‘In Cauda Venenum’ – Opeth’s best in a decade (Music Review)

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Swedish progressive metal band Opeth are known for being masterful songwriters with their eclectic, long and intricate compositions.

With a critically acclaimed discography, the band has a solid fan base, in both the metal community as well as the prog community.

Going back to their beginning, Opeth started out as a progressive death metal band with heavy elements of black metal and small gothic touches from their debut “Orchid” to their third album “My Arms Your Hearse”, having a more rougher and aggressive sound as well as a more raw production.

From “Still Life”, however, as English prog musician Steven Wilson became their producer, the band’s black metal side saw a bit of a toning down, with the band opting for a more smoother and refined production. Then one would be remiss not to mention their 2001 album “Blackwater Park” which to this day many consider their finest hour, followed by “Deliverance” (2002), considered their heaviest album to date. Then “Damnation” (2003) – their first fully progressive rock album with a mellower sound, in stark contrast to “Deliverance”.

The band released their eighth studio album “Ghost Reveries” (2006), rivalling the success of even “Blackwater Park”. And then we come to the final album of Opeth’s metal years, “Watershed” (2008) which was perhaps the most death metal record the band had ever made.

However, in 2011 with the release of “Heritage”, the band drastically changed their sound, abandoning the metal side almost completely in favour of a ’70s oriented progressive rock sound, with many earlier fans not taking lightly to this new change in sound – thus splitting the fan base in two.

Though they still have a similar vibe to their sound, post “Watershed”, Opeth’s songwriting has deteriorated, no longer having that unique sound which made the Swedes so different from other metal and rock bands.

“Heritage” was the first low point in Opeth’s career, significantly missing all expectations, and while “Pale Communion” (2014) saw a decent enough improvement, it was nothing truly special. “Sorceress” (2016) was perhaps when Opeth hit rock bottom, outdoing themselves in terms of mediocre songwriting, with the most boring, forgettable, bland and garbage record ever to disgrace their once magnificent collection.

So, does the latest addition add anything positive to their now tarnished discography? Absolutely yes.

“In Cauda Venenum”, the band’s thirteenth studio album to date, released on September 27, is undoubtedly the best material the band has released since their post “Watershed” days, and may even rival “Damnation” as the band’s best prog rock record.

There are two versions of the album — one in Swedish and the other in English. It is thematically connected and each song flows very smoothly. While not venturing to describe every song in detail, certain songs like “Heart in Hand” and “Continuum” are two songs which are perhaps the most Opeth sounding tracks there have been in a long time. Though this is not to dismiss the rest of the tracks as they too are extremely good, save for the first track “In The Garden Of Earthly Delights” which really acts as more of a point to set up the whole album and build the mood rather than stand out on its own.

The album, just like all the other post “Watershed” albums is very ’70s prog/ neo prog – with Camel being a very prominent influence here. Mikael’s clean singing has seen great improvement, Fredrik Akkeson’s riffs are interesting, catchy and groovy, and Martin Mendez’s bass actually stands out. Martin Axenrot is one of the most criminally underrated drummers in metal history, while Joakim Svalberg does a good job on the keys making the record atmospheric and engaging.

As with every other Opeth record, “In Cauda Venenum” too is a dynamic piece of work, and for newcomers to prog will require multiple listens with its various rhythm changes, chord progressions and sound effects.

The record has multiple smooth transitions which are both well-paced and interesting. The interplay between the heavier and the softer parts of the record as displayed in songs like “Continuum”, which also showcases a very good sense of writing unique melodies.

The record also features a lot of experimentation with songs like “Dignity” and “Charlatan” going to Phrygian scales and even a blues scale. The various sound effects from the clapping to the laughing and various other samples really help build the whole atmosphere but also can prove distracting to some.

There is very little to actually criticize about this album as even the production is great for the most part. Opeth manages to actually sound like a unique band like they were in the past, and not some ’70s prog rock tribute band.

The little criticisms I have are nitpicks more than anything else, the guitar tone feels a bit off at some parts for a lack of words. Whether this was done intentionally or not who knows, and this really falls down to personal taste, but in some songs the guitar tone was a bit inconsistent. Where as some songs like “Universal Truth”? It’s all crisp and crunchy, in songs like “Heart In Hand” – it sounds muffled and dry almost reminiscent of a faster, non-bluesy stoner rock song.

But then again as said before those are just nitpicks and take very little from this album. From the get go, this album strikes one as very ambitious and inspired, and Opeth have managed to realize their ambitions extremely well, for while not perfect this album is fantastic and a big success.

For those Opeth fans who have become alienated from the band, if they give this record a chance, while it is a grower it will connect them to the group again.

Verdict: Highly Recommended

Score : 9/10

–IANS

anand/rn/pg

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