Sound — 7
A new release by Opeth used to be one of the most celebrated things in the metal community for ages, perhaps even since they released their sophomore album, "Morningrise," in 1996. With every album since "Blackwater Park" adding more and more progressive rock influence, the band's sound became increasingly interesting, reaching their creative zenith with the albums "Ghost Reveries" and "Watershed," two absolute classics in both the progressive metal and death metal genres. With the release of the decidedly more progressive-rock influenced "Heritage," as close of a tribute to '70s prog as we've gotten in ages, many fans felt betrayed and abandoned by the fact that the band had completely left out the death metal sound altogether (this reviewer excluded, since I loved that particular record). And even though "Pale Communion" was a bit heavier, it still left a sour taste in the mouths of those waiting for something that wasn't a '70s prog-rock tribute. In the months preceding the release of "Sorceress," their twelfth studio record to date, the band had spoken at length about how this album would be a bit heavier, more diverse, and (quite repeatedly) about Mikael's abandonment of death metal vocals.
I'm going to cut right to the chase. If you didn't like the band's transformation into a '70s prog tribute, whatever your reasons may be, this album will not do anything to change your opinion. This album is a clear progression from the last two, and the band shows no signs of changing back to their old style to appease anyone.
And in fact, the band may have broken some of their promises about a "heavier" record, with a lot of the songs relying on acoustic guitars and keyboards. In fact, there isn't anything that could be considered "heavy" for at least several minutes on the record, as it opens with an acoustic guitar-led intro in "Persephone," and the first minute of the title track is an electric piano/drum duet. The first guitar riffing you hear "Sorceress" definitely sounds like something tuned to a low A or punped through an octave effect, but before you get the impression that I'm about to tell you that this has gone back to something resembling metal, the fact is, it's still a blues-y prog-rock riff. The title track is mostly a decent tune, with some really cool arrangements before the solo, and the solo itself is really good. But... for some reason, the track falls a little flat to me. It's a bit repetitive and it just doesn't sound like Opeth at its most creative. "The Wilde Flowers" follows, with a bit of an improvement over the title track's formula... but it feels like just that: a formula. It's nearly seven minutes of Doors-esque vocals, stomping riffs, the expected Hammond Organ and Mellotron samples, and shreddy wah guitar solos. All of it is expertly played, and I can't even fault the writing here, but there's something that seems so formulaic about the first two proper songs on this album.
Jethro Tull's "Will O The Wisp" follows, with Martin Barre's acoustic strumming and Ian Anderson's pained vocals taking center stage throughout th... wait, sorry, I forgot we were talking about Opeth! This tune could have easily fit on any of Tull's '70s folk-rock albums (think "Songs From the Wood" through to "Stormwatch"), but it also harks back to other incredible Opeth tracks like "Harvest," and I'd dare say this is the first song from the album that really caught my attention. Had it been released on any of their predominantly death metal albums, I feel this song would have gotten a lot more praise than it will on this album, but it's still a really beautiful tune to listen to. "Chrysalis" opens with the kind of headbanging riff and louder vocal that may convince a few of the prog-Opeth naysayers that their favourite band still has a spark left in them, and it really is an insanely good quality track. This is easily the best track on the album, and it would have fit perfectly alongside anything from "Ghost Reveries" and "Watershed."
"Sorceress 2" explores the themes from the title track in an acoustic setting. It feels a bit filler-ish, though and I feel it would have benefitted from being cut by about a minute or so. Mostly-instrumental track "The Seventh Sojourn" returns us to the sort of folk-prog Opeth feel that people who've listened to "Heritage" will find familiar. There are only brief sections with vocals near the end, and this really does feel like another "Opeth-lite" sort of track that could have also been cut a bit shorter and improved the album. "Strange Brew" begins with a sort of echo-drenched "Hours of Wealth" style, before coming in with a crazy jazz-fusion solo section. The track goes back and forth throughout, and it honestly feels like a couple of really good sections that didn't really fit together, kind of making the final product sound very disjointed.
Prog is known to have a lot of abrupt shifts, but there's usually a reason for the rhyme, and I don't feel it on "Strange Brew." "A Fleeting Glance" is a very theatrical-sounding piece with a couple of really cool riffs and some nice vocal work, but it did nothing to catch my attention. "Era" follows, with a deceptively quiet intro preceding some of the most uptempo drumming and riffing on the whole record. This is another one of the better tracks on the album, even if it's not as heavy as "Chrysalis." Closing out the album is the piano ballad "Persephone (Slight Return)." If the title is conjuring up images of wah-drenched guitars and blues riffs, that's where you're wrong, kiddo! It's essentially the Tetris theme song played on piano with some female spoken word over it. It does kind of bookend the album nicely and tidily.
The bonus disc also has two new tracks worth mentioning. "The Ward" is another sort of light-prog/jazz piece for Opeth, but the interplay between the drums and vocal melodies is one of the best things I've heard from Opeth for a long time, and I genuinely feel that this song should have made the main body of the album instead of being relegated to bonus material. "Spring MCMLXXIV" (1974, the year of Mikael Åkerfeldt's birth) is an almost uplifting sort of song for Opeth, something rare in their discography. It's nothing really special otherwise, from a musical standpoint, but worth mentioning. Following this are live renditions of "Cusp of Eternity," "The Drapery Falls" and "Voice of Treason" (its debut performance, no less!) with an orchestra, and they are quite good live renditions.
The playing on the record is as fierce as you'd expect from Opeth, with Mikael Åkerfeldt's and Fredrik Åkesson's guitar playing being very progressive and even shreddy (something I felt was a bit lacking on recent albums), bassist Martín Méndez and drummer Martin Axenrot providing one of the most solid rhythm sections in the genre, and recent addition Joakim Svalberg playing some of the meanest keyboard parts since the 1970s. Fault the music style if you will, but these guys can play! The production, handled by UK producer Tom Dalgety, is also great and dynamic, and is probably the best production the band has had on a record since "Watershed."
Lyrics — 8
Lyrics are one of the biggest constants in Opeth's world, with the themes almost unchangingly being about the predictable topics of devil worship, death, depression, and loss. If you're expecting a happy song on this album, that isn't something you're going to get. The lyrics on the album are exactly what you'd expect from the band, whether it's Mikael proclaiming "I am a sinner and I worship evil/Blood is thinner but you will never know" on the title track, lamenting "When you smother your friendships/And take much more than you need/When you can't keep a secret to yourself/And points to the source of the deed" on "Will O the Wisp," or even appealing directly to stoner metal fans with verses like "There's eternal night in my gaze/I'm cast out and I am not like you/Find my way on through the haze/I'm liquefied in a strange brew."
Mikael's vocal style hasn't really evolved much over the past few albums (besides the lack of death metal growling), but they haven't really needed to. Mikael's chilling vocal style can still reduce a grown man to a trembling mess, and he's still got a great amount of versatility from harder crooning to some of the most gentle vocals he's done in a long while. If you want to hear him do more recent metal growling, he even still commands the style on the live version of "The Drapery Falls" on the bonus disc. In the case of the vocals, as long as you're okay with the lack of death metal growls, this has been one of the few aspects of the band that hasn't needed to evolve, and he's found a way to make it fit well with the style of music they're now playing.
Overall Impression — 7
I always feel it's a little unfair to give my thoughts on an Opeth album so soon after its release, as I usually find myself changing my opinion of an Opeth album completely after several listens, or in some cases, even a few years. But initially, my impression of this album has been that while I've been an avid fan of their prog-rock stylistic shift, and support them wholeheartedly on this venture, this album left a few things lacking. There's some really quality material on this album, and even some songs that, when taken on their own, may serve to bring back a few of the fans that felt abandoned them, but the band hasn't quite perfected the style yet. The jarring shifts in some of the songs, the lack of anything really memorable, and the feeling that the band might be running out of creative steam, all conspire to make me believe that this hasn't been Opeth's best effort in their progressive era, and that I'm still going to maintain that out of the three albums, I still prefer "Heritage" and "Pale Communion" to this. However, I remember how long it took for me to actually enjoy "Pale Communion," and my mind (and yours as well) may change after more listens, and more time to sit with it. I really feel like this album would have been vastly improved if the bonus track "The Ward" had replaced something else from the main body of the record, like "Sorceress 2," which is the closest thing to a pure filler track Opeth has ever released.
So will this album appease the legions of fans that wrote them off after abandoning death metal, after all? Doubt it. But there are songs on here that you'll definitely want to check out if you miss that style, like "Chrysalis." And overall, it is a good record, but it does have some flaws. Note that my overall impression is a 7/10 only because I can't technically rate the album 7.5 on this site. If you were a fan of "Heritage" and "Pale Communion," this album will definitely be right up your alley.