Saturday, October 15, 2016

album review: 'sorceress' by opeth

The last time I talked about Opeth, it got complicated. 

And it got complicated for reasons I find more than a little amusing, because for as much as I like progressive rock and metal, to say nothing of the production and mixing talents of multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Steven Wilson, I found the overall blend of it with Opeth in progressive rock and metal to be a little less inspiring than I liked, especially when I dug into Heritage and the 2014 album I reviewed Pale Communion. Paradoxically, going back through Opeth's discography I found records like the progressive and blackened death metal - a genre of which I'm rarely a fan - of albums like Still Life, Blackwater Park, and the twin release of Deliverance and Damnation. As such, while I like Pale Communion I haven't gone back to it in the same way, especially not in comparison with Steven Wilson's amazing solo project Hand. Cannot. Erase. last year in 2015. Two great tastes that don't always work together, it happens - Steven Wilson did contribute to their more aggressive side on those early 2000s albums, maybe they should have stuck with that instead of going full retro-prog.

But it seems like Opeth themselves were looking to shift things up yet again. After four albums with Roadrunner Records, they left the label for Nuclear Blast for their newest album Sorceress, which looked to be infusing more of a metal flavour back into their material. More interestingly was the fact that Steven Wilson was nowhere near the production credits of the album, which hasn't been the case for Opeth in fifteen years. And as such, the critical reviews have suggested it's one of Opeth's best albums in years too, so I wanted to ensure I gave it full consideration... even if, again, it is a little late. So okay, what did we get with Sorceress?

Honestly, I hate to say it, but Sorceress did not really click with me at all, especially in comparison with previous Opeth albums. And I can't tell you how frustrating that was - Opeth is a band I like and respect, Still Life remains one of my favourite records of all time... but I just could not get into this album. That's not saying there aren't songs I like, because again, there are, and I can certainly respect the compositions and inspiration behind this album - there certainly is real complexity here, and I like a lot of that older material - but outside of moments and a few tracks, I'm not sure I like this, certainly not as much as I'd like to.

And for a change, let's start with lyrics and themes, and I'm not going to make the mistake of over-analyzing here, especially after the rabbit hole I went down on Pale Communion only to discover in an interview with Mikael Akerfeldt how little of it all mattered. This time the language is not just more clear, the themes are also a little more defined... and where this record kind of starts to lose me. See, Sorceress is a record about the darker, foul emotions that come with love and losing it, a sharp balance between beauty and ugliness that doesn't just need to come through properly in the delivery - we'll come back to this - but the language as well. And make no mistake, I really do like the descriptive language and flow of Akerfeldt's poetry and I appreciate how it juxtaposes with the harsher subject matter - and how he frames the overarching situation with enough tact to show the protagonist's underlying depression and distrust of his own emotions, spreading the blame and showing the lingering aftermath, both with longing for that connection and the acknowledgement of his own personal demons that can overrun his reason. But especially early on the sourness that comes through on the first title track and 'Chrysalis' is acrid to the point of being a little hard to stomach, especially considering how passive-aggressive it is. Again, it makes sense in context of the characters, but throughout this record the greek goddess Persephone is referenced to bookend things - and is the only concrete evidence of a female perspective or voice on this record - and assuming that places this record's protagonist as Hades, the emotional dynamic feels skewed and it doesn't quite coalesce. On a broad level it makes sense - depression, descent into the underworld, never quite escaping it, that makes sense - but it ignores that most versions of the myth have Hades abduct or rape Persephone, not engage in this caustic passive aggression which more often blames her. Again, the overall framing does compensate a bit, but not enough to tie the emotional dynamic of the writing together all that well, especially if we're supposed to remotely sympathize with our protagonist.

Part of this ties into the delivery: Akerfeldt's singing is very measured and poised, only at rare points getting rougher or harsher... which yes, might occasionally work in context on the latter half of the record, but can feel a little distancing, especially with the subject matter. Of course, none of this helped by the vocal layering and production, which is some of the most slapdash I've heard in a while. Not the multi-tracking - for the most part, Akerfeldt's layered harmonies are generally pretty, even if I'm not exactly wild about his falsetto crooning. The big problem is that if he's not going to cut loose and bring real intensity, layering him more deeply into the mix can make him less of a presence on these tracks, and that's before you throw in some of the vocal filters that either sound compressed or like he's trying to imitate Steven Wilson circa 1999.

And this is where we have to get into the instrumentation and production - and again, there are moments I like on this record. Not exactly many hooks - 'Era' is probably the best of those and even that's not saying much - but when this record can build to a decent vibe or solo, I get enthused. There's a great tonal balance on 'Will O The Wisp' with the acoustic guitars and flow that's later echoed a lot on 'A Fleeting Glance' that probably builds to one of the best guitar solos on the record, probably one of the best songs here too thanks to the crescendo on the back half. And yeah, I liked the dueling organ and guitarwork on 'Chysalis' - about the only thing I liked on that song - and the bluesy segments that got into 'Strange Brew' were great. And I have to call out the drumwork on this record: even if there are weird moments like the compressed tone of 'Chrysalis' around the cymbals for the most part the drumlines are absolutely excellent, progressive and dynamic in a way that I really wish was echoed across the rest of the album. And this is where we get to two big issues with this album, the first being that Opeth really isn't innovating as much as they have in the past, and their callbacks to certain rock acts are all the more blatant. 'Will O The Wisp' and the first half of 'A Fleeting Glance' sound like something Steven Wilson would have made around the turn of the millennium, or that The Flower Kings would have made in 2007. And that's before we get the songs that crib generously from mid-70s Deep Purple records like Burn and Stormbringer, but minus the tightness and intensity that made those records actually click for me - hate to say it, but Akerfeldt is not David Coverdale. And that ties to  the other major issue with this album: in pieces the melodies can be satisfying but the production and arrangements are often really hit-and-miss. I talked about the buried vocal production but in truth a lot of the tones feel runny and flat in speakers or on headphones, with the rhythm guitar trying to hold ground against the wheedling organs, thicker bass, and a main guitar struggling to cut through - I like the shredding, but you're not flattering it here! Or take the strings arrangement behind the middle eastern-inspired scales on 'The Seventh Sojourn' - solid melody, sure, but they don't have great distinctive texture and the song runs out of momentum right after the main ascending crescendo. And that's not uncommon, a lot of these tracks often kill any sort of momentum with these very quiet, delicate, distant guitar or piano interludes that are not transitioned well and are often feel too stiff and staccato regardless. 

In short, I didn't enjoy Sorceress by Opeth nearly as much as I wanted to - and that really frustrates me because there is significant talent here. The lyrical poetry, the musicianship, there's a lot to like - but it feels a lot more like a misshapen grabbag of ideas rather than cohesive, consistent songs, and not in the way that could take the albums and tones that inspired this in a new direction. For me, this is a very light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a diehard Opeth fan - otherwise, if you like progressive rock and metal it's worth a listen... but man, they've done so much better.

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