If you still haven’t reconciled the fact that Opeth moved away from death metal years ago – that these days they owe more to the likes of Camel and Gentle Giant than to Morbid Angel – then you might as well stop reading now. Uncross your fingers and stay your optimism for an unlikely return to roaring brutality because the Opeth prog train just keeps on rolling and shows no signs of slowing down. However, for those of you happy with the Swedish progsters’ change of direction almost a decade ago, climb back on board, take a window seat and relax.
It’s fair to say that Opeth is yet to produce a 100% bonafide masterpiece in their new, preferred genre, but In Cauda Venenum (Moderbolaget Records/Nuclear Blast) could be The One. Like all Opeth albums, their latest effort cannot simply be absorbed in one or two listens or just thrown on in the background while you scroll through a blur of Facebook posts. However, an even more time-consuming endeavour awaits you this time as In Cauda… has been recorded in both English and Swedish languages. Opeth albums have always demanded dedication and patience from the listener, and this one is certainly no exception.
Taking its title from the Hieronymus Bosch painting, the retro keyboard vibe of intro ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ must be what happens when Swedish musicians watch too many episodes of Stranger Things. Resonating with the sound of the ’70s, the visceral cries of frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt herald the explosive release of ‘Dignity’. Comprising two parts, the first section is a typically progressive instrumental featuring a wonderfully evocative guitar solo from Fredrik Åkesson. Quiet acoustics erupt into a classic Opeth riff for the second part, driven by smooth bass guitar and bathed in Mellotron, while Åkerfeldt’s vocals are strong and adventurous.
Driven by complex staccato riffing and trademark melody lines, ‘Heart in Hand’ is upbeat and strong, the riff arriving just past the two-minute mark hinting their death metal origins haven’t been entirely forgotten. Deliberately collapsing in on itself halfway through, the song disintegrates before uplifting acoustics rise almost phoenix-like from the twisted rubble.
The light and shade of the multi-layered ‘Next of Kin’ follows, its contrasting moods pushing you away and pulling you back in before the soft balladic piano of the ‘Lovelorn Crime’ takes over, the song resonating with a powerful emotional poignancy, most notably during its masterful guitar solo. ‘Charlatan’ is one of the more straightforward cuts (by Opeth’s standards anyway), its jagged riffing augmented by some occasionally discordant and unorthodox keyboard scales from Joakim Svalberg.
The best parts of In Cauda Venenum (Latin for “sting in the tail” or “poison in the tail”) arrive rather appropriately in the record’s tail end. ‘Universal Truth’ features more Mellotron, strings, bluesy licks, and another wonderful guitar solo, all topped off by some incredible drumming courtesy of Martin Axenrot.
With echoes of cult TV show Twin Peaks, stunning penultimate track ‘The Garroter’ uses its dark jazz melodies to creep insidiously into your subconscious while gliding elegantly towards its offbeat Lynchian conclusion. Ending the album in style is the eight and a half-minute monster ‘Continuum’. A perfect way to bring the curtain down on one of the best releases of the year.
Elegant and tranquil, uplifting and poetic, but with a pervasive sense of loneliness and disquiet (the strange samples scattered throughout the album add to the unease), In Cauda Venenum is perfectly balanced and consistently absorbing. On this, their thirteenth album, Opeth have taken another bold and determined step forward. Unlucky for some? Not a chance.