Disclaimer: much like my Magma review, I am forced to open this review with a disclaimer. This is due to the discourse currently surrounding this (and that) album. The issue of Opeth not being heavy is not a part of this review. There is no desire within me for their return to death metal, only for good, quality music. Thank you.
When should we repeat those that came before us, provided we get a choice? When we consciously set out to make something that has been done before, when homage is on our minds, how should we re-perform the tropes that are the very foundations of our own style? These two questions, different part of the same coin, should bother everyone involved in music, artist and listener both. Since perfect originality is impossible and repetition is inevitable, calls for ultimate innovation are pointless. A more subtle answer is required, a standard for how, why and when artists should tread again the paths blazed before them.
These questions are especially important to Opeth‘s modern career. Since these once trailblazers, a band who formed an entire genre underneath their influence, have turned to retrospection, the issues of meaningful repetition echo throughout their two previous releases. And now these issues thunder on in their newest effort, Sorceress, third of the “post-growl” Opeth (or fourth, if you’re someone who includes transitions within their phenomena). With a clearly stated backwards gaze, an intentional and meditated imitation of trendsetters at its basis, Sorceress simply cannot be understood as anything other than a further data point in the age old pursuit after the meaning and nature of inspiration.
Unfortunately, it also proves many of the points made by those who would crown innovation as the only viable vector. Sorceress continues Opeth’s fascination with Hammond-infused keyboards, analog sounds and smoke-imbibed passages which once held the proto-metal community in thrall. It is, simply put, a cry back to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and other famous projects that walked the heavier line of progressive rock during their career. However, it is hard to ascertain what value its fascination brings to the table. There appears to be no point to its inquiry, no final “QED” to its long, drawn out arguments in favor of that sound. More to the point, the music simply doesn’t add anything interesting, evocative or convincing, instead satisfied to wallow in the shallows that these bands once explored.
Take “The Wilde Flowers” for examples. One of the last singles released ahead of the album, this track is one of the “heavier” on the album. By this we mean that it has a prominent chord progression carried by guitar and bass, that its tones are darker and that the overall atmosphere is meant to be oppressive. But its attempts at impact are completely marred by excess. The guitar solo which dominates its opening part is over the top and, frankly, quite boring. Its curtails lead to Akerfeldt’s dominant voice before giving way to the (by now) classic Opeth, brooding guitar passage. This part is so damnably Opeth that it could fit on every single one of their releases (barring the earliest albums), carrying no distinct identity of its own. So too Akerfeldt’s return, his clean vocals only bearing one (admittedly beautiful) mode of expression.
Let’s be extra clear here: Mikael Akerfeldt is an amazing vocalist and musician. He sounds fantastic on this album, produced to a tee as usual, and his vocal qualities are perhaps one (if not the only) main qualities which make this album viable. But the character and tone portrayed by him are often squandered. On “The Wilde Flowers” for example, their impact is completely robbed by the hectic moments that follow, scattered drums and guitar bringing the track to an embarrassing halt. The following track, “Will O The Wisp” is another perfect example of this. Sure, Akerfeldt is very moving on this track, none can deny this. His voice is sweet and heavy (recalling the masterful “Harvest”) and carry the melody well.
But the guitars are so impossibly trite that any enjoyment is robbed of this reviewer. Honestly, Stand Up and Aqualung exist; what need do we have of this track? It plays every single card in the progressive rock cadre completely straight and it doesn’t even do that convincingly. For example, the synths that attempt to haunt it throughout are unnecessary and awkward. The drums as well make little impact and simply remain as wisps as the track progresses. These faults return again and again on every part of the album: from the “oriental” vibes of “The Seventh Sojourn” to the attempted epicness of “Era”, all the blows are calculated and well recorded in the annals of progressive rock.
Nothing rises above the rest; everything is engineered to create the same response, tap into the same vibes or exude the same air of musical progression. These are (in order) wonder and nostalgia, introspection and complexity tinged with burdened, oppressive sounds. These elements all blend together however when used over and over again, as the bands we’ve mentioned above soon learned. They, by the way, all departed from their original sounds and explored other boundaries, to mixed success. But at least they did that, calling back to their youthful eras but introducing variation into their self and cross homages. On Sorceress, Opeth seem to simply be content with identifying the formula and then repeating it. And then repeating it again.
This results in an album which can’t really be called bad. Expert instruments are used in the hands of expert musicians and are recorded by expert producers. The notes themselves and their arrangements are all non-offensive but that’s the most that can be said of them. Nothing scratches the surface, nothing grabs your ears or your heart and twists. In their journey into the past, Opeth have perhaps forgotten that the past is something we all know. Most of their listeners were already awash in the influences of the bands which they are now paying homage to. If they want to make albums which last, albums which become more than just footnotes to a persistent and yet ultimately meaningless phenomenon, then they need to give us something interesting. It doesn’t have to be new; it doesn’t have to break the mold. But it needs to be more than a nod towards a shared nostalgia or a reference to a great work. It needs to be a great work by itself and for that, it needs to be interesting.
Opeth’s Sorceress is available now on Nuclear Blast Records. You can get it right here.