years.
We recently interviewed Mikael and Fredrick about the album. Watch the interview below: