Sweden’s Opeth have proved themselves one of the most original and creative prog-metal bands of the past decade. On recent albums such as “Ghost Reveries” and “Watershed” Mikael Åkerfeldt and his band balanced moments of delicate beauty with moments of brutal heaviness, and it was the way they seamlessly combined the two that was a big part of the appeal.
With their tenth album they could have taken the easy option of trying to repeat a successful formula. But instead they’ve taken an abrupt turn, and done something completely different.
Gone are the death-metal growls. While it still has it’s heavier moments it’s can’t really be described as a metal album. The whole thing has a warm, retro 70s vibe, with echoes of artists as diverse as King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Uriah Heep. There is still much here that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the quieter moments of the last couple of albums, and they still eschew traditional song structures in favour of complex epics with constantly shifting moods. Mikael Åkerfeldt again shows how good a vocalist he can be when he sings in a ‘clean’ style, and he’s got a keen ear for unorthodox but beautiful melodies.
Even with death-metal stripped out, it’s an enormously varied album. It begins with a very simple unaccompanied classical piano piece, a gentle lead-in for the delights to come. The hard rock of “Slither” with it’s barrelling rhythm comes over as a very deliberate homage to Deep Purple, with a riff and solo that’s pure Ritchie Blackmore. Then there’s the strongly jazz-tinged “Nepenthe” and “Hāxprocess”. An undoubted highlight is the penultimate track “Folklore” with a dramatic closing section which has to be one of the most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard all year. It ends, as it began, with an instrumental. The semi-acoustic “Marrow of the Earth” starts out sounding like a Blackmore’s Night piece, but builds to assume a melancholic grandeur beyond the scope of anything that band have done.
While this is likely to disappoint some out-and-out metal fans, this is still a very impressive release, and a strong candidate for progressive rock release of the year. There is endless debate in prog circles as to whether the term should refer to bands who try to capture the actual sound of classic 70s progressive rock, or for bands who evoke the same spirit of adventure of music without boundaries. Opeth are a rare band that fulfil both of these, sounding both unapologetically nostalgic and absolutely contemporary at the same time. Almost nobody else can pull that off as well as Opeth can.