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OPETH - Sorceress, A Track-by-Track Review

Posted by on September 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm

Opeth have always been a restless, seasick leviathan, grudgingly yet brilliantly deconstructing death metal in the early 90's – their recent 25th anniversary bio confirms that frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt was always more into technicality and jazzy song progressions than brutal riffs – but in recent years Åkerfeldt and company have seemed less beholden than ever to their extreme metal fanbase. They've rapidly jettisoned all pretense of metal at all (extreme or otherwise) in favor of straight ahead 1970's-influenced prog rock. 2011's Heritage opened the floodgates, and with each progressive project (pun intended) Opeth have become less and less "metal".

What they haven't done is become less experimental. The easiest knock against Heritage was that it found the band a bit too enraptured with their influences, with many slating it as a slavish tribute album to 70's prog luminaries like ELPCamel and Gentle Giant. That critique is not entirely unfounded, but subsequent projects – including 2012's Storm Corrosion collab with Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, and 2014's Pale Communion – have seen Åkerfeldt shake the bonds of patronage and come into his own as a legit prog songwriter… somewhat, at  least, and isn't that the rub?

Since this year's Sorceress paints from an even wider tableau than Heritage and Pale Communion, we thought we'd run a track-by-track breakdown rather than a traditional review, which likely would have ended up itemizing each song by necessity anyway.

1. "Persephone"  – a simple yet plaintive two-minute prologue, "Persephone" is a lush acoustic-based taster that offers a lot of heart but limited mileage, mainly gorgeous aesthetic that acts as deliberately minimalist counterpoint to the following track.

2. "Sorceress" – the most Pale Communion-like track on the disc, "Sorceress" begins with a monstrously dank organ riff before yielding to a simplistic yet heavy as fuck dual guitar riff. The progressive nature of the track unfolds primarily via songwriting rather than fastidious instrumentation, but there's an accessible immediacy to the cut that proves to set a misleading example for the rest of the album. "Sorceress" was chosen as a pre-release single for a reason: it's the least divisive tune on the record, an early bon mot capable of uniting not only fans of Opeth's current direction, but also offering crossover appeal to those who felt like Ghost Reveries and Watershed were their high water mark.

3. "The Wilde Flowers" – …and we're back to traditional prog worship, albeit with Åkerfeldt adopting a slightly nasally, more modern tone in his vocal delivery. Like its predecessor, "The Wilde Flowers" offers an intelligently sequenced range of builds and denouement, of flashy solos and basic riffs, with a cathartic range of styles that offers a microcosm of Sorceress as a whole, but it's similar enough to material on the last two albums that your opinion of that duo will largely dictate in advance how open you are to this particular number.

4. "Will O the Wisp" – a folksy acoustic number featuring some mid-song bluesy soloing, "Will O the Wisp" looks nostalgically back to the stripped down experimentation of Damnation somewhat, and essentially acts as a somber buffer between the heavier workouts bookending it. Capably rendered, but not really an album highlight.

5. "Chrysalis" – featuring some of Åkerfeldt's strongest singing – the man can be maddeningly inconsistent – "Chrysalis" achieves an effortless synthesis of old and new prog in a way that Dream Theater often swings at but rarely knocks over the fence. Not to be too reductive with the comparison, but the guitar/keyboard interplay flatteringly recalls both that band and old Blackmore/Lord-era  Deep Purple. "Chrysalis" is one of the album highlights, one that enthusiastic fans of the "new" Opeth will inevitably cite as one of their favorites.

6. "Sorceress 2" – standing in marked contrast to its stompbox-heavy prequel, "Sorceress 2" tips its hat equally in the direction of old folkies like Nick Drake as well as the plaintive scenery chewing of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Unlike "Will O the Wisp", though, this is a curt, smart song that could easily stand apart from its slotting on this particular album. Wouldn't sound terribly out of place on Led Zeppelin III, as a matter of fact. Now we're rolling…

7. "The Seventh Sojourn" – shit, speaking of Page/Plant,  this has a heavy "Kashmir" quality courtesy of the grandiose sitar and strings. It's no carbon copy, of course, but it's eminently clear that the band are enthusiastically familiar with the duo's No Quarter and Walking into Clarksdale efforts (the latter's "Most High" also representing a loose compass point). The track does end with a minute or so of fairly pointless navel-gazing, but it's overall a strong number that breathes diversity into an album that has thus far been a bit reliant on binary quiet/loud contrasts, often masterfully rendered but nonetheless at times predictable.

8. "Strange Brew" – the noodling quality of the final minute of "Seventh Sojourn" is made all the more pointless by the hugely effective acoustic intro opening "Strange Brew", one  that eventually explodes into a spacey masterclass of riff-centric hard prog glory. A bit less accessible than "Sorceress" but more challenging by several magnitudes. Probably the strongest tune on the album, though none of them have really had a chance to burn out on me yet.

9. "A Fleeting Glance" – mo' folk, although this one has more of a whimsical Beatles/Kinks quality to it, Åkerfeldt's childlike emoting imbuing a playful quality to an album that has largely been somber to this point… heavy in the Beat sense rather  than the metal one. Would still make for an odd mixtape orphan removed from its parent sequencing, but within the context of the album it's a welcome rejoinder.

10. "Era" – Joakim Svalberg  finally powers his organs down for some classical piano, but he's quickly back into Jon Lord territory. Also getting a strong Katatonia vibe from this one, but that's just good company to be in right there.

11. "Persephone (Slight Return)" – not much to say about this one as it's mostly just a minute-long bookend to its album-opening predecessor, except centered around a rudimentary, repeated piano line rather than the more complex acoustic guitar of the former. Not bad, but completely expendable outside an ouroborus insistence on ending the album on a similar note to how it began.

In closing, let me just say that, in my reviews, I generally try to avoid overbearing comparisons with other bands… it's often a lazy practice that shortchanges the band in question as well as revealing a lack of any serious analytical insight on the author's behalf. In spite of that, I believe Opeth – while in many ways coming into their own as a progressive rock band – are still working through their myriad influences in ways that staunchly define the material and demand tacit acknowledgment. That old easy gripe is still there: the cynics who write these guys off as a flashy cover band are not entirely in the wrong, they're just overly reductionist. Sorceress is a peculiarly strong album, but not heavy in any traditional sense, and Åkerfeldt often seems to have merely broadened his influences rather than transcended them.

Nonetheless, warts and all there are few progressive releases that will top Sorceress this year (Katatonia's The Fall of Hearts being a notable exception), so while one might wish for a speedier route back to pure originality it's simply off base to slate this stuff entirely as tribute fare. The influences are still all too bare, yes, and fans of the early material may continue to find Åkerfeldt's nude homage to his spiritual forebears so blatant as to be beneath him, but I firmly believe that each successive Opeth album of the past half-decade  – and the next – position the band as ever greater masters of their destiny.

Score: 8.5/10

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COMMENTS

  • Rich Powick

    Same here, a fan since Still life/Blackwater. I remember how odd it was to meet another opeth fan. Albums of late are still good in their own right, but just don't move me like they used to. Feels like Michael has got where he is thanks to the death metal fans only for him to give us the middle finger. Title track is heavy enough for me to give good airplay but if Will O' the Whisp is how the rest of the slab sounds I think I'll leave it there. The Opeth we love has faded it seems. Instead we have a watered down Moody Blues/Yes covers band that you could only Morris dance too. And heaven forbid their new generation of prog-loving fans hear you slate them for it.

    • Rick

      Hold your judgement til you listen to the full album. You're judging the entire thing based on Will O The Wisp, which is one of the soft tracks of the album. It's like judging Ghost Reveries after hearing Isolation Years. The reviews for Sorceress all state that Chrysalis, Strange Brew and Era bring the heaviness. Just wait!

  • Rick

    I fucking love the new Katatonia album. Sonically it sounds very similar to all of their albums from 2000 and on. All of their albums sound pretty damn similar, and that's not a bad thing, they are sensational. My point is, with Opeth, you don't know what to expect nowadays. They are experimenting and I like it.

    • Bodycage

      True, I just personally think he's capable of nodding to the past but also subverting it. They seem so enamoured with sounding like the bands he enjoys, that's he's forgotten his own voice.

  • Phil Intheblank

    I'm an old man, too, but I have to disagree with you, Gummo. Yeah, Opeth's last two albums didn't grab me like, well, every previous album, and I certainly listen to them less than ANY other Opeth release. But I actually like Pale Communion, and think it's got some great songs, that sound especially great live. And while I love metal, I actually came to be a metal fan through my love of prog rock. They are kind of parallel genres in a way.
    But the main thing I disagree with is the notion that Mike has SOLD OUT. I think it's actually the opposite. What he's doing, CLEARLY, is pissing off his fans by following only his heart. It's not like, by moving away from his heavier sound and embracing prog rock, he's gonna be next to Lady Gaga or whatever bullshit, selling millions of records to teenaged girls. The guy is an artist. He follows his muse and his inspiration, and doesn't seem to give much of a shit what people think. He's not changing his sound in order to afford a new house, because if that was his intention, the most commercial thing he could release would be Ghost Reveries Part II. He's following his muse, and nothing more. If you wish to follow him, that's up to you…

  • Name

    made me think of Tim and Eric

  • Doozie

    I have to agree, Katatonias new album is by far my favorite album I have listened to all year. This new Opeth leaves me pretty bored from all I have heard. Bring the metal back guys!

  • Doozie

    The Fall of Hearts is a damn good album, somehow I have a sneaking suspicion Sorceress won't be anywhere near as enjoyable for me. I only wish that the 3 extended album songs of The Fall of Hearts were included with the regular copy of the album because that sucker is hard to find where I live.

  • Saturn

    Pretty much love everything Opeth have put out tbh, I do "prefer" their DM stuff, but I still enjoy their more "prog" sound of late.

  • Joe Rico

    I's not as bad as you may think. Give it a shot and you'll see it's a nice progression from Pale Communion as it incorporates a bit more heaviness without the death metal vocals. It warrents a purchase on CD when it's released. I did NOT buy Heritage and Pale Communion. And yes I was disappointed in the direction the band ventured into after Watershed. So NO I'm not a newer fan. Been listening to Opeth since the Blackwater Park era.

  • Brett Turner

    Wow! The album is fantastic! The review mainly reveals the reviewers high opinion of himself, and his own opinions, rather than the more general ..straight forward Track-by-Track Review.
    There is definitely some grandiosity that comes across in the review. I know, everyone who writes an article or a review wants to a great job, but who is the audience of this review intended to be? This doesn't seem to be a review geared toward music fans who are curious about the album, but rather toward the "author" and his collective body of reviews and posts that are intended to further his own personal career goals. IMO. =) More words to fill a page just subtracted from this review. But seriously, less is more. The album rating is agreeable, for sure. I'd give it a 9.0 at least. I've been a huge fan of this band for 18 years. I've had to sit through their Heritage tour while close-minded, drunk death metal fans tried to form mosh pits during the Heritage set while screaming, "play metal!". So, I get that Opeth has polarized it's fanbase. Either stay along for the beautiful ride, or live in the past. m/. This is Opeth, If you can't hear it anymore, I feel sorry for you,

  • The review is meh

    After hearing and loving the new album, its crazy to read the reactions now. I'm a musician and always appreciated Opeth but didn't prefer them. This new album earned a new fan. Going back into the discography its really obvious how unlimited they are. To stay "metal" and always trying to be "heavy" seems like it would stifle their talent. Especially with how creative they can be with a style

  • Smart US

    great review – well worded and well pointed out. Opeth has become what they are and you like it or leave it. I tend to like it and being of younger age (although i like Yes, Rush of early times) i dont look for comparisons nor anyone should, really (its like criticizing Mark Whitfield for standard jazz tone on his guitar)… its '70 prog sound and music is original / genuine brilliantly executed.

  • Smart US

    im with you BB… i dont take it like Opeth anymore just like MA and the co. my fav is Watershed and Ghost Reveries. the rest is nice and it gets me for 1-2 weeks and then back to old Opeth.

  • Wolfstarking

    I actually really liked it and the three tracks that were released didn't make left anything in me at first but when I listened to the whole album It changed my perspective.

  • Matthew Miron

    You didn't include the last song "Spring MCMLXXIV".

    • Sir Peras

      That one and The Ward come in the bonus CD plus three live songs….that second album also delivers.

  • Sir Peras

    I understand all of you mad at Opeth for changing…but for me it's been the opposite…I wasn't that much into the band until I heard Heritage and made my way back through Blackwater Park and Orchid, I've also listened to Pale Communion a gazillion times and I'm loving Sorceress…they are two different bands, though…and I understand your point, but as artists they need to broaden as much as they feel like, I really doubt this is some sort of commercial sell out because even though they don't make death or black or whatever anymore this is far from selling millions of albums.

  • Pale Communion is a tremendous album. Easily their 2nd best for me (MAYH and Orchid are tied for 1st place). But this… I don't know, I haven't decided how I feel about it yet, but it's definitely not in the top 5.

  • Hadi Vafaei

    Sorceress 2 – 03:31 reminds me of Ritchie Blackmore

  • Hadi Vafaei

    This album is much stronger and sophisticated than Pale Communion. I'm loving it, all the tracks have something to offer but my personal favorite by far is "Strange Brew".

  • great album for a band that has no fear in expressing their evolution in sound and style, curious the 70's production in some points. check lyrics if u need http://www.rockalyrics.com/146-5312/opeth/sorceress-lyrics.html

  • Al

    I wasn't a huge fan of Heritage when it came out. When Pale Communion came out, I found myself a bit more prepared and liked it a bit more. Then I occasionally started to revisit Heritage and I must say, don't give up on it. It really is a brilliant album (far better than Watershed, imho), but sometimes it's difficult to enjoy something when it's such a massive departure from what we're used to. I challenge you to get some good headphones, put on Devil's Orchard and ignore everything but the drums. It's a different focus from previous albums, but the drumming is absolutely brilliant and for me it really brings the album together when you shift your focus in that direction. On previous albums, I would say the focus was heavily on the two guitar attack and the complexity of interplay on the rhythms, fills and solos.

    For me, my feelings about Heritage are similar to the feelings I had when Radiohead-Kid A came out. I listened and wanted to like them, but simply couldn't get into either of them. Then a year or so later I gave them both a random shot and it's like my brain had been given time to adjust so that when I listened again I was not expecting them to be anything that they weren't and my slight disappointment had faded away to acceptance. Once I had accepted that they weren't albums I'd ever love, I was finally able to love them because I wasn't focused on what they weren't. I was just listening.

  • Al

    Personally, I think Watershed is their worst album since they found their footing with Still Life. Not that it's awful, but it's uneven and feels like half of an album to me.