Ten Minute Review: Opeth – Sorceress

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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.

Ten Minute Review: Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

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I can’t think of a better way to come back to Audio Orbital than with Devin Townsend.  The first word spoken in the first track off this wonderful album is “Hallelujah” and that’s what I felt like when listening to this.  Strange to think it’s been almost two years since his last release, especially after a blitz of albums released in the past few years in Z2, Casualties of Cool, Epicloud, and Deconstruction/Ghost.  I appreciate that he took some time off to recharge his batteries, because the wait was truly worth it.  He’s back, ladies and gentlemen.  Devin Townsend is back and is as big and bold as ever.  I have three tracks for you off this album, being the second, third and fourth tracks on it, and they encompass this album fairly well.

Before I get into music that you can hear, the first track on the album, Truth, is actually a reworked version of a track he released in his solo album, Infinity, back in 1998.  This version has a much greater scale and is more atmospheric and engrossing.  Sonic walls, or walls of sound, are frequently referenced with Devin Townsend, and what they are describing is a musician/band making layer on top of layer of music to where it feels like an audio crescendo hitting you at once.  Hallelujah.

This album is not heavy.  It is very complicated, in excellent Devin Townsend fashion, and you can hear that right off the bat with Stormbending.  Put simply, this track is cosmic and expansive.  It’s quite complex, and I’ve gotten different things out of the track after multiple listens.  I can hear the pain of Devy singing about rainy days, the slow and melodic percussion carrying the song forward, and the fading guitar at the end of the track which sound a bit like if a guitar tried to make the sound of rain.  It’s emotional and like all great prog metal tracks, builds up as the track progresses.  It doesn’t have the climax of a traditional prog metal song that builds to a point and explodes, but there are plenty of other tracks on this album that give us that sweet prog release.  See, for example, the next track I am going to discuss.

Of all the tracks off this album, Failure feels like one of the two heaviest tracks alongside Higher.  The immediate crunch of the guitar riff – dare I say djent-like (I don’t know why it’s a dirty word for the prog metal community) – sets the tone right out of the gate.  I will point this out because I found out by accident while writing this: this song sounds completely different when listening to it loud compared to at normal polite “I live with people but have a big stereo” volume.  I have a completely different impression when the volume is up, because I felt a greater amount of depth between the guitar and the bass.  The bassline is very low and quiet compared to the rest of the instruments, but it is important nonetheless.  The keyboard lending some higher notes (and the other guitar kicking in at 2:30) provides decent contrast for the deep and heavy combination of the percussion and riffs.  The guitar solo that goes on for about 90 seconds has a vibe reminiscent of Pink Floyd and King Crimson with the lightly distorted sound of the guitar.  In addition to the instrumentality I keep highlighting, Devin’s vocals are as good as they get on this album.  They aren’t overwhelming, they don’t often try to stand up and above the rest of the music, and actually very fitting with the music.  This provides for a harmonious effect that is pleasing to listen to.

The first two or three seconds of this track, I heard the intro to the song Temptation by the band The Tea Party, if you’re familiar with the track you may hear it too.  After those few seconds, it goes into a very different direction and feels more like post-rock for the first 30 seconds or so.  From there, we hear the heavy guitar kick in for a second and pull in Devin’s vocals once again.  These vocals are different from the previous few tracks, and they are a lot clearer and more in line with something we’d hear from his previous albums like Ki and Epicloud.  In this track at least, the vocals mostly stick to a range, and don’t jump around to something operatic or harsh for long.  What I’m trying to say is that when he sings in a particular stanza, the notes are similar, until the next one comes up and shifts up an octave.  It’s been a long time since I’ve studied music, so forgive me if I am mixing up those terms.  This song, as good as it is, feels like a big setup for the next song, which I won’t be able to share, called Higher.  Secret Sciences seems to lay the foundation for something much bigger.  Don’t worry, I’ll still tell you about the rest of them, because it’d be unfair to just describe the songs that you can already listen to and make up your own mind about.

Higher is heavy.  It’s the heaviest track on the album, I’d say.  It starts out riffy like some of the others, but goes big and loud.  There’s a lot more “dugga dugga dugga” to use the onomatopoeia (spelled it right on the first try, take that 5th grade spelling class), and this is the track that a lot of Hevy Devy fans may have wanted for this album.  This album, generally speaking, is a lot easier to listen to than some of his other works like Dark Matters or Deconstruction.  Some of those albums are so heavy and destructive that you feel like you just got in a fight after getting through the album.  For me, I appreciate those kinds of albums to a point, as long as the listening experience is superior to the exhaustion I feel after finishing up listening to it.  It’s why I can’t get into a band like Deafheaven, because even though they’re musically brilliant, I feel like I’m being pummeled by the music.  Higher starts with that, but it takes its foot off the gas before it’s too much and becomes more atmospheric with a choir joining Devy as the song comes to a close.

As much as Higher builds you up, the next track, Stars, keeps that energy going for about 30 seconds before falling away to an acoustic guitar, an ethereal wispy keyboard, and some melodic vocals that bring you back down to earth.  The quiet serene sound ramps up again to a wall of sound with the keyboard, additional vocals, ever-present percussion (which sounds different and more precise than some previous albums if that makes sense) with Anneke van Giersbergen joining Devy yet again on the vocals.  She’s really the perfect fit for a vocalist of his style, and her tonal contrast with him is striking and yet alluring.

Stars gives way to Transcendence, the title track, which starts us with a vocal effect on Devy to make him sound like a deity singing down from the heavens.  Whatever deity you imagine that to be, that’s fine by me, as long as he has a good voice.  I get the feeling that I am being beckoned up to the sky with this track, as if I was floating upwards in a pillar of light.  The song’s called Transcendence, huh?  They sure nailed that one.  The surrounding vocals of Anneke echo through the sky as one (or more) of the angels, and I don’t know if I even I have the vocabulary to describe the feeling this track gives me without repeating some of the terms I have used above.  You’d have to hear it to feel it, but I think you’d feel it too.  This track is the perfect example of a prog metal track that builds up slowly into something amazing and awe-inspiring that almost takes your breath away.  It hits the top, and then as you break the surface of the clouds, it quickly disintegrates into silence.

After the silence, Offer Your Light chimes in with an interesting almost spacey keyboard sound accompanied by simple yet effective guitar riffs that give the keyboard some ambiance.  By now, Devy’s voice is gone and we’re carried by Anneke for a bit.  He doesn’t stay away for long, and he quickly takes the reins yet again.  Devy’s voice, for what seems like the fifth or sixth time on this album, changes in style again to something a bit raspier and sharper than what we’ve heard before.  For a brief amount of time, his voice transforms into something that sounds almost like screaming but more akin to light-screaming.  It’s very tolerable and flows with the music, luckily.  Unlike other tracks, this one is compact, and as the shortest track on the album clocking in just under four minutes, its tempo is a lot quicker than anything else on the album.  It comes in slow and speeds up, and just like that, it’s gone.

The album wraps up (besides the cover of that Ween song) with From The Heart, which feels like the perfect representation of a Devin Townsend track.  It has the heart and soul of a Devy track, and runs the gamut of emotions as the album draws to a close.  I feel like this track is a more fitting end to the album, with Transdermal Celebration being more of a bonus than anything else.  The vocals are vintage Devy, the track is at times heavy and other times soft, and it generally feels uplifting.  There’s the traditional long note, that note develops into a bit of a scream, and the scream leads right into an emphatic musical escalation.  Surrounding Devy’s voice is something akin to either chanting or an angelic chorus softly repeating words that are moderately difficult to understand but aren’t upsetting.  A brief interlude spaces between that mild heaviness and falls to an almost hushed tone.  A new set of instruments seem to kick in, changing gears almost entirely yet still maintaining one sound from the previous action.  Classic Devin Townsend, and it’s a sound that I missed very much the past two years.

This really was the perfect album to come back to.  I’ll play some catch-up with albums I missed while I was away, maybe even by the end of the week (we’ll see what happens), but I’ll probably do short little reviews of a bunch of them instead of these longform articles breaking down the album track by track in some detail.  I know I want to talk about The Avalanches, Fates Warning, Marillion, and Thank You Scientist.  If there are other albums that came out in the months of July or August that you would like me to write about, please let me know in the comment section of this article or on the various places I post this review and I’ll check the albums out.

This album was rock solid from start to finish.  I’m not a Ween fan personally, and I’m not familiar with the original version of Transdermal Celebration, but Devin Townsend made it his own in this album.  It’s rare that a cover song can fit in an album, but this did fit.  It may not have been the best final track, as I reserve that for From The Heart, but it was a solid addition nonetheless.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t give this album very high marks, and without further dudes I give this album 14 out of 15 Ratings Units.  It’s very difficult to deny this album’s greatness, and I’m glad Devin Townsend is back.

Thanks for reading, and I’m glad to be writing for Audio Orbital again.