There are few albums I was looking forward to more this year than Opeth’s new release, Sorceress. As some of you loyal readers may know, I am a huge fan of their transition the past few years away from death metal towards prog nirvana. This album, like Pale Communion and Heritage before it, is not a “metal” album in the vein of some of their old work. They did not bring back the growl, which is fine by me but some of you “the new Opeth stuff sucks” fans may still disapprove of this direction. Hang on tight, though, because this album is still heavy, both thematically and instrumentally. You want deep riffs? Check out the track Chrysalis. You want an almost folksy acoustic guitar track with flutes? Will O the Wisp is what you need. You want prog jazz that dramatically shifts into a powerhouse? Give The Wilde Flowers a listen. You want the heaviest track on the album mixed with some unique melodies? Strange Brew is right for you. They have it all, including a little lifeline between the albums to lightly connect Pale Communion with Sorceress.
Before I talk about the title track, which will be posted below, I want to mention the opener, Persephone. It’s a simple two minute track that immediately gave me the feeling of the beginning of Heart’s Crazy on You. A sudden and nice guitar prelude leads into something that will most certainly be big. About 80 seconds into the track, a woman’s voice emerges from the mist. Her voice sounds like she was reading an incantation or possibly an entry from her journal. She reads a few lines, and then the flute takes us straight into Sorceress.
Unfortunately, the two tracks off this album I have to offer do not sufficiently embody the album as a whole. Sorceress starts off with a very deep bassline, and something that sounds like it would have come off their previous album, Pale Communion. In a way, that’s smart, as the band can show where they were then and where they are now with a track that almost feels like it’s being lined up to compare with the rest. It’s dark, moody, and almost apocalyptic (much like Alessio Sakara). Don’t worry about it if you don’t get that reference.
The track opens with a funky distorted guitar matched perfectly with a very loud bass. The bass is the heart and soul of the track, plain and simple. Most of the time, the percussion or guitar carry Opeth songs, but this time, the bass is the one that really makes it move. After the ~75 second intro, the dugga dugga riffs of old kick in loud and tuned very low pull the song along. Outside of Primus, I can’t think of too many tracks that have the bass tuned up like this for this one particular song. I feel that this is a gift to Martin Mendez for all of his hard work and dedication with the band for this long. Hell, other than Mikael, Martin has been with the band for the longest, with his presence first known on Still Life (and you can tell, if you’ve heard it). The lyrics in this track made me feel that this album was a concept album, but the most important piece on this whole track for me was the organ. It really shined. I love that organ.
9/23 edit: Since posting this review, Opeth has officially released the track The Wilde Flowers, so maybe you can see what I imagined.
We move on to The Wilde Flowers, which diverts from the darker bass-driven work of Sorceress into something that would fit in a 70’s art prog album. What intrigued me the most about this track is that it’s fairly proggy, shifting tempo and tone for the span of about six minutes, and then it flips a switch and goes into high gear for the remaining 50 seconds. In total prog fashion, this song transformed before my ears. We hear the light guitar coupled with the vocal effects of Akerfeldt drifting away, and then soft drums start up. In a few seconds, those mild drums morph into something massively complicated and explosive, and then the bottom falls out. It may sound strange, but when I visualized this track in my head, I pictured a flower growing, and then at 6 minutes the flower opens and spreads its seeds into the air in a violent and explosive fashion. The Wilde Flowers, eh? Nailed it.
That sudden burst of heaviness gives away to Will O the Wisp, which is a more of a folk-y track with an acoustic guitar and some guitar noodling as the track goes on. It’s not too complicated and gives some of us a breather for what’s to come next. For brief moments, I get vibes of the earlier soft Opeth from an album like Damnation that made devout Opeth fans froth at the mouth because it was devoid of the intensity lovingly given in Deliverance and Blackwater Park. It’s not an interlude, but you may be able to think of it as such when you compare it to the next track.
Chrysalis put its foot on the gas immediately, in one of the stronger tracks on the album. This one and one I’ll discuss later don’t mean that the previous tracks are weak, but there are some standout tracks that especially clicked with me. It takes the warmth and exploration of 70’s prog rock (synthesizer, anyone) with the confidence of the prog rock (that guitar riff is a thing of beauty) of today. Stick with me for a second, but does the riff in this track remind anyone else of Kiss’s Love Gun? Between that or something by Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, this particular riff invokes a lot of musical memories. It’s one of the heaviest tracks on the album, as well, but it’s not heavy in terms of screamy or something you may think when you imagine Opeth with “heavy” as a descriptor. The guitar and the keyboard are the main attraction in this track, and they go back and forth very well. One takes over for a bit, plays a solo, and then hands it off.
I’d like to point out that Joakin Svalberg, the keyboardist and newest member of the band with his second album with them, really shines in this album especially on tracks like this. As for the intensity of this track, it’s heavy as far as old prog goes, and if that doesn’t make sense, give this track a listen and you be the judge. I do wish I had a better sample of tracks than the two above to share with you to get a better picture, but this album will come out next week and then you can dive in on Spotify or whatever. You can find it, you’re industrious. I believe in you.
The intensity subsides for a bit to go back to the dark realm again with Sorceress 2, which is a solid part 2 of the Sorceress story. I prefer that it stands apart as a very different track, back with the acoustic guitar and calming melodies. When we get hit in the face with a track like Chrysalis, sometimes we need a minute to regroup. Sorceress 2 does that, as Mikael keeps his voice higher and soft, joined by some background vocals provided by the boys. As much as Sorceress may have put me on edge because of its mystical and almost creepy feel to it, Sorceress 2 felt like I was under a spell and being calmed by the music.
We wake up from that spell into The Seventh Sojourn, and it doesn’t try to jump start us and instead gives us some light acoustic guitar and percussion (read: bongos!) The thing that grabs me about this track is that it’s completely unique from any other track on the album. I give it to the band, they decided to make an album with no two track sounding the same, but when it comes to The Seventh Sojourn, this one really stands alone. Is that a sitar? It sure sounds like it. Bring it on, let’s get weird with this track.
I guess it makes sense that they really try to spread their wings before going to what many fans would consider to be the bread and butter of the album, in Strange Brew. This is the track of the album, period. If you disagree, that’s fine by me, but this one stands above and beyond the rest. It’s the longest track on the album, clocking in around 8 minutes 45 seconds, and it uses every second to the fullest. Sure, it had a slow lead-in from the end of The Seventh Sojourn, but it started with a slow, powerful, and echoing introduction to this track. To visualize this track, I imagine the slow beginning of the universe. For the first two minutes of this track, matter gathers from wherever. I’m not getting too scientific with this so I’m aware my mock theory of the beginning of the universe is nonsense, but imagine the center of the universe being a big black hole that swallows up all of the matter in the universe. Then, like blowing up a balloon filled with glitter, it gets too full and starts to rupture. Imagine this happening in slow motion, and not as one instant, because obvious in music these things need time to set up.
As the melodic and lovely intro drops away into an uneasy and spacey synthesizer, the chaos mounts. The balloon/universe explodes, and everything goes in every direction. It spreads far and wide, and seems to get on everything. You may end up coughing up glitter for a week after that, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because the explosion is so majestic, so beautiful, that you can’t take your eyes off it unless you get some in your eyes and then it’s the sharpest pain you’ve ever felt. Anyways, that’s what I get when I listen to Strange Brew with my eyes closed. The beginning of the universe.
How do you follow up something like that? Well, you take on a sound that takes it down several notches, and you wrap up this beast of a review. A Fleeting Glance injects a more serene feeling into what has largely been a dark album, and though it’s not out of place, it is a light shining in the darkness. Is it weird that I get a Beatles vibe from some of this track? I don’t know if it’s the keyboard or the monotone vocals, but it just has that feel to it. Yes, I know it has its Opeth vibe as it should, but I feel a strong pull to the Beatles discography with this one.
Finally, we move on to Era, which is practically the final track on the album because Persephone (Slight Return) is more of an outro than anything else. The track starts with just the piano for a solid minute, and then the organ soars louder and prouder than ever. That’s the key instrument for this final track, and it sends this album out in style. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this album thrives on its diversity. It dares to be different, and that’s why Opeth is right at the top of the Prog Rock/Metal food chain. This album wraps up with a short and simple one minute piano piece that could have easily been blended in with the previous album. As Era started with a piano, it could have gone out with that same piano. As I said in this paragraph, it’s really just an outro, but as far as album outros go, this one is fine by me. I may personally think that Era would have been a better ending if they blended this track into the end of Era, but that’s why Mikael Akerfeldt makes the big bucks.
Overall, and at long last, this album is a beast. It’s incredibly diverse, and I can’t find much that I dislike about it. It blends some of their sounds of the past with some new things they’re coming up with as they develop. When I raise other bands or songs that sound like this band, it is never to take away from Opeth or any other band’s sound but instead as a point of comparison for the listener who isn’t necessarily as well versed with a band like Opeth and is opening their ears to new horizons. People like comparisons (and ratings too), and I have always found it easier to introduce people to music they would not otherwise listen to when I present them a general sense of what a particular band sounds like by using other bands.
I learned my lesson to say that X album is the best album since Y album in 20XX, but this has to be one of their strongest works in years. That’s saying something, because I felt Pale Communion was the best album of 2014. This year, there is such strong competition that despite this album possibly (it will need many more listens to digest) being one of Opeth’s best albums in recent memory, it will still have to contend with giants like Haken, Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, Deftones and more. This album gets an amazingly solid 14.5/15 Ratings Units from me, and it feels like Opeth can just do no wrong these days. I see that recent albums I’ve reviewed have also hit 14 RUs, so this deserves a little bump above because it is just a bit above them. Most likely I’ll dive back into this discussion in three months, so get equipped.
As a final note, and if you get this far thanks for putting up with the wall of text, but I have a question for you few survivors. Are these reviews far too long? How long would you prefer them to be? Before this paragraph, this review clocked in at under 2300 words, which may feel like a homework assignment to those of you kind enough to read through this whole monstrosity. I want to paint you a picture, but I can get sucked into digressions at times. I feel those digressions are more charming and give these reviews some character, but seriously, I welcome practically all feedback. Even if I don’t respond directly, I do read what you have to say and I appreciate it. I don’t mind if you think I’m wrong. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. It’s just music, albeit lovely and wonderful music.