Three years after their previous masterpiece “Ghost Reveries” Swedish Prog masters OPETH are back with a new album and let me tell you, this one was a tough cookie to crack! Now the band around mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt never has been known for a direct musical approach in any way, shape or form, but what their ninth full-length album offers us is at times mind-boggling and very hard to sink your teeth into.
OPETH are more or less an epitome for the description of “progressive” Metal, meaning that they are progressing in the process of their musical evolution, compared to being “generic” Prog Metal (which technically is one of the biggest insults you could inflict upon a band) and on “Watershed” the Swedes bang out some of their most harmonic, some of their most brutal and some of their most dissonant material to date, making “Watershed” a very interesting and varied, if at times almost frustrating ride. Over the course of the past few years, Åkerfeldt gradually had changed over big parts of the line-up, showing that any suspicions actually are true: He IS OPETH.
The influences on “Watershed” seem even more widespread than they had been on previous outings, now ranging from almost minimalist instrumentation over Prog Rock (spanning several decades) up to surprisingly brutal Death Metal eruptions, which make me wonder, if his involvement with BLOODBATH might not have spawned those, delivering sweeping and at times staggering timing changes in the blink of an eye, with complex rhythmic patterns that at first might seem almost random, but with time, effort and attention reveal incredible concentration on details, forcing you to actually sit down and listen, slowly revealing that there actually is a method to the madness that is OPETH.
You don’t even have to dig in that deep, just take the split between opener “Coil” and following “Heir Apparent”. The former lives off a beautiful melody, very calm, with some female vocals added to the mix, before the latter gives you a wake-up call as one clunky slab of progressive Metal, with brutal Death Metal attacks shooting between extremely calm and quiet passages, giving the song an almost schizophrenic feel and thus making it hard to get into. This juxtaposition right off the bat is probably going to send the trendies, who think that they should listen to OPETH because everyone is talking about them, running to hide under their bed in their darkened room.
But back to the object at hand: “Watershed”. Overall OPETH are somewhat of a phenomenon, carving their own niche within a genre, gaining popularity and of late also some commercial success, despite technically being as far removed from the current trends and easy listening culture as you probably could imagine. While the Death Metal vocals are featured a little more prominently on the first two full tracks “Heir Apparent” and “The Lotus Eater”, the remainder of the album concentrates more on the melodic Prog vocal styles, with only reduced growl content. Speaking of musical schizophrenia, “The Lotus Eater” probably emphasizes this even more, as it segues calm organ sounds into a blastbeat supported frenzy that will sweep away any fears that the Swedes might opt for a more accessible, commercially viable sound. What makes this song so special, though, is the fact that we get blastbeats with clear vocals and calmer music with Death Metal growls, insane stuff! But “Hessian Peel” must be my favourite, as it is a dramatic, gripping and dynamic song, which meanders through several genres without losing track of the final destination (might take you a little longer to get there, but you’ll enjoy the “scenic route”).
Embedded into a nay-perfect production “Watershed” is a challenge for the fan, a nightmare for the casual listener and probably a pile of indiscernible notes for the ones, who either don’t like or don’t get it, but if you are willing and give it time and attention, one can only attest OPETH to have released their ninth masterpiece in a row!
(Online June 9, 2008)