I’ll admit right now that providing an unbiased opinion of Opeth’s twelfth full length ‘observation’, Sorceress, was extremely difficult. From the moment I heard the first crescendo of Blackwater Park, the first of their songs I was exposed to, I personally have been hooked on Opeth, so when I took the plunge into Sorceress I was thrilled and left dazed, confused and not quite sure what to think of it, which is exactly what makes a new Opeth album such an anticipated event. If you wish to hear Sorceress from top to tail with no preconceived ideas, don’t continue reading and just know that you’re in for an epic that will set itself apart from the entirety of their previous discography (which is saying a lot). However, for a track-by-track commentary, read on…
Sorceress opens with what can only be described as a signature Opeth acoustic riff, but this time the mood is not one of joyous expectancy but of a looming evil. Caught behind the baroque tones is the haunting voice of a female, presumably the Sorceress, who beckons listeners into the twisted journey that is about to unfold.
The title track bursts forth in a drunken warble of Joakim Svalberg’s keys before Mikael Akerfeldt and Frederik Akesson’s guitars take an Opeth first; down-tuned guitars. As in drop A, kick-you-in-the-teeth low tuned, which will go a long way to ensure Sorceress is one for the old-school fans as well as those left enthralled by their latest sonic shift. The opener rocks along with a powerful chugging bassline that provides a rock solid foundation for Mikael’s strained yet clear singing, whilst Martin Axenrot throws copious amounts of ride cymbal groove and tight bass drum which helps the track stride along. Sorceress then heads to a very ominous bridge, and what are possibly the coolest rhythm licks Opeth have ever conjured up. Whilst Sorceress is far from a return to the death metal Opeth of old, this is easily one of the heaviest tracks Opeth have released since Watershed, but heavy in a very different sense. Gone is the rigidly majestic Opeth that executed death-prog with ease and grace; instead that band has been replaced by a group of manic and energetic musicians who are happy to bludgeon listeners to death with violent levels of duelling guitar-versus-organ leads and crunch everything in their way with a flaming aural assault. To get anywhere close to explaining this sound, one could try and imagine some horrible accident involving Cannibal Corpse being sent back in a time machine to 1967 and collaborating with The Doors.
The Wilde Flowers
Sorceress’ heavy rhythm section continues to run wild, but this time with a slower, jaunty stomp that lays down the foundation for keyboard that mockingly echoes the vocals to call out. Mikael’s clean voice continue to be imbued with a more personal feeling, partly aided by a persistent rasp that almost breaks into screams, summating with punchy guitars and keys and Axe’s driving hi-hat shuffle to deliver a crushing track that can best be described as acidic. Opeth really shine on The Wilde Flowers where the impassioned chorus bursts out melodically to almost plead a connection with the listener, contrasting with the arrogant nonchalance of the verses. The track from here fades into a reverb-soaked, dreamy interlude that is crushed as soon as it came by a furiously fast percussion outro. As with Sorceress, The Wilde Flowers is worlds heavier melodically that everything from Heritage (2011) and Pale Communion (2014), but the album anything but backtracks to the mid-era Opeth sound, instead forging ahead to create a new tone quite unlike anything they’ve attempted before. But after all, the ability to take what is expected of them and contort it into wonderfully twisted new sounds is what has always cemented Opeth’s position as one of modern music’s most creative acts.
Will O the Wisp
On this track Sorceress takes a deep breath and exhales a delicate and beautifully melodic ballad, driven through a dense forest of acoustic arpeggios and liquid-clear keys. This track, as if we needed more evidence, proves Mikael’s vocal ability is to be revered, as he opens up with a clean vulnerability that adds a subtle layer of acceptance and clarity to an otherwise twisted and disorienting collection of tracks. Of note on Will O the Wisp is the lead guitar work which could stir tears and aches of longing from even the hardest, coldest stone. In the current metal scene, where guitarist’s skills are often measured by how many notes can be crammed into a short span of time, Akerfeldt’s lead playing dares to stand boldly with the kind of deliberate, passionate feeling that hasn’t been heard since David Gilmour. This may seem like a totally overblown exaggeration, but Mikael is truly unafraid to forge his own musical path, and deserves all the recognition he receives. The track is far from being slow or dirgelike, instead it carries with it an urgency which washes over everything in its path with serenity and grace, also due in part to Axe’s ability to dial back the intensity of his drumming whilst maintaining all the feel and groove that allows Opeth to be as diverse as they are. This track won’t necessarily please the fans waiting for a follow-up to Blackwater Park, but it is full of charm that would be criminal to dismiss as just another soft track.
Chrysalis crystallises the kind of adrenaline rush one would feel if they looked toward the sun to see the album cover’s peacock in its vile glory descending in anger. The frantic, driving beat descends rapidly, spitting a venom that seethes with evil and rage. The use of downtuned guitars continues to work as an effective tool for crushing everything in Sorceress’ path, and is continued to be backed up by Martin Mendez’ technical basswork. What is truly staggering about Chrysalis is the relentless pace that starts at the very first drumroll, is intensified during the clashes between guitar and keyboard solos as they violently trade off lead riffs, and refuses to holt until the outro, when the track takes a turn for sombreness, as if the peacock felt an ounce of guilt after tearing its prey to shreds. In terms of production, the effects on the guitars on Chrysalis, as well as the majority of tracks, are minimal, but what distortion, reverb or phase is used makes maximal impact, leaving the feeling that Mikael and Frederik contain in their hands raw for the listeners to see.
Despite the similarity in name, Sorceress 2 contrasts the first Sorceress track sharply. Mikael reels in the unchecked aggression for a mellow falsetto singing that provides the most delicate moment on the record. The tenderness is so heartfelt that it is hard to really listen to Sorceress 2 without being plunged into a melancholy that grips on and isn’t shaken off. Sorceress 2 is possibly the weakest track if a weakest track had to be picked, but it offers a respite from the rage and confusion that a large part of the record hits with continuously.
The Seventh Sojourn
The Seventh Sojourn conjures up images of windswept, enchanted desert lands and mysterious figures with unusual powers. The track is primarily instrumental, but without words illustrates sceneries and images more vivid than any lyrics could do justice to. Martin Mendez’ bass dominates hand in hand with exotic percussion, until they are overwhelmed by swelling, rolling hills of orchestral strings. The Seventh Sojourn lulls into a deep trance, before subtly fading into the next track.
As the title suggests, Strange Brew is a strange track. Coming in at just under nine minutes, it is by far the longest track on Sorceress, and not a single second of it is wasted. Strange Brew begins in a hauntingly sleepy mire of softly sung lamentations and reverberating keys that is as disorienting as it is eerie. From out of the fog chimes a delicate but bold electric guitar riff that unexpectedly bursts to life in a dazed fury, that is overwhelmed by raging percussion battling with a weeping piano. And then magic happens. Mikael’s voice takes on a power that is completely new and unprecedented, even over the entire Opeth, Bloodbath and Storm Corrosion catalogue to date. He howls with an acidic rage that blossoms into a sickeningly groovy bridge, channelling a Hendrix-like style of hard rock and fuzzy guitar leads. The brew bubbles into a thick, sludgy outro from here, bringing to a climax what could just be the centrepiece of the record.
A Fleeting Glance
From here, Opeth back off on the darkness that pervades the body of Sorceress, and replace it instead with a mood of serenity and resolution. A Fleeting Glance centres around an acoustic guitar riff that boldly rings out, providing something of a counterpart to Will O the Wisp. As the name suggests, A Fleeting Glance breezes by with ease and mystery. The track builds on layers of organ, beautiful guitar tones and lively percussive rhythms that gives an air of lightness to break out of the gloom that hangs around the first half of the album.
The last real song on the album, Era rounds off Sorceress with urgency and swiftness. As if the Sorceress’ spell has been broken, Era feels like a rush to freedom, driven by blistering combined drum and basswork, and frantic syncopated guitar. The track leaves every bit of melancholy and sorrow that had built up behind in a dizzying rush, which is particularly achieved in the small details. Era may seem like a simple rock’n’roll finisher, but it isn’t all it seems at first listen. A close listen reveals small details, such as the echoed vocal harmonies, small lead guitar intricacies, subtle rhythm shifts, and attention to detail in the final production, that all culminates to produce a stunning final track that matches the ambition of the whole record.
Persephone (Slight Return)
Whilst not technically a track, the choice of setting aside the last minute of the album to bookend highlights exactly what sets Sorceress apart. This album, like the Opeth of old, is an experience that is coherent from start to finish but totally unpredictable and volatile. It isn’t an easy listen, and never claims to be. It won’t please everyone, and isn’t necessarily catchy or radio friendly. But what Sorceress has is an artistic integrity and attention to detail that will stand tall amongst all the releases of this year.
Written by Jordan Sibberas