When dealing with dynamic and complex systems, it is a nearly inevitable conclusion that the only real constant we can universally count on is the aspect of change. Despite the empirical knowledge that anomalies exist, humans seem, in general, averse to dynamism. We cling to the familiar, espousing predictability and order over chaos whenever possible. Our love of predictability and replicability is no surprise, as they make it possible to 1) build a sound basis for societal success, and 2) develop a more clear, rational understanding of physical forces of the universe that allows us to progress as a species.
Deviations from the norm tend to make people feel uncomfortable, and that is how many felt after hearing Opeth’s 10th studio LP, Heritage back in 2011. There were a few standout tracks that sucked people in, but it seemed the Swedish progressive giants had partially lost their way in trying to emulate the 70s progressive rock bands that so greatly inspired them. The results ended up coming off a bit flat and, ultimately, somewhat sterile.
At the time, it was easy for legions of upset fans to decry Heritage as a wholly unexpected pivot in creative direction for Opeth. Looking back, I believe that criticism isn’t so obvious. Some of Mikael Akerfeldt’s lackluster live vocal performances leading up to Heritage’s release hinted that he might have been ready to move away from death growling on future Opeth material. Notwithstanding the decision to get away from growled vocals, Heritage seemed to lack the impactful gravitas of Opeth’s older material. It is a solid, competently performed, and well-produced record with some great moments, but it failed to make a truly lasting imprint. Thus, the record muted my high expectations for a follow-up.
Fast forward to 2014 for the surprisingly impressive release, Pale Communion, which saw Mike and company once again finding their groove as the heavy progressive rock band they always seemed destined to become. Where Heritage wandered aimlessly between set piece tracks, Pale Communion displayed focus. Where Heritage lacked emotional impact, Pale Communion presented memorable and compelling melodies.
2016’s Sorceress finds Opeth comfortably following the path that they forged on Pale Communion. It’s a fantastically arranged and produced record. It successfully pays homage to many high watermarks of the Opeth catalog, but also firmly supplants any hopes of the band returning to the death metal stylings of their earlier material that made them such a dominant force in heavy music.
That’s not to say they’ve gotten complacent. Sorceress is one of the most satisfyingly diverse records of Opeth’s career, touching on most of what makes them so prolific. This diversity may have stemmed from the album’s rushed writing period — which started at the tail end of 2015 — in preparation for recording starting May of this year.
Except for demonic death growls, you’ll find everything that makes Opeth special present on this LP. Opener “Persephone” is a short instrumental with spoken word vocals, and despite being slightly cliche, it’s one of the cooler album intros I’ve heard this year because it functions as a very effective counterpoint to the meat of the record. Following this is the trilogy of singles that were dispensed leading up to the album’s release, beginning with the title-track. “Sorceress” starts off with a supremely funky intro and features Martin Axenrot’s syncopated drumming style at it’s best. One of the heaviest riffs to grace an Opeth record in recent memory carries the song forward, saving the best for last with a forceful outro that ties it up beautifully and sets the pace for the first half of the record.
The Swedes maintain that pace through “The Wilde Flowers,” a combination of straightforward Deep Purple inspired rock riffing and some textbook Opeth dynamic shifts to close out the track. “Will o’ the Wisp” is an interesting little song which to my ears pays tribute to Jethro Tull with its memorable repeated melodies, and “Chrysalis” culminates the first half of Sorceress with a truly massive riff reminiscent of Watershed’s heaviest moments.
The second part of the record, which opens with the subdued acoustics of “Sorceress 2”, appears to balance around the centerpiece of the LP, “Strange Brew.” The multi-movement, nine-minute track dips into various aspects of not just Opeth’s history, but also showcases some influence from Storm Corrosion, Akerfeldt’s 2012 collaboration with Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson. It’s during this second half of the record that things seem to slow down on either side of “Strange Brew,” and it becomes apparent that the record is a bit front-loaded with slightly more compelling material. Luckily, Sorceress ends on a strong note –– “Era” is a forceful, energetic number which draws heavily from 70s heavy metal.
I’ll speak briefly about the bonus material on the limited edition of the record, which is readily available through iTunes. On the level, you’re not missing much if you purchase a version of Sorceress sans bonus tracks. There are two studio cuts (“The Ward” and “Spring MCMLXXIV”) which are mildly interesting on their own, plus three live tracks (I believe they come from the band’s 2015 performance in Bulgaria) with a full orchestra accompaniment. Seems like a neat idea in practice, but unlike Blind Guardian, whose grandiose and flamboyant compositions benefit from such backing, these tracks sound almost like a marching band was involved. The lack of coherence with the orchestral players is painfully apparent on “Voice of Treason,” which, frustratingly, sounds like Opeth crossed with a 1960s Adam West Batman fight scene. Pass.
As is the case for many, I will continue to stubbornly lament the lack of sheer brutality from Opeth’s earlier records; I have always considered Ghost Reveries and Watershed to define the peak creative output of this band. However, I also recognize that continuing to produce art without real and tangible growth can be extraordinarily unfulfilling for the artists behind it. As far as Opeth is concerned, creative stasis was never an option, resulting in 25 years of unique interpretations of black metal, death metal, progressive metal, and now progressive rock. Sorceress undoubtedly sees the band playing to their strengths in their newest incarnation, and the diversity of this record is welcome and also makes it difficult to predict exactly where they will go next. For now, this outing comes highly recommended.