Opeth | ‘Sorceress’
Like so many of us, I was utterly done with Opeth.
And I mean really done.
We all know that ‘Ghost Reveries’ was the last good record. Everything since has been confused and bumbling pish.
Five years ago when Heritage came out, it was frustrating bordering on anger to hear. They had no drive.
I couldnt even bring myself to write about ‘Pale Communion’. I’d rather listen to a fire alarm.
A sad state of affairs for one of the three most important metal bands of the last twenty years.
Whatever the forces acting on Mike this time round though, and there are various interesting opnions and circumstances, be under no (dis)illusions whatsoever: he has pulled the rabbit out of the hat for ‘Sorceress’.
He and the band have smashed out of a creative rut, emerging as a new musical force and – as long as they don’t wander off course again – as a new band ready for twenty more years of sound.
What had seemed a terminal decline has not only been arrested but confounded. Opeth are renewed in tone, invigorated in emotion and emboldened creatively.
So – where has it come from, and what does that actually sound like? My only advice is to invest time and time again in the album to find out.
At first I thought it a shambles.
On those initial spins, ‘Persephone’ sounded ludicrous. ‘The Wilde Flowers’, with its plinky plonk feel, unfortunately comic. ‘The Seventh Sojourn’ a ham fisted jam mashup between ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Kiaowas’ – give me Seps any day, I thought.
It seemed far too long. My initial reaction was that the album was an hour I’d just never get back. So I listened again to prepare the arch put downs. And then I listened again. And I suspect what’s happened since will be echoed in the earphones of many otherwise sceptical listeners.
But looking back, a few weeks later now, it was ‘Will O The Wisp’ that coaxed me into it. That broke down the defences.
Its quality was undeniable from the start. Its gentle nod to a spectral English and Irish folk of times gone by, caputring Planxty, Tull, Fairport Convention, Procul Harum and even Pink Floyd in one track, leading to that masterful coda lick was too rich a listen to deny.
The medicine was also helped down by its undeniable hark back to ‘Still Life’.
In fact its real genius isn’t even that irresistable lick, or even its honest and simple lyric.
It’s the transition when Mike sings ‘You know your soul is weighed on the silver scale’, an unexpected and yet classic Opeth chord change, which opens out the rest of the track. That is the work of a master.
And from thence, a sense of what Mike was saying, expressing, started to come through.
An aside. One of my biggest bugbears with Opeth over the years were the crap lyrics. Interviewing Mike as far back as 2001, I remember him telling me that the lyrics on ‘Morningrise’ were written in the back of the car on the way to the studio (he specifically cited ‘Lonely cesspools’ with a laugh).
Most Opeth lyrics seem like they come from the same place. This however is different. This time its personal.
Serious Musical Proposition
Gradually, even ‘Persephone’ started to take root in my brain as a restrained, dignified opener that set the tone for the next hour between your ears.
It calms you down; settles you; prepares you for the feast of music to come, for the ups and downs, by shifting your concentration into and upon the music at hand, and not whatever’s in front of your face or on your stupid phone.
This alone makes ‘Sorceress’ a serious musical proposition.
So to recap, ‘Will O The Wisp’ was the key that then opened it all.
And then the hammer blow that ‘Sorceress’ – clearly a commentary on a sad life situation – really is, with repeat listening, a superb piece of heavy doom rock. It is a genuinely special Opeth track – the slow, perfect headbanging pace of that main riff is to die for, and shows an absolute confidence in the quality of the riff to just let it breathe as it does. There is just such dignity in it. Such stoicism.
There are moments of quicksilver brilliance there too, and that’s real, bona fide old Opeth brilliance – the vocal harmony on ‘You’re a murderer’ is by definition almost first two album stuff, so classic does it sound even in the midst of this new approach they’re taking.
Yes, the song ends in a rather poor fashion, as if they ran out of ideas. But its completely forgiveable for the smittening effect of the track.
The thing with this album is that’s its clear that Mike is writing from the heart this time – he’s feeling it. ‘Sorceress’ is just the first to show it. I cant remember the last time I thought that about an Opeth album. Perhaps ‘Blackwater Park’, with its bleakness.
‘The Wilde Flowers’ despite that slightly ungainly, vaguely camp intro unfurls into a fantastic track. Initially I thought they had one good idea used far too much – the ‘lighting the light as the flames go higher’ lyric (have they nothing else, nowhere else to go? I wondered) – but repeat listens reveal a fantastic journey of a track, even referencing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ in that big wet farty guitar noise in the solo.
This first half of the album is stellar, with the awesome ‘Chrysalis’ at last sounding again like the band we know and love just plain enjoying themselves with those classic double cymbal stops that are the band’s calling card.
We are treated to another transition in this track of almost supernatural musical quality.
As the hammond rock out recedes, it fades into what is the track’s (and very possibly the album’s) real message, which is worth quoting in full:
Leave it all behind you, there is comfort in giving up
A seed in a barren soil might curl up into a coil
Flourish into something new
Give back what you thought was “you”
And give way to all that is new
If that isnt a turning point in his own life, and the band’s, I dont know what is.
As I said, this caps off the stellar first side of the album on what seems like a positivist note. Where I’m still enjoying bigger problems with it all is the second half, which at times sounds perplexingly depressive.
‘Sorceress II’ sounds like Mike wrote it in a full on attack of addled self loathing of almost Nick Drake proportions.
The mood is eerily similar, and again gives insight into the creative wellspring from whence this album came.
I mentioned earlier that ‘The Seventh Sojourn’ sounded a bit wick. It still does in its tacky Ottoman kind of jamboree way. Take equal parts ‘Kashmir’, ‘Kiaowas’ and Steve Vai’s magnificent ‘Fire Garden Suite’ and you’re basically there, except each of the above were a million times better.
Yes it’s a nice reprieve from the mood. But in truth its far from essential.
The Creamily entitled ‘Strange Brew’ might perhaps set alarm bells ringing for those not enamoured of Opeth’s latter descent into 60s psych rock. It’s yet another instance though of Mike allowing an insight into his troubled state of mind (one intuits) while writing this album.
Is it too bluesy? Too kitsch? Maybe. But we live in an era where Ghost are possible. And the main piano progression is still darkly Opeth. It’s this, and the distanced, reflective part of the song that’s more powerful than all the psychedelia.
The digression of side B continues with the initially twee sounding ‘A Fleeting Glance’. Is it some sort of flowery nod to Ritchie Blackmore’s Night? Or is it a real grower that reveals more of a lean to Pink Floyd and King Crimson?
It certainly sounds a little too close for comfort to Floyd’s ‘Eclipse’ by its end. And yet the lyrics again are worth quoting.
But it’s fading away from my mind
There’s another “me” waiting behind
This album’s theme by now could not be clearer. The song ends on this brilliantly, and in fairness there’s as much Marillion in it as anything, with that soaring, Steve Rothery-esque lead line at the back.
It is a mere harbinger however to ‘Era’. The stomps at the start indicate real purpose and drive. They’re not mucking about now: they’ve warmed up. They’re going for it.
The vocal pattern may be simplistic and repetitious, but it doesnt matter because they’re up in the clouds with this one. You cannot but think of Anathema, from around either ‘Judgement’ or ‘Flying’ or some of the later albums. It’s redemptive, healing, leave the body, almost spiritual sounding stuff.
If the theme of the album is Mike’s personal rebirth, this is the moment he sees the light up there. The moment of change. Fuck me, it’s good. The harmony on ‘Im no longer a human’ is inspired. The final chorus AGAIN hammering it home:
The end of an era
One starts anew
And the harmonies on the bridge being pure, pure, VINTAGE Opeth, from ‘Morningrise’ on. Take comfort. This is the same band, just so much further on. Unlike all their flabby albums of the last decade, they sound like themselves and it is magnificent.
Riding On A Storm
I ask myself at this point whether another ‘Persephone’ with its GCSE drama style Keatsian reading is strictly necessary. I continue to wonder if the album shouldnt just stop here.
If it did though we wouldnt be treated to the ‘Riders On The Storm’ 60s bassline of ‘The Ward’, nor its delciously confected triple harmony vocal line which sounds very much like Mike rode through the desert on a horse with no name to come up with: it’s pure love for America.
(As a treat, listen not to the bass at the start of it, which steals attention – listen instead to the way the bass falls off, lounge style, into its gaps in the verse. Genius.)
And again, closer ‘Spring MCMLXXIV’ sounded like nothing more than a worthy blandishment getting a bit too close to MOR/AOR on first spins. Of course the Floyd-isms are in it too; but moreseo Porcupine Tree, from that longtime musical bromance with Stephen Wilson – there is a ton of ‘The Sky Moves Sideways’ in it.
Again however, with great repetition, the power of its place in context becomes apparent, and soon it is as loved as the rest.
But I am rambling. There is just too much music to write about.
I’m not saying this album will solve all the problems that have somewhat sullied enjoyment of Opeth this last decade for a great many people.
But you must, must, must give it the chance to, because it more than likely will.
It is no understatement to say that Mike has been creatively refired here, in a direction that harnesses all his 60s and 70s predilections without letting them run unchecked as on previous albums.
‘Sorceress’ is surely the turning point in their career where we can now accept that they’re a great prog rock band rather than a band that just desperately wants to be one.
Their transition hasn’t been as gradually accepted or given the by-ball in the same way as Anathema, largely because their music was never as deep or personally meaningful in the first place. But finally they’ve got there.
I’ve wrestled over whether to give this Album Of The Month – as if it matters to anyone at all – for a few weeks. Knowing that the new and bewildering Meshuggah is out at the same time, that there are other more minor contenders doing some astonishing things (Sumerlands).
But I have to because I’ve really had to work beyond my own gag reflexes to understand and subsequently fall in love with this album and what it offers. That, after a long, long period of disillusionment from a band so important to me and so many of you too.
Akerfelt has matured to the point of finally just spitting the bricks out and saying what he means vocally and lyrically. Musically its as clear a commuication of that as you’ll hear on an Opeth album.
Even ‘My Arms…’, as brilliant and angry as it was, was as obscure as its cover art. Nobody could actually tell you what he’s on about in it, like. So this is a real achievement, and a real turnaround.
It’s an album that given its length and tones, keeps you company. It admits you as a confidant somewhat in what is said and in what is implied musically.
It is far from perfect and with some very trying digressions. (As an aside, it’s probably best to ignore the live version of ‘The Drapery Falls’ as bonus on some editions though, as his growl is fucked for good by the sounds.)
Yet it is without doubt brilliant, and all the moreso because the listener, and especially the jaded one, has to discover this. When you do though it’s magic, and proves an irresistable go-to album.
I cannot wait to get it on vinyl, which can the only medium it was truly made for.
Mike is a genius in metal, one of few. He got very boring and uninspired for a while, but genius doenst go away. His is once again out of the bottle, unleashed, reaffirmed, and committed to the ages of rock and metal.
The guy is just on fire on this, and it’s a remarkable listen. If you’re still not convinced, think of it like olives. You hated the first one. You tried another, then another to be sure you hated them. Before you had time to question the change, you’re addicted. This album is like that.
I could write all day and all night about the nuances of the tracks, the playing, the vocals, and I’m kicking myself already for observations not included. The trouble is I just hear more with every listen and frankly I have to stop before this get’s too much like a hagiography.
Nuances, subtleties, revelations there are in this by the bucketload. So go find them, and enjoy them over and over.
Remarkably for an Opeth album, it’s emphatically possible again. “Should be fine, right?” remarks Mike at the end of the album, in an almost G’n’R parody of ‘Alright, that sucked’.
But yes, Mike, it should be fine. In fact it’ll do rightly.
4.7 / 5 – Earl Grey ::: 13/10/16