Thursday, June 9, 2011

Opeth - Watershed (2009)

The term "progressive" is overused, despite the fact that very few people can define what it truly means to be "progressive" in the musical sense. In the case of Sweden's Opeth, the word has stuck. Progressive death metal seems to be their tag at this stage of their career. And while the proverbial shoe does, in fact, fit, Opeth can not be confined to one genre, no matter how broad or vague it may be. They have returned, and with this latest offering, "Watershed," are tearing down the walls of genre.

The album leads off with an acoustic gem, in the form of "Coil." The dulcet tones of guitar and organ lay the framework for Akerfeldt's brooding voice. Bassist Martin Mendez provides a smooth, fluid bass line, before Akerfeldt is replaced with an ethereal female voice, belonging to folk singer Nathalie Lorichs. As the track fades out, you become aware that evil lurks ahead. A low rumble breaks down into crashing guitars and drums. It is as if the stage has collapsed and let loose a destructive force. A slide up the guitar neck unleashes the fury, and "Heir Apparent" takes hold of you. Deathly growls take command, as rapid fire drum fills and rolls lock into alternating chugging and scales. A solo erupts amidst the clang of cymbals. Soft organs and acoustic picking  have their place, but it is only to set the table for the onslaught ahead. The blood curdling screams and masterful thrash are mixed flawlessly with a slide guitar solo. The outro section is loaded with distortion and sizzling cymbals, but is backed with tremendous bass work.

A lone hum seems to lower your guard, and a mighty drum roll snaps you back to life. "The Lotus Eater" sees Akerfeldt using his brilliant vocal range to deliver on all levels. Keyboards set a ghastly mood for the piece, while drums are fast and furious, with the technical prowess you have come to expect from a metal titan. The constant changes in tempo and time signature will leave your head reeling, but they do not hurt the momentum of the track. The rhythm section is the backbone, allowing guitars to flourish in the sea of low end fury. Keys and guitars come together in a graceful melody. Organ keys are tickled, darting in and out as the song builds back to speed. A deep growling finish fades away to muffled conversation and ghostly keys.

Piano keys ring out over the faint whine of an electric guitar, and layers build into the seventies rock tinged "Burden." Their is no mistaking the influence here. Beautiful melodies are formed, from bass to guitar, drums to synths. Akerfeldt's vocals are dynamic, bringing the occasional goose bump to your skin. Electric piano gets to steal the show, setting the stage on fire before passing the baton to a short, but powerful guitar solo. The lyrics are chilling, with Akerfeldt singing "Whisper in my ear, you've taken more than we've received. And the ocean of sorrow is you." Harmonizing chanting and solo after solo fills the end of the track, with dueling guitars accompanying a strong bass. Distortion exits, and an acoustic guitar falls further out of tune with each pick of the strings.

Darkness reenters, and a heavy riff storms into place. Softly played strings and delicate crooning get the first act of "Porcelain Heart" underway, bowing out to reintroduce the evil riffs. Drum tempos increase, with sticks flying in every direction, breaking down to a high pitch note and acoustics. The ever-changing beat of the song will keep you on your heels, waiting for the next eruption. From soft and pining to hard and heavy, and back again in seconds. "Hessian Peel" is welcomed by a ringing bass note and guitar picking. The vocals are delivered in a style that often resembles a lullaby, with an eerie calm solidified by organs and strings. Drum rolls still find a way to fit in, despite the minimal aggression displayed in the track's opening half. But the devil is waiting to burst out, and he does so with an ear piercing scream. The skies darken, and the song moves to high gear. Guitars shred and chug, almost simultaneously, but quickly give way to clean vocals. The track ends with a fury of kicks, snares and screams, fading out to a bass and organ outro. "Hex Omega" is an entire albums worth of changes, shifts, emotions and aggression balled into one closing track. It is both alarming and passionate, delivered with surgical precision and overwhelming strength.

Once again, Opeth has managed to change our perception of what metal is, what it will be, and what it can be. This isn't a intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, outro kind of band, nor should they be. The songs take on a life of their own, going wherever they choose. The album is not a complete departure from earlier works, but it remains fresh. When your output is as eclectic and varied as Opeth, there is very little chance of becoming stale. And maybe the term "progressive," with all of its blurry meaning, just doesn't do this band justice.


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