Eleven years. That’s how long it’s been since Opeth has released an album that could really be considered heavy metal. Odds are high that you made up your mind about the wholly progressive rock era of the band years ago, so you’re likely in here reading a review at a heavy metal website for one of three reasons:
1. To talk shit because you think Opeth lost their balls.
2. To find out if all of In Cauda Venenum is as hefty as the lead single.
3. Because you love their recent output and are greatly anticipating album number 13.
If you feel like making an early exit and skipping the next 1,300 or so words, the responses to those reasons are, in order:
1. Kindly get bent.
2. It is not.
3. Your anticipation has been greatly rewarded.
The last point is the most crucial here, and there is absolutely zero doubt that In Cauda Venenum is the best record Opeth has made as a non-growling progressive rock band. But that needs a little qualification because it insinuates that the other prog rock Opeth albums aren’t great (wrong), and that In Cauda Venenum can only compete with the records of the last decade (also wrong).
One of the criticisms of modern Opeth is that they aren’t as unique because they’re just paying tribute to Mikael Åkerfeldt’s 70s progressive rock heroes, which is a valid argument to a point; they do have a song called “Goblin,” after all. In Cauda Venenum still pays homage to plenty of classic prog ‒ you can hear bits of albums ranging from In the Court of the Crimson King and Days of Future Passed to Look at Yourself and A Farewell to Kings ‒ but the homage is far less overt than it has been recently, with the band sounding as distinct as they have in years. Or perhaps the songwriting is merely extra tight, and the album’s pristine production melds it into something even more… Opethian in overall feel.
Opethian and diverse, especially to an attentive ear. It’s progressive rock, but there is also doom, some subtle nods to proto metal and NWOBHM, bluesy classic rock, a fair amount of jazzy playing, and the expected neofolk. It strips away a lot of the psych rock elements of Sorceress in favor of much more bluster and orchestration, with a huge string section adding grandeur and pomp to some of the album’s most dramatic moments. These elements never feel like window dressing, but rather like the songs were designed with violins and cellos in mind as much as guitars and piano. At times In Cauda Venenum is their heaviest record since Watershed, while at others it sees the band more serene and delicate than ever. It’s punchy, Floyd-drifty, dreamy, and eerily menacing, depending on the moment—a rich, sophisticated, and widely dynamic musical expression by Åkerfeldt and a band that is at the absolute top of its game as performers.
Yes, the top. The most obvious part of this is that Åkerfeldt somehow continues to increase his mastery as a singer, and his performance here is equal parts warm, desperate, playful, impassioned, and haunting. He reaches new levels of soulfulness in “Next of Kin / De närmast sörjande,” deftly switching between belting out big lines and performing a quiet falsetto, sometimes with a little bit of acrobatics. The quiet falsetto comes out in several of the album’s most reserved moments, chief among them the finish of “Universal Truth / Ingen sanning är allas.” Elsewhere, he shows up his knack for phrasing in the ultra jazzy “The Garroter / Banemannen,” and even adds a little scat singing as a doubling for the playful leads towards the end. Fear not, it rules. Everything the man does here is exquisite.
After the scat-solo duet, Martin Méndez does a little closing bass noodling, which brings us to the rest of these supremely talented musicians. Méndez has always been a spectacular bassist, but one wonders if Åkerfeldt knew his range when he brought him into Opeth over 20 years ago; the man can play anything, and sometimes his bass has a nice distorted thickness that adds a bit to the album’s heft. As on other recent albums, he and Martin Axenrot are an almost constantly dancing rhythm section, providing a driving foundation at times and exploring around the main elements at others. Keyboardist Joakim Svalberg helps “Charlatan” get a tad Purple-Maideny with a guitar/key dual lead section, and uses his piano to add sounds ranging from the bittersweet (“Lovelorn Crime / Minnets yta”) to the slightly demented (“The Garroter / Banemannen”). And along with Åkerfeldt, Fredrik Åkesson helps to give In Cauda Venenem an absolute glut of great riffs and guitar solos, the latter of which rock with swagger as much as they weep with sorrow. The wah-fueled shredding in “Continuum / Kontinuerlig drift” is downright hot.
These top notch ingredients fill an unforgettable set of songs. Everything here is a journey, even if sometimes the journey includes some weird turns. This is new era Opeth, after all, and Åkerfeldt has long been a bit of a prankster. But for every start-stop and up-and-down of “Universal Truth / Ingen sanning är allas,” there is a perfectly smooth “Lovelorn Crime / Minnets yta.” When the latter explodes into its bright, affecting guitar solo, it rewards all the subtlety of Åkerfeldt’s earlier vocal melodies, and just when you think the former is going to spend all it’s time changing volumes, it naturally arrives at a dramatic and beautiful string-driven swell.
There’s also a holistic arc to the album, more so than perhaps any Opeth record not named My Arms, Your Hearse or Ghost Reveries. “Dignity / Svekets prins” bursts dramatically from the moody intro before going hush, only to rebuild in a way that makes the thundering, pulsating metal of the ensuing “Heart in Hand / Hjärtat vet vad handen gör” sounds perfectly natural. After that, the album opens up to all the sounds already described, a wide landscape of styles that feels unified due to the talents of the band and the lush production (really, not enough can be said about how this record sounds). Just when the 67-minute album seems like it might be starting to meander, the aforementioned “Continuum / Kontinuerlig drift” shifts from its doomy blues riffs to a more introspective sound, as if to signal that the finale is imminent.
Said finale is an instant Opeth classic. “All Things Will Pass / Allting tar slut” wastes no time getting to a prolonged finish, as a unified ascent and sustained vocal give way to a malevolent low lead that is destined to be stuck in your head in perpetuity. It’s also a ruse, with the real finish coming after a pause in the action and retreat to calmer sounds. To spoil it would be cruel, as it is truly one of the finest finishes to an Opeth album ever. Like all great finales, it begs for a bit of a break before firing up another album.
As for most of the songs on the record having both English and Swedish titles, well, the record comes in both English and Swedish versions. Other than the vocals the two versions are identical, and it’s basically impossible to give a verdict on which is better. It’s neat hearing Åkerfeldt sing in his native Swedish after all these years, and while I can’t personally understand the words, I have no doubt that this will provide extra little details and nuance to native Swedish speakers. The whole thing kind of reminds of how baseball great Ichiro would use a translator for interviews despite speaking English. He knew that there were tiny things in his inflections or vocabulary when speaking Japanese that may not come across in English, despite his near fluency in his second language. Perhaps that was the same for Åkerfeldt, who says he prefers the Swedish version. Whatever the reason, he sounds supreme on both, and it’s amazing that he didn’t just translate the words, but also had to worry about vocal cadence and rhyme schemes.
Add another line to the man’s long list of talents, and add another essential record to the Opeth catalog. In Cauda Venenum is more than just the best record of progressive rock-era Opeth, it’s a massive achievement and yet another masterpiece in a career built of them. As in his metal years, Mikael Åkerfeldt refuses to sit still, but there really aren’t “metal years” and “prog rock years” for Opeth, there is merely Opeth.
Constantly growing, perpetually shifting, unwaveringly excellent, and eternally peerless Opeth.