Valby Hallen, Copenhagen, DEN - 26/4
Written by: AP on 07/11/2016 00:59:01
Opeth has always been fond of pushing the envelope with challenging, sometimes bewildering directional shifts between one album and the next. Long buried lie the group’s death metal roots now, a gradual creep of classic progressive rock into the proceedings having first given them a brilliant elegy on 2008’s “Watershed”, and since established itself as the most striking hue on the Swedish metallers’ palette. But unlike the fans of so many other bands with a penchant for shuffling the deck, Opeth’s disciples never seemed to mind; by virtue of the seminal post-millennial pairing that was “Deliverance” and “Damnation”, they already knew to expect the unexpected, and found delight in the band’s studying the possibilities afforded them by the gift of musical genius. And on this twelfth studio album, “Sorceress”, those studies delve deeper than ever, into the obscurest alcoves of the prog genre, producing a result that is at once mesmerising and disaffecting.
Disaffecting, because “Sorceress” sets stiff expectations on its audience, as seldom has the lasting value of Opeth’s music been so difficult to unlock. The process of coming to grips with the underlying ideas is long and painstaking, making it almost a prerequisite that you consider yourself a connoisseur, or at the very least open minded to the trappings of prog. Awash with lighter, moodier passages such as we came to know on 2011’s “Heritage”, and frequently verging on neoclassicism as well as jazz, “Sorceress” represents Opeth’s ‘proggiest’, most Steven Wilson-esque work to date, yet ironically, the cohesive tone and considered arrangement also makes it the most coherent effort since those two masterpieces, “Deliverance” and “Damnation” from 2002 and 2003, respectively. Melodies and atmospheres are not fenced into single songs, but move freely through the record’s core and morphing ever so subtly underway. Keen ears will, for instance, notice revenants of the beautiful introductory piece “Persephone” in both “Will o the Wisp” and “A Fleeting Glance” — not to mention the constant juxtaposition of the uplifting and the esoteric playing out.
That interaction is key to the fascination evoked by “Sorceress”. Unlike past Opeth records (perhaps with the exception of “Heritage”), it is relatively easy to call it tedious based on a single sitting or by way of fragmented listening, hoping to unearth the ‘singles’ — because in traditional terms, the album offers none. The loose, almost improvisational beginning of the title track plays like a mischievous nod to King Crimson-devotees, as though only they could possess the necessary acumen to make sense of “Sorceress”, yet given time to soak and unfurl, you will soon find its rhythm and especially the second verse (”You’re a char-la-tan. You get everything you wish. You’re a harlot, carry poison in your kiss.”) nigh impossible to dispose of. “The Wilde Flowers” is rather more forthright, manufacturing memorabilia with a coaction of Martin Axenrot’s bass drum-kicks falling like drops of molten lead, and Mikael Åkerfeldt & Fredrik Åkesson’s axe-work intertwining chicly with swirling cascades of organ, courtesy of Joakim Svalberg. The song is in the style of “Sorceress”’ most recent ancestor, “Pale Communion”, and so naturally comes equipped with a chorus to remember as well: ”Blinding light as the flames grow higher, searing skin on the funeral pyre” sung ever so gorgeously by Mr. Åkerfeldt.
Indeed, you can attribute a lot of “Sorceress”’ wooing power to the fact that Opeth operates at such an incredible level of musicianship. Even the most audacious exploits found on the record, when hooks are the last thing on the band’s mind, the construction of the songs, the originality with which the instruments are applied, the way the various ideas flow freely yet are tied together, and the magnificence of Åkerfeldt’s singing still make the listening experience absolutely arresting. As something of a rare occurrence in my book, the symbiosis of those elements means that a largely acoustic piece, “Will o the Wisp”, emerges as one of the consummate highlights instead of obstructing continuity. It also means that Opeth’s forays into power metal and pop on “Era” seem less misplaced than they should; that the fleeting Scandinavian folk soliloquies have no trouble slotting in to the Pink Floyd-lauding “A Fleeting Glance”.
When all is said and done however, it would be imprudent to sidestep the fact that much of the weight of “Sorceress” is concentrated at the front and rear end. It is that middle portion that perhaps explains the artwork — an ornate peacock presiding over, and feasting on human remains — which could be viewed as Opeth’s arrogant perception of self. The material nestled between “Chrysalis” and “A Fleeting Glance” gets to be a little too arcane and… well, inconsequential even for a prog aficionado such as myself, and especially on the initial listen this has the capacity to be a decisive moment in for an overall yay or nay. There is no question these largely airy, atmospheric pieces have a role to play, but I will allow myself the license to say they probably should have been spread out. Be that as it may though, the quietus is but a minor obstacle to Opeth placing yet another feather on the hat and upholding their reputation as one of the most forward-thinking and consistently impressive metal bands of their generation.
Download: The Wilde Flowers, Will o the Wisp, Chrysalis, A Fleeting Glance
For the fans of: King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson
Release date 30.09.2016