Opeth have always been a restless, seasick leviathan, grudgingly yet brilliantly deconstructing death metal in the early 90's – their recent 25th anniversary bio confirms that frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt was always more into technicality and jazzy song progressions than brutal riffs – but in recent years Åkerfeldt and company have seemed less beholden than ever to their extreme metal fanbase. They've rapidly jettisoned all pretense of metal at all (extreme or otherwise) in favor of straight ahead 1970's-influenced prog rock. 2011's Heritage opened the floodgates, and with each progressive project (pun intended) Opeth have become less and less "metal".
What they haven't done is become less experimental. The easiest knock against Heritage was that it found the band a bit too enraptured with their influences, with many slating it as a slavish tribute album to 70's prog luminaries like ELP, Camel and Gentle Giant. That critique is not entirely unfounded, but subsequent projects – including 2012's Storm Corrosion collab with Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, and 2014's Pale Communion – have seen Åkerfeldt shake the bonds of patronage and come into his own as a legit prog songwriter… somewhat, at least, and isn't that the rub?
Since this year's Sorceress paints from an even wider tableau than Heritage and Pale Communion, we thought we'd run a track-by-track breakdown rather than a traditional review, which likely would have ended up itemizing each song by necessity anyway.
1. "Persephone" – a simple yet plaintive two-minute prologue, "Persephone" is a lush acoustic-based taster that offers a lot of heart but limited mileage, mainly gorgeous aesthetic that acts as deliberately minimalist counterpoint to the following track.
2. "Sorceress" – the most Pale Communion-like track on the disc, "Sorceress" begins with a monstrously dank organ riff before yielding to a simplistic yet heavy as fuck dual guitar riff. The progressive nature of the track unfolds primarily via songwriting rather than fastidious instrumentation, but there's an accessible immediacy to the cut that proves to set a misleading example for the rest of the album. "Sorceress" was chosen as a pre-release single for a reason: it's the least divisive tune on the record, an early bon mot capable of uniting not only fans of Opeth's current direction, but also offering crossover appeal to those who felt like Ghost Reveries and Watershed were their high water mark.
3. "The Wilde Flowers" – …and we're back to traditional prog worship, albeit with Åkerfeldt adopting a slightly nasally, more modern tone in his vocal delivery. Like its predecessor, "The Wilde Flowers" offers an intelligently sequenced range of builds and denouement, of flashy solos and basic riffs, with a cathartic range of styles that offers a microcosm of Sorceress as a whole, but it's similar enough to material on the last two albums that your opinion of that duo will largely dictate in advance how open you are to this particular number.
4. "Will O the Wisp" – a folksy acoustic number featuring some mid-song bluesy soloing, "Will O the Wisp" looks nostalgically back to the stripped down experimentation of Damnation somewhat, and essentially acts as a somber buffer between the heavier workouts bookending it. Capably rendered, but not really an album highlight.
5. "Chrysalis" – featuring some of Åkerfeldt's strongest singing – the man can be maddeningly inconsistent – "Chrysalis" achieves an effortless synthesis of old and new prog in a way that Dream Theater often swings at but rarely knocks over the fence. Not to be too reductive with the comparison, but the guitar/keyboard interplay flatteringly recalls both that band and old Blackmore/Lord-era Deep Purple. "Chrysalis" is one of the album highlights, one that enthusiastic fans of the "new" Opeth will inevitably cite as one of their favorites.
6. "Sorceress 2" – standing in marked contrast to its stompbox-heavy prequel, "Sorceress 2" tips its hat equally in the direction of old folkies like Nick Drake as well as the plaintive scenery chewing of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Unlike "Will O the Wisp", though, this is a curt, smart song that could easily stand apart from its slotting on this particular album. Wouldn't sound terribly out of place on Led Zeppelin III, as a matter of fact. Now we're rolling…
7. "The Seventh Sojourn" – shit, speaking of Page/Plant, this has a heavy "Kashmir" quality courtesy of the grandiose sitar and strings. It's no carbon copy, of course, but it's eminently clear that the band are enthusiastically familiar with the duo's No Quarter and Walking into Clarksdale efforts (the latter's "Most High" also representing a loose compass point). The track does end with a minute or so of fairly pointless navel-gazing, but it's overall a strong number that breathes diversity into an album that has thus far been a bit reliant on binary quiet/loud contrasts, often masterfully rendered but nonetheless at times predictable.
8. "Strange Brew" – the noodling quality of the final minute of "Seventh Sojourn" is made all the more pointless by the hugely effective acoustic intro opening "Strange Brew", one that eventually explodes into a spacey masterclass of riff-centric hard prog glory. A bit less accessible than "Sorceress" but more challenging by several magnitudes. Probably the strongest tune on the album, though none of them have really had a chance to burn out on me yet.
9. "A Fleeting Glance" – mo' folk, although this one has more of a whimsical Beatles/Kinks quality to it, Åkerfeldt's childlike emoting imbuing a playful quality to an album that has largely been somber to this point… heavy in the Beat sense rather than the metal one. Would still make for an odd mixtape orphan removed from its parent sequencing, but within the context of the album it's a welcome rejoinder.
10. "Era" – Joakim Svalberg finally powers his organs down for some classical piano, but he's quickly back into Jon Lord territory. Also getting a strong Katatonia vibe from this one, but that's just good company to be in right there.
11. "Persephone (Slight Return)" – not much to say about this one as it's mostly just a minute-long bookend to its album-opening predecessor, except centered around a rudimentary, repeated piano line rather than the more complex acoustic guitar of the former. Not bad, but completely expendable outside an ouroborus insistence on ending the album on a similar note to how it began.
In closing, let me just say that, in my reviews, I generally try to avoid overbearing comparisons with other bands… it's often a lazy practice that shortchanges the band in question as well as revealing a lack of any serious analytical insight on the author's behalf. In spite of that, I believe Opeth – while in many ways coming into their own as a progressive rock band – are still working through their myriad influences in ways that staunchly define the material and demand tacit acknowledgment. That old easy gripe is still there: the cynics who write these guys off as a flashy cover band are not entirely in the wrong, they're just overly reductionist. Sorceress is a peculiarly strong album, but not heavy in any traditional sense, and Åkerfeldt often seems to have merely broadened his influences rather than transcended them.
Nonetheless, warts and all there are few progressive releases that will top Sorceress this year (Katatonia's The Fall of Hearts being a notable exception), so while one might wish for a speedier route back to pure originality it's simply off base to slate this stuff entirely as tribute fare. The influences are still all too bare, yes, and fans of the early material may continue to find Åkerfeldt's nude homage to his spiritual forebears so blatant as to be beneath him, but I firmly believe that each successive Opeth album of the past half-decade – and the next – position the band as ever greater masters of their destiny.