Sweden’s Opeth have had an interesting musical evolution. Beginning in the early 1990s as an extreme metal band complete with vocal growls and brutal guitar riffs, Opeth’s twelfth album is nothing like that at all. In fact, it sounds more like 1970s prog-rock than death metal. The cookie monster vocals are replaced with actual singing (actual singing that’s really good) and experimentation seems to have been the battle cry during the recording sessions. But, if you’ve been following Opeth, this album does not represent a drastic change in their sound. In fact, this gradual evolution started on their 2011 album Heritage and 2014s Pale Communion. And despite the change, there’s plenty of things that have carried over, like soaring dynamics and unpredictable song structures.
If you’re only expecting a softer metal from Opeth, you will be surprised to find a lot more quiet moments on this album than loud. Acoustic and classical guitars, organs, mellotrons, Fender Rhodes piano, harpsichords, and synthesizers more than just pepper the songs, they often are the backbone. Over 11 tracks, Opeth deliver what could easily fall into just your ho-hum prog-rock, slightly even stoner rock, category. However, there’s a much more clean and deliberate sound across the songs on Sorceress. These songs are more orchestrations than they are jams.
Opening with the classical guitar instrumental “Persephone,” the album immediately exposes itself as something you’re meant to sit down and listen to with headphones. “Persephone (Slight Return)” bookends the album, this time a piano replaces the guitar. The next three album tracks were released ahead of the albums street date, “Sorceress,” “The Wilde Flowers,” and “Will O the Wisp.” “Sorceress” opens with an organ (maybe mellotrons?) scaling riff that blends beautifully with the muted electric guitars. Eventually, the song develops into an all-out rocker. Not unlike “Sorceress,” “The Wilde Flowers” is another crunchy, yet prog-y mid-tempo rocker. Over six-plus minutes, “The Wilde Flowers” traverses quite a bit of territory. A white-hot guitar solo leads up to a break down to complete silence before picking up again with some clean guitar finger-picking, synthesizers, and Rhodes piano. Åkerfeldt chants, sings, and sounds like a character trapped in the song. “Will O the Wisp” is an acoustic guitar driven ballad featuring an exceptional vocal performance and one of the first moments where you realize that, thematically, we’re not really in metal territory in any way, shape, or form.
Quickly, we’re back in prog-metal territory with “Chrysalis,” an album highlight; and undoubtedly, a great driving song. Be prepared to slow down again as “Sorceress 2” is a quiet and brooding track, almost delicate compared to its predecessors. “The Seventh Sojourn” is another acoustic driven track backed with tribal percussions reminiscent of Sepultura’s 1993 song “Kaiowas.” “The Seventh Sojourn” highlights the bands dexterity as musicians and diversity as songwriters. Certainly, this is the core quality that makes an album this adventurous a possibility in the first place.
The next three tracks, “Strange Brew,” “A Fleeting Glance,” and “Era” continue the with-no-boundaries dynamic of the album. “Strange Brew” opens sounding like something from a David Lynch noir flick before it blindsides you with lightning-fast guitar riffing and soaring vocals. “Strange Brew” is almost psychedelic stoner rock; or at least it pushes you into that territory as you grope for a point of reference. “A Fleeting Glance” opens with Flamenco-ish acoustic guitar picking that quickly morphs into a carnival sounding – kind of Sgt. Peppers-ish – novelty song. Oddly, a bluesy guitar lead and drums kick in a minute later and make sense of the whole thing. Åkerfeldt sings in a whisper, plaintively chanting the lyrics, and then we kick into some more prog-y goodness bouncing between acoustic passages.
The best thing I can say about this album is that it’s interesting. If the unexpected excites you, then Sorceress will too. Opeth has proven to my ears that they are capable of most anything and that alone makes them an exciting band to follow. If they keep pushing the boundaries to where they have stretched them on Sorceress, the next album could be down right bizarre.
– J. Kevin Lynch