Opeth, “Sorceress”

As a regular reader of music reviews, I sometimes grow concerned that we who write them are sometimes too loose with our praise, too effusive in our speech.  In a world where every new album is an artist’s ‘best yet’ and every new single is a “modern prog masterpiece”, praise begins to lose its value.  It is with that firmly in mind that I present to you, gentle reader, Opeth’s modern prog masterpiece, their best-yet album: Sorceress.

Opeth has become well known amongst the prog faithful over the past several years.  Indeed it could be argued that Mikael Åkerfeldt vies with Steven Wilson for the position of prog’s most relevant voice.  Opeth, of course, started out as a death metal band and with their album, Blackwater  Park, offered up that genre’s best work.  Beginning with the release of Blackwater Park, Opeth’s sound began evolving in a direction that was more overtly progressive rock and less metal.  2008’s Watershed was a, erm… watershed moment for the band and represents the final truly metal album the band has done.

Opeth’s venture into progressive rock took a massive step in 2011 with the release of Heritage.  Gone entirely were death growls, and in their place were lengthy instrumental interludes, keyboard heavy instrumentation and the key changes and shifting time signatures that are hallmarks of progressive rock.  The shift was dramatic and while universally praised as musically brave and adventurous, some critics found the album lackluster—suggesting that the band was ready for a shift, but hadn’t quite mastered the new approach.

Bypassing comment on Pale Communion for want of space, I turn now to Sorceress.  The days of death metal appear fully in the rear view mirror, and with the third album to fully embrace a progressive rock identity, the band is in full progressive rock flower.

The album opens with the lovely “Persephone”, an acoustic guitar providing perfect accompaniment for Persephone’s melancholy reflections upon her lot.  The musical theme will be played again, this time on piano, at the end of the album, thus bookending the album with melancholy’s distinctive beauty.

The second track of the album, “Sorceress”, was the first single released.  The song starts off with a funky keyboard-driven shuffle that almost calls forth memories of Return to Forever.  Then the song settles into a metal-groove over aggressive (and somewhat campy) lyrics.  The heavy groove with strong sense of melody is what Opeth can bring to the table as well as anyone else ever has.  The song ends up being a strange Iron Butterfly meets Sabbath meets Ray Manzarek mix that is a great listen.

Another stand out track is “Will O The Wisp”.  I have seen some online comments suggesting that this song is Opeth goes Jethro Tull, but I actually think the lack of whimsy (and flute) pulls the song more in the direction of some of Black Sabbath’s acoustic pieces, with a clean guitar sound that isn’t far from what Iommi would use when soloing.  This analogy has flaws as well, as “Will O The Wisp” is backed by organ and something that sounds suspiciously like a mellotron…

Sorceress moves from the gentle musicality of “Will O The Wisp” to the most musically challenging track on the album, “Chrysalis” proceeds with a guitar riff that hearkens back to their metal days.  The vocal line isn’t particularly melodic and all the instrumentalists are given opportunity to stretch.  At approximately the mid-point of the song, keyboards and lead guitar trade licks while the bass and drums weave present a knotty rhythmic figure.  This section demonstrates another  Opeth strength.   There is plenty of skill in the musicians, and it is definitely on display, but the skill serves the song.  The instrumental section is the climax that the first three minutes of song have built towards, and once the section hits its peak, there is an immediate downshift to a more melodic and atmospheric section that acts as musical denouement for the song until the close.

Instead of continuing a track by track discussion, I’ll close with some final thoughts about the album.  The songs range from good to excellent, and the album organization is impeccable.  The tracks alternate well from aggressive numbers to tracks that could be described as pastoral, albeit with something amiss in the garden.  But more than that, the audio pallet is kept fresh by the inclusion of mid-tempo songs such as the middle-eastern inspired “The Seventh Sojourn” (a fun activity sometime would be to pull out the album and song references Opeth makes in their song titles—they are many).  Guitar, voice and keyboard are all given opportunity to play lovely and tuneful melodies while the rhythm section is not neglected and difficult rhythms are handled adeptly.

I have enjoyed Opeth for a number of years, and can say that no album of theirs has grabbed me as quickly as Sorceress.  Time will ultimately tell if this is their best work, or if it will one day stand as a pillar of the genre, but from ground level, things are definitely looking up.

Buy Opeth’s new album Sorceress by clicking here.

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