Friday, 4 November 2016

Opeth's 'Sorceress' - Album Review

Opeth are one of those bands that, despite owning nearly all of their albums, I do not think I have ever really 'got'. Some days I am really in the mood to listen to them, and I love their work; and on other days an Opeth album is the last thing I want to hear. They are the ultimate 'mood' band, but when you are in the mood for them they can truly hit the spot like no other band. The Swedes are easily one of the biggest modern progressive bands, and have built up a large global fanbase by relentless touring and releasing a huge array of diverse and challenging albums that attract those who like something a little different. For the majority of their career, Opeth's sound was defined by extreme use of dynamics and light and shade. Long, complex progressive metal songs containing a melting pot of influences, mainly death metal and progressive rock, was the band's trademark, although hints of blues, jazz, and folk were all a regular part of the band's sound. Vocalist, guitarist, and main composer Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth's sole founding member in the band's current line-up, has become known throughout the metal world for his extremely diverse vocal range. It was not uncommon for him to use both brutal death growls and gorgeous clean vocals in the space of the same song, which helped to link all of the band's influences together. Since 2011's Heritage, the band's tenth album, Åkerfeldt decided he wanted to take Opeth in a new direction. Gone were the death metal sections, and instead he chose to focus on the progressive rock side of the band's sound, with organic keyboards and fuzzy drums included to produce a retro sound. This has been Opeth's way ever since, which has been divisive in the band's notoriously precious fanbase, but has also opened the band out to a wider audience. Åkerfeldt's love of bands like Camel, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Gong have been clear on recent works, and Sorceress, the band's twelfth album, is the culmination of the retro prog sound Åkerfeldt has been chasing since Heritage. While being noticeably heavier overall than Heritage and 2014's Pale Communion, with some great doomy riffs clearly inspired by early Black Sabbath, Sorceress really sticks to the retro prog ideals. Keyboardist Joakim Svalberg, now on his second album with the band, is all over this album. His grinding hammond organ lines help to drive the entire album and he often steals the show, especially when he gets to cut loose with solos to rival those of Keith Emerson. It is his contributions that really enhance that prog sound, and he comes into his own here. Incidentally, this the first Opeth album since 2005's Ghost Reveries to not be released via Roadrunner Records, with the band opting to go with Nuclear Blast this time around. Roadrunner have lost two big bands recently, with Alter Bridge jumping ship as well, so it makes you wonder why a label would want to loose bands of Opeth's stature!

The album is bookended by two short instrumentals. Persephone starts things off with delicate guitar melodies, and the spoken word section from Pascale Marie Vickery adds a strange and slightly ethereal quality as the shimmering keyboards join in. This leads nicely into the first 'proper' song on the album, which happens to be the title track, which takes a sudden turn into jazz-fusion territory with discordant keyboard melodies that intertwine playfully with Martín Méndez's fat bassline. This does not last too long however, and a doomy, chugging riff introduces the verse and Åkerfeldt's vocals. His clean vocals these days have much more grit and weight behind them then they did in the band's early days when the clean vocals were used in contrast with his death growls. His cleans are now his exclusive voice on new Opeth albums, and he showcases a much greater range than previously. The song has a very old-school vibe, with hammond organ often dominating the sound, as the two guitars and the bass chug away below in simplistic fashion. The ending of the song is fantastic, with a soaring keyboard riff that sounds like something that could have been on any classic Emerson, Lake & Palmer album! The Wilde Flowers is, on the surface, a much simpler after the meandering title track. The main verse moves along at a mid-pace, with stabs of guitar and hammond organ, recalling classic Deep Purple. Eastern melodies are also included, with plenty of snaking guitar lines for Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson to sink their teeth into. It has the album's most obvious choruses too, with some surprisingly catchy vocal melodies from Åkerfeldt that soar above the majestic music below. The album's first true guitar solo is also included too. I presume this is Åkesson's handiwork, as he seems to take the lion's share of the band's guitar solos these days, really lets rip with some chaotic shredding that works in great contrast to the methodical crunch of the rest of the song. Will O the Wisp is a great bit of acoustic folk rock that comes in after the previous two heavier songs to show off the delicate side Opeth have always had. This is very reminiscent of Songs from the Wood-era Jethro Tull, and the keyboard sounds used here even evoke the sound and feel of a flute at times! Åkerfeldt sings these sort of songs perfectly, and with a voice like this it is clear to see why he has taken a step back from harsh vocals. Floaty sections of lead guitar occasionally break out, especially during a spacey prog section towards the end, but the song is mainly focused around the vocals. This is a very uncomplicated song on an album that generally takes many twists and turns, and that makes it stand out even more. Chrysalis breaks the serene mood with Martin Axenrot's drum flurry, before launching into a fast song with an urgent verse led by a riff that would seem thrashy if it was not for the warm guitar tones. There is a large focus on the instrumental side of the band's playing throughout, with plenty of solo sections for all involved. That being said, the vocals are still very memorable, with some of the strongest vocal melodies on the album. It is one of the best songs on the album due to this excellent mix of strengths, and the guitar/keyboard duel that takes place part-way through and is pretty breathtaking at times. It recalls those classic moments between Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord in Deep Purple, with all the musicians playing off each other perfectly and adding their own tastes and colours to the song. After this excitement, it slowly fades out with repeating lyrics which works well to end a great song.

Sorceress 2 is another largely acoustic number, but fails to hit the spot like Will O the Wisp did. It seems strangely placed, as not much time as passed since the last acoustic song, and might have had more impact if it was moved to a later spot in the album's running order. I am not sure why it is called Sorceress 2 either, as it does not seem to have any lyrical or musical similarities with the album's title track, maybe it was just to be quirky? It has quite a nice haunting atmosphere throughout, helped by some really cold-sounding keyboards, but it just falls a little flat in comparison with what has come before. The Seventh Sojourn also starts off acoustically, but some tribal percussion soon joins in and the song gradually builds up over time. The Eastern melodies that the band experimented with earlier in the album are back in force here, and the song has a very Arabic feel throughout. It is also largely instrumental, which gives you a chance to focus on what is going on musically throughout. Méndez's bass guitar is surprisingly high in the mix here, and helps to dominate at times with rumbling notes that act almost as percussion to add weight to the jangly myriad of acoustic guitars dancing beneath. A spacey vocal section kicks in towards the end, with delicate piano lines and Åkerfeldt's vocals which have a strange effect on them. It sounds like something The Enid would do, and feels really strange after the Eastern instrumental workout. The song then moves seamlessly into Strange Brew, which opens with piano and Åkerfeldt's delicate vocals once more. The song's intro is very classic prog, with layers of keyboard coming in a out, and subtle guitar leads making whale-like noises for effect. A gorgeous clean guitar takes over, but this is soon blown out of the way by Axenrot crashing the party with his whirlwind drumming and the album starts to rock again. The album has sat in acoustic/mellow territory since Chrysalis, so it is a bit of a shock when this section kicks in and the band ramp up the gears once more. Both Åkerfeldt and Åkesson get a chance to solo by the sound of it, with two lengthy guitar solos following one after the other, with a pulsing hammond riff below for a grinding backing. This song has the feel of classic Opeth, without the death metal elements of course, as it continually changes between heavy rock sections and more delicate piano-led moments. It is the album's longest song too, at well over eight minutes long, and is one that really grows on you over multiple listens. Any old-school Opeth fans who are suspicious of the band's newer sound should give this song a go, as it contains all of the band's classic trademarks. A Fleeting Glace opens with a renaissance, Greensleeves-esque guitar melody, before a harpsichord melody takes over to play a staccato riff that, when paired with Åkerfeldt's mirroring vocal melodies, ends up sounding a bit like Supertramp. The song mostly sits in the 'floaty prog' camp and is never particularly heavy. There are occasions where the guitars are ramped up, but on the whole it has a very laid back feel. This is a great contrast to the album's penultimate song Era which is pretty furious and heavy throughout. Although it opens with piano, it is not long before the song's main riff hits you like a hammer and Axenrot's slightly off-beat drumming hits you from the other side! The result is quite confusing at first, as the two do not seem to fit together, but Opeth manage to make it work. Despite this, the song is pretty simple by the album's standards, and helps to end the album with a easily digestible bang. The album ends, as it began, with Persephone (Slight Return), although this time with piano rather than guitar, and things come full circle. Overall, Sorceress is a triumphant piece of work from a band I have never fully 'got' but nevertheless have a huge respect for. This is easily my favourite of their 'classic prog' releases, combining the best of Heritage and Pale Communion for some excellent results. The album artwork is fantastic too!

The album was released on 30th September 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Sorceress.

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