In Cauda Venenum

Written by: AP on 17/11/2019 16:33:04

“Music, for me, is not meant to stand still or stay in the same place”, mused Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt in a recent interview, and 30 years into the trendsetting band’s illustrious career, it is hard to deny that he and his cohorts have actioned upon those words. If you can find two Opeth records that sound the same (excepting, perhaps, their very early works in the mid-‘90s), I will retract this statement… but I think, if one listens to the Stockholm-based quintet’s repertoire in a chronological order, that the most descriptive term for it quickly becomes progression. Indeed, the group’s philosophy has always based itself on the rhetorical question: why settle for one thing when you can do everything? And in that spirit, the Swedish icons have never looked back on their quest to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves, to the extent that if one compared this latest opus “In Cauda Venenum” to their 1995 début “Orchid”, it would be nigh impossible to believe that Opeth is behind both of these records.

It bears repeating that the revenant of death metal (and in particular Morbid Angel, whom Åkerfeldt cites as a huge influence) has long since been exorcised from Opeth’s musical palette, and most fans have consequently also made their peace with the fact, for better or worse. As witnessed on both 2014’s “Pale Communion” and its 2016 successor “Sorceress”, the current incarnation of Opeth digs into the progressive rock of the ‘70s, with the likes of Camel, King Crimson and Yes now comprising the brunt of the inspirations from which “In Cauda Venenum” also is distilled. None of those bands are easy listening, and neither is this latest offering from Opeth, which only unlocked itself for me after several weeks of focused listening — and even then, it feels like there is still a lot to be discovered. On the first few listens, “In Cauda Venenum” admittedly comes across as quite elusive and even a bit self-indulgent, but if you can afford the likes of “Dignity” and “Heart in Hand” time to breathe and evolve, then inevitably the masterful songwriting, not to mention the blinding skill of musicianship that both of these tracks exhibit renders them overwhelming, yet also completely irresistible.

My father has always been something of a classic prog aficionado, which means that even though I was not born until the golden age of thrash metal in the late ‘80s, the style of Opeth’s latest outing is not foreign to me. As a child, I remember being puzzled by bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and even Genesis, and it is that same childish sensation of not fully understanding why the music was so intriguing that arises whenever I listen to “In Cauda Venenum”. It awakens a nostalgia, not least because songs like “Next of Kin” and “Universal Truth” are so adept at catapulting the listener back to the genre’s heyday, the former by way of a cameo from keyboard virtuoso Dave Stewart, and the latter thanks to its deft juxtaposition of an acoustic guitar and swelling orchestration in a deeply psychedelic atmosphere. And somewhat later on, the stupendous “Charlatan” evokes King Crimson like no Opeth track has ever done before, as the band revels in odd time signatures and jazzy melodies that, for lack of a better term, are completely bonkers. But still, like so many of the tracks on offer here, this jarring piece of music eventually ingrains itself in your memory so deeply it’ll have you humming the tune of Frederik Åkesson’s lead guitar even without a conscious effort.

Together with the majestic final track “All Things Will Pass”, “Charlatan” is one of the heaviest songs found on the album, but while my metal heart burns for such material, it would be an injustice to overlook the likes of “Lovelorn Crime” as well. This muted, Steven Wilson-esque power ballad begins with a plaintive keyboard melody Joakim Svalberg, and it remains beautifully contemplative until Åkesson rips out one of his finest guitar solos yet and brings the song to a conclusion in grandiose style. It is not the most obviously ‘catchy’ track “In Cauda Venenum” has to offer, but, as mentioned earlier in this review, if you give it space to grow inside your mind, it is likely to emerge as a standout moment not just in the context of this album, but also all of the other albums Opeth have issued since the pivotal “Watershed” in 2008. It is a perfect example of the group’s penchant for creating rich soundscapes that are not necessarily that full-on, but where subtlety is king. And it is perhaps this change of priorities from the enormous and imposing to the enigmatic and teasing that increasingly has Opeth performing at classic theatre spaces instead of traditional concert venues. Truly, Opeth have transformed into a thinking man’s band rather than one expecting their fans to headbang and form moshpits.

It gets to be trite, having to justify Opeth’s push into uncharted territory on each new album, so I will spare you that monologue. Although I still adore the first decade of the group’s repertoire and find most of my favourite albums by them in that period, I also admire endlessly their quest to realise the full potency of their creative talent on records such as “In Cauda Venenum”. The old guard of fans has probably all but abandoned Opeth by now, yet their concerts keep selling out and they continue to feature prominently on festival posters… which, to me, suggests that with “Pale Communion” and “Sorceress”, the band actually entered a new golden era. Indeed, what is a progressive metal band worth if they’re just treading water? With “In Cauda Venenum”, Opeth demonstrate that it pays off not to impose limits on your ideas when you have such immense talent at your disposal as lies in the hands of these five musicians. While it is far from the band’s best album to date, if you have an affinity for Opeth’s more recent output, it will not leave you disappointed.


Download: Dignity, Heart in Hand, Lovelorn Crime, Charlatan, All Things Will Pass
For the fans of: Camel, King Crimson, Steven Wilson, Yes
Listen: Facebook

Release date 27.09.2019
Moderbolaget / Nuclear Blast Records

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