There is a kind of divinity in the darkness that has pervaded Opeth’s music in the quarter century since their debut album Orchid floated into an unsuspecting world, an unassailable character that prevents it from ever crossing into ‘cheesy’ territory. It’s like an old, mossy stone angel in some forgotten graveyard: otherworldly and foreboding, but infused with delicate, captivating beauty. Opeth doesn’t tend to get bogged down by the juvenile, eye-rolling subject matter and ‘evil’ cartoonish artwork of their contemporaries (whoever those might still be… truth be told, they’ve become impossible to categorize anyway). Rather, they present more elegant, stately works and allow the natural darkness within to exude from their pores. Their 13th album In Cauda Venenum is now the fourth ‘observation’ since their death metal era gave its final, wheezing gasps on the Watershed album over a decade ago – and their fifth in total with nary a guttural grunt to be found. Since 2011’s polarizing Heritage, Opeth have continued down the path of experimentation with each album – broadening their scope, adding colours to their palette, and ignoring criticism and praise alike as band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt casts his net ever wider with unabashed swagger.
The ten tracks that make up In Cauda Venenum reveal a confident and formidable band who are impressively adept at playing different styles, often within the same song. The production is noticeably different – a clearer, crisper approach than the fuzzy tone on previous album Sorceress, and of these “Opeth 2.0” albums, this one feels the most fully developed, the most solid and consistent. There are two versions, the first in Åkerfeldt’s native Swedish tongue, and the second with newly-penned English lyrics. While Åkerfeldt admits the first is closer to his heart (‘the real one’ in his own words), I am focusing on the English version for the purposes of this review.
The first indication that the band are trying new things comes with the long, creepy intro track Garden Of Earthly Delights, an effective mood-setter that immediately brings to mind the film music of John Carpenter. As the first proper song Dignity comes crashing in, we are reacquainted with the Opeth we know. Eventually, falsetto vocals come in and glide over a calm acoustic section before resuming the heaviness and familiar wandering riffs and melodies. The bizarre end to this track is filled with jovial laughter, something that has never sounded quite as unnerving as it does here. Like Dignity, Heart In Hand was another advance single, and anyone having already heard and liked these will be happy to know they will probably like the remainder of the album too. This is classic, chugging Opeth riffage with squealing guitar solo and Åkerfeldt’s strong rock vocals, that eventually breaks off into a gentler ballad – a second song within the same track.
Next Of Kin begins with an a capella vocal cacophony before unfurling into a mid-tempo rocker that alternates between introspective and cinematic. Lovelorn Crime is a major album highlight, a gorgeous and melodic track with wistful strings and a soaring guitar solo as the song gains momentum, but Åkerfeldt’s vocals are ultimately what propel a great track to ‘outstanding’ status. Charlatan brings us back around to the rockier and more complex side of Opeth, a satisfying track with another unusual and lengthy outtro of sampled voices and monks chanting. Universal Truth continues to push the envelope and winds up the most experimental and progressive track on the album. There’s a ton going on here (the term ‘mini-epic’ comes to mind), and as it is not a track easily grasped on first (or second or third) listen, it could well become the big sleeper favourite for a lot of people, as the most challenging tracks often are.
A jazzy piano and bass combo with shuffling drum pattern form the foundation for The Garroter, with its oddly sinister sound always bubbling just below the surface. If Universal Truth was the most experimental, The Garroter might be the most unusual, but certainly a successful venture into a new sound. An ominous intro creeps along again in the closing track All Things Will Pass, before a fairly straightforward song (for this band, anyway) unfolds into a triumphant, anthemic closing section, and the 13th Opeth observation fades into the wind like the last of the November leaves.
While it’s true that they can’t really be called a full-on metal band anymore, Opeth are in some ways as heavy as they’ve ever been – if one considers that the term does not only apply to the loudest, fastest and most distorted music possible. Messrs. Åkerfeldt, Åkesson, Méndez, Axenrot and Svalberg are not reinventing the wheel here, but they are pushing their own boundaries and displaying new influences while retaining their own unique style. Whether In Cauda Venenum gains or loses the band any fans is difficult to say. Those who instantly dismiss anything that isn’t death metal obviously need not bother with this one. Those who can’t tolerate death metal, but appreciate the artistic progressive rock bands of the past may find it appealing. The third (and most fortunate) category of fans – those who appreciate everything Opeth has done, will find a lot to like here.
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