Where to start with one of the most revered darlings of the progressive metal scene over the last twenty five(ish) years? After forming in 1989, Swedish prog titans Opeth have since released an impressive eleven studio records, with ‘Sorceress’ marking their twelfth album. After achieving high praise for previous records ‘Blackwater Park’ and ‘Ghost Reveries’, band struck mainstream success with 2008’s ‘Watershed’, with the album reaching number 23 on the Billboard 200.
Unfortunately for ardent fans – those who were originally drawn to the band for their original mixture of death metal vocals, progressive soundscapes and melodic leanings – the band decided to turn in a slightly different direction for their previous two records. Both 2011’s ‘Heritage’ and 2014’s ‘Pale Communion’ ditched the death metal vocals in favour of a more progressive rock outlook, with frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt making it clear that he was keen to leave those previous death metal characteristics behind.
And so, we arrive in 2016 with new album ‘Sorceress’, and it starts promisingly. The title-track commences with a fuzzy guitar riff screaming from the 70s coupled with some anguished vocals through the chorus, and a stomping riff adding a bit of Sabbath-esque weight to the atmosphere. On the face of it, ‘Sorceress’ sounds (bar the lack of death metal vocals) like a partial return to form from the ‘Watershed’ era.
‘The Wilde Flowers’ continues in this vein with a bit more catchiness evident throughout the track, and a mildly interesting vocal tone through the melodic background. The song breaks down halfway into its running time, with an inventive solo against that catchy guitar riff.
Unfortunately, the two aforementioned tracks become the peak of a relatively lacklustre record. Whether you listen to ‘Will O The Wisp’, with its ‘Heritage’-era progressive rock pomp and a total lack of bite, or ‘The Seventh Sojourn’, which meanders into blandness for the duration of its running time, you’re left clamouring for just a little of the aggression and ‘metal’ that made Opeth so great in the 00s.
‘Sorceress’ brimming with unnecessarily bombastic songwriting, painful stylistic choices, and an overall sense of laziness that not even the band’s experienced musicianship can overcome. Verses often peter out into acoustic nothingness, and the aforementioned lack of bite leads you at points to keep checking to see if the music is still playing.
‘Strange Brew’ speaks for itself. An eight minute track that has a lifeless two minute introduction with very little to stick in the memory, it comes to life slightly with that popularised mellotrone-based tone appearing in the background followed by a couple of decent guitar solos and Åkerfeldt‘s crooning voice breaking up the instrumental nature of the track.
‘Era’, on the other hand, is a delightful inclusion in the mix. There’s still not a massive amount of heaviness on show, but it’s certainly enough to get the head banging and the toes tapping. The sumptuous guitar solo right towards the end of the song lifts it to the next level before that anthemic chorus kicks in one last time to produce arguably one of the album’s strongest highlights.
All in all, after starting with a fair bit of promise, ‘Sorceress’ slowly returns to the modern Opeth that has proved to be so divisive amongst their fan base. There will no doubt be those who revel in the progressive rock mastery on show, only underlining what a true creative force Opeth have become.
Written by Neil Criddle (@DJCriddz)