The last time that Opeth named their album something ominous, they changed up their entire career. That was Watershed which, for many, marked a shift in one of the biggest careers to ever come out of extreme metal (love them or hate them, you cannot deny that Opeth are huge). That shift saw them explore the Swedish and otherwise prog/folk rock influences that always informed their lyrics, composition, and overall approach to music, digging deeper into the older sounds that made the band (and frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt tick). Reception was, to say the least, mixed; some pined for the old days (and there are several Opeth “old days” to pine for) while others loved the new direction and vibe. Still others, like yours truly, weren’t exactly obsessed with getting the old sound back but were left unimpressed with Opeth’s take on the psychedelic influenced progressive rock scene of the late 60’s and 70’s. Something felt missing, a certain dynamic and energy that was all over every album of their career until that point.
It seems as if, with In Cauda Venenum, that energy has returned. The name of the album means “the poison is in the tail”, used in Rome to denote a speaker who was telling their audience something they didn’t want to hear or for someone who was saving the bad news until the end of their speech in the hopes of mollifying their audience. What does this meaning-heavy title mean? Is this a declaration of yet another shift in the band’s sound? This remains unclear, especially since Watershed itself was different but not that different; nothing in it echoed what was to come. And so, we’d do best to consume Cauda as its own release instead of trying to read too deeply into its meta-intentions.
As it own release, Cauda is everything that was missing from this era of Opeth’s career. The dynamics are back, in ways more than just sound and production. The composition is simply more interesting, more varied, and more cohesive, moving away from just experimenting with old ideas and paying homage to days long past. However, those influences are still very much present, making Cauda the study of the “missing link” in Opeth’s career that some die-hard fans (AKA, me) have always wanted to hear. Take “Dignity” for example, the first proper track on the album. Much of the formula here will remind you of Heritage or Sorceress (and less of the eerie, and underrated, Pale Communion). Åkerfeldt’s beautiful cleans are dominant in the mix, while the guitars are backed by towering synths possessed of a synth tone best described as what you’d get if you pressed a button labelled “joke Hammond” on a sound-board.
Like on previous album, this mix is basic but works well to get the sound the band were going for across. Opeth is obviously capable of producing music well and work with the finest professionals and instruments in the business. But what’s new here is how damn energetic everything is. Gone are the meandering compositions of Heritage and the faux-dynamics of Sorceress. Instead, Åkerfeldt sounds more earnest than he has in years. The guitar riffs are great, driving the track’s momentum through the roof. The ideas are presented on their own merit, instead of being run down by endless iterations, breaks, and ambient passages. “Dignity”, like the rest of the album, simply benefits from feeling tight, cohesive, and direct, some of the most basic tenets of writing effective music.
And the ride doesn’t stop there; “Heart in Hand” which, I’ll admit, failed to impress me as a single, picks up brilliantly on the ideas presented on “Dignity”. The main riff of the track is a non-stop groove machine and the drumming is some of the more agile and on-point that we’ve received from the band in a while. The solos are fast, bright, and don’t overstay their welcome. When the quieter passage of “Heart in Hand” hits, it hits hard because the passage before it was so direct and aggressive. The contrast is back and, even though some of the tracks run (too) long at times, overall the album presents a leaner, meaner version of this era of Opeth’s sound. By the time “Next of Kin” opens with a crushingly heavy riff which leads into more somber ideas, Åkerfeldt delivering with his unmistakable timbre while a soft guitar lead pierces your heart, the epic, melodic, and emotionally laden formula of the album becomes clear.
In this sense, Cauda is more about early heavy metal than it is progressive rock. Even though many of the tones belong to that time (and the more psychedelic parts on “Heart in Hand” definitely do as well), Cauda has an immediacy coupled with an emotional flamboyance to it which screams early heavy metal like Rainbow or Ronnie James Dio‘s latter works. Perhaps this was the secret all along, to let some of the more energetic elements of Opeth’s mid-career seep into their current sound (mid-career because, let’s not kid ourselves, there’s no Still Life on this album and that’s totally fine). This infuses this sound with the punch and delivery which it was so lacking on previous releases. In Cauda Venenum reminds us that Opeth always were compositional masters and, finally, gives those compositions the sound and freedom which they deserve.
Opeth’s In Cauda Venenum releases on September 27th via Nuclear Blast. You can pre-order it right here.