Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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This is lucky album number thirteen for the Swedish progressive death metal legends, Opeth, though can we really call them progressive death metal any more? They were progressive from the outset but they've moved away from the extremes and often here even from metal, so maybe they're just a prog rock band nowadays. It has little importance, of course, because they're still fascinating.
I've always found Opeth fascinating but I've had trouble grasping what they do more than perhaps any other major band. Parts of their exploratory songs leap out at me as things of wonder but I often can't grasp their big pictures. This is easily the most accessible Opeth album I've heard and it still flew right over my head on a first listen. Some songs started to come clear on a repeat and a third time through brought almost everything into stunning focus.
It begins like a Pink Floyd album with pulsing synths, samples and strange melodies. There's a real care in the construction, down to single notes. The one that ends the intro, Garden of Earthly Delights, is precise. Dignity is prog rock until it gets all folky and that's a standard shift for Opeth. I love how an extreme music pioneer like Mikael Åkerfeldt can also be a huge fan of Linda Perhacs and parts of Dignity sound like what she might conjure up out of colours or shapes. For a while, anyway, until we go back to heavy Floyd.
The first song that I grasped in entirety was Heart in Hand. It's long and varied, kicking off with a powerful riff somewhat like Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song but shifting into an acutely delicate place so Åkerfeldt can let his voice loose. It's very organic, as are many songs here like Lovelorn Crime, which swoops and soars, ending, if I'm not mistaken, with a harp. Its gorgeous tone is almost liquid.
The counter to that is Charlatan, which is thoroughly old school King Crimson prog driven by unusual time changes, unexpected riffs and a underlying bass from Martin Méndez that's just gorgeous. The guitars are stability, while the keyboards, when not providing a heavy drone under everything else, dance all over the place in a sort of wild duet with the vocals. It does a lot in a short time but feels constructed rather than grown.
Next of Kin is an intriguing mixture of both. It's carefully heavy but it's also delicately sweet with intricate instrumental sections. Universal Truth does the same, with a lot of Genesis in those quieter introspective moments. The vocals take over as the highlight on this one, seeking and exploring as if Åkerfeldt is really seeking the universal truth of the title.
I could talk in depth about every track here, because they're all worthy and interesting, even though they total well over an hour of music. They take a couple of listens to grasp and quite a few more to truly understand, but I'm not complaining about deep. They sound inviting from moment one and only get more so as we dive into them.
So I'll shut up after talking about The Garroter. As if to counter the clear darkness in its title, it kicks off subtly with a beautiful acoustic guitar and a perfectly timed shift to solo piano. It gets dark, of course, through another perfectly timed shift, and it continues to manage a balance between light and dark magnificently. It alternates odd bits of elegance, like jazz and strings, with a low and prowling piano riff as Åkerfeldt wanders through the subject matter and varied samples add flavour with screams and ambience. There's as much Nick Cave here as there is King Crimson and it's fascinating stuff indeed.
While I've listed the English language song titles, the double disc version of In Cauda Venenum features the album in Swedish and again in English, with very few differences beyond the language used. There are a few extra samples on the Swedish version, probably because they're in Swedish and not clear to English language listeners.
I've heard and reviewed a lot of albums this year that invite us to dive in and explore their songs. This is the epitome of that and it's a masterpiece worthy of heralding their thirtieth anniversary as a band. It's stunning how far they've come from their legendarily awful first gig to something as good as this. It's the closest I've come thus far to giving out a 10/10.