A rather silly thing for which I have always respected progressive ex-death metal band Opeth is their devotion to keeping the growls, even while moving further and further away from their death metal roots. This respect is founded on very little, since I only ever really listened to their early works, and saw them in (awesome) concert once in the mid 90s. I base it on the fact that I gave one of their later albums a listen, expecting pure progressive rock with a bit of an edge and clean vocals. While there were plenty of those, I was also greeted by several sections of quite rabid, black metal style screaming. Certainly, there were (extremely competent) melodic singing, but there were also the rabid screams which once contrasted so nicely with early Opeth’s melodic style of death metal. I found that appealing, since the list of old death and black metal bands who all of a sudden believe themselves too good for the ole’ growling is terribly long, as well as annoying to review.
Based on the fact that this is my only clear opinion about Opeth, apart from fond memories of their first few albums and a cloudy view of their more recent work, I should probably dislike their latest (2016) album. As far as I can tell, the growls seem to have gone out the window. It is indeed way more progressive rock than any kind of death metal. However, I realize that my fondness for Opeth’s stubborn, if partial, loyalty to the vocal style of the genre that spawned them long after they had technically left it behind, is probably a fondness for something else. That “something else” is integrity. The outfit plays what it, or at least what central figure Mikael Åkerfeldt, feels is right. Hence, the growls were kept in when others would have left them behind, and for the same reason they are gone now. At least for this album.
Sorceress is a very complex album, that requires several listens to blossom fully. There are certainly no lack of catchy moments, but the first spin will probably leave some folks a bit confused. Already on the second playthrough, however, the album opens up like a heavy whiskey to which a drop of water has been added. The progressive is strong with this one, but there are also heavier and more “metal” moments. Even though I’ve paid so little attention to the group’s career the past 20 years, one can still recognize the core elements of the band that once recorded Orchid – quite an accomplishment for an outfit that, strictly speaking, has changed genres several times. Upon looking for influences, or at least decent comparisons, my mind is overloaded almost at once. Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, a note of Iron Maiden’s 80s albums (in particular Seventh Son of a Seventh Son), and any number of progressive rock outfits flash through my mind already after a few songs.
All in all, Sorceress is a very stimulating experience. Apart from the visceral joy of listening to metal, the technical aspects give the album an almost intellectual quality. That impression is improved by the sense that all the guitar picking and synthesizer fiddling are subordinated to the overarching creative vision of Åkerfeldt. Despite the sometimes mind boggling complexity, this feeling of direction and aesthetic ambition crushes any notion of instrumental masturbation for its own sake. That, good people, is no small feat for a band as skilled and old in the game as Opeth.
Sorceress may be too far afield for the hardcore death metalhead, but really anyone who is into good music should definitely at least give it a try.