Review Summary: Opeth's 10,000 Days.
It's gonna be heavier, more technical, darker; EVILE-ER! We've all heard the endless flow of hype bands frequently spew out about their new albums and in many places, history has taught us to just ignore it. Why it is that groups often feel that they can't just be upfront with their fans about the music they choose to write or the directions they decide to go in is something I don't believe I'll ever understand. Then again, a band claiming “This is exactly what you've all been waiting for fans, a big, fat middle finger courtesy of your favorite artist” is perhaps not the best way to promote a new album. Tool made similarly bloated assertions with their infamous 10,000 Days which instead turned out to be their softest, most experimental outing to date. It was a great record once one actually gave it a fair shot, however it was largely met with disappointment and even outrage by the group's salivating fan base who were clinging desperately to expectations of a heavier, crazier Lateralus Part II that Tool had built up. We can also examine Dream Theater's hype over their supposedly all-encompassing “final” album, Octavarium, or Incubus' pretenses about their “never heard us do anything like this before” Light Grenades, but I figure the initial example suffices. The bottom line here is that none of these are “bad” albums, but they simply were not received well for the reason that the bands themselves built up expectations for them that were not appropriate given the types of records they were releasing.
So what does any of this rambling have to do with Opeth? Well quite a lot actually, because they've done exactly the same thing these other groups have done with their latest work. Watershed was hailed by death metal deity/extraordinaire, Sir Mikael Akerfeldt to be the band's sinister, heavy, and insanely complex return to form that would silence all of the group's nay-sayers. While it was never formally said, many fans assumed that it would no doubt be a Blackwater Park or Still Life Part II of sorts. Well, boy are they in for a surprise! It didn't initially hit me upon first listens, but I can now say with a fair degree of certainty that Mr. Akerfeldt is clearly a genius. He planned all along to make these assertions on the globally recognized holiday of “Opposite Day” because virtually everything he has claimed about Watershed simply isn't so. He strikes me a particularly honest man, so this is truly the only explanation I can think of to properly make sense of the great schism that lies between his claims and the reality of the album. With this said, Watershed only serves to further add to his heir of brilliance, because while it may not be at all what he cracked it up to be it is a fantastic album all the same.
I can't think of a better way to shoot down a heavy music lover's hopes than to open an album with a totally acoustic and clean sung track that features of all things...female guest vocals. Yep, they're there alright it's no illusion, Opeth has officially crossed the line. “Coil” is a gorgeous, mystifying and even lovelorn piece that will no doubt be drowned out by the indignant cries of “sell-out!” by the metal elitists out there, however if they can weather the storm (or the lack there of) they will be very pleasantly tickled by one of the absolute finest heavy tracks Opeth has ever written, “Heir Apparent.” Perhaps, what should be considered the proper opener for the album is nearly nine minutes of melo-death bliss; technical riffs, dynamic shifts galore, one hell of a climax, and not a clean vocal in sight. New guitarist, Fredrik Akesson of Arch Enemy fame also shreds his ass off here and it actually sounds not the least bit out of place. It's everything Mikael promised and then some which will only make the reality of the rest of the album even more devastating to all the old-school fans out there. Despite the ferocity of heir apparent the rest of the album really has more in common with the band's much maligned Damnation than anything else.
“Lotus Eater” which leaked on Youtube nearly a month ago will undoubtedly also add to this disappointment. The song opens with Mr. Akerfeldt just humming very softly before the song errupts into blast beats layered with surprisingly, vocal harmonies punctuated briefly by bouts of his signature growls in between. As if this isn't earthshaking enough, the group's recently added keyboardist, Per Wiberg, throws in a crazy part in the bridge which I've heard called everything from the “disco part” to the “video game music thing” or even the “Between the Buried and Me rip-off part.” It sounds like absolutely nothing Opeth has ever used before on any of their prior songs, and as jarring as it initially seems, it eventually comes to sound perfect within the context of the piece, even giving new-found drummer, Martin Axenrot, a great funk beat to lay down. A killer track.
However, it is truly the next two pieces that will prove hardest for most to swallow, “Burden” which is a seven minute, unplugged, progressive folk tune that would feel right at home on the aforementioned, Damnation and the single “Porcelain Heart” which is another lighter almost gothic sounding piece. Both tracks feature some of Mikael's finest singing to date and have some very cool instrumental showings like the wonderful organ solo, and discordant outro in the former song and the wild, but somewhat out of place drum break and arpeggiated guitar leads in the latter. It's impressive stuff, but again not what most people will be expecting. That said, Porcelain Heart is a bit of weak single that doesn't seem to reflect either the heavier side of the group or the more creative one they seem to push for most of the album. It's just kind of- there. The lyrics in it, as many have pointed out, are simply not up to par for Mikael who emotes: “Rest your head now don't you cry, don't ever ask the reason why.” Eh...why not?
The final two tracks do kick the heaviness up a bit, but not in obvious ways. After the more pensive melancholy of the album's middle “Hessian Peel” proves not to be the instant kick-in-the-face one might hope for, at least not at first. The song takes three minutes of...surprise! more bluesy acoustic building before reaching the much anticipating shrieks, riffs, and double kicks, but when they do arrive- oh how glorious it is. Despite the added heaviness it's still hardly an easy piece to swallow as it unfolds over the course of eleven me-an-der-ing minutes that don't seem to necessarily take the listener to any obvious climax. It definitely is a grower and takes some time to make sense of. After a minute of dissonant ringing the genuinely evil riffing of the closer “Hex Omega” (quite a title guys...) kicks in and appears to bring the album full circle, that is until all the distortion cuts out and then...flutes, or at least that's what the keys sound like. Again different, but completely effective; the mood of the song is nothing less than enchanting, as fruity as that sounds. Despite hardly being a death metal song at all, and even sounding down right doomy toward the end, it's a very cool track that definitely shows an interesting progression in Opeth's sound.
I drew a Tool comparison at the beginning of this review concerning my feelings on this record in relation to 10,000 Days, and now reflecting on it, I am beginning to see an even broader connection between the two groups. What made Tool such a sensation early in their career was how they essentially took the instrumental sound of metal band and paired it with a vocalist and atmospherics that were about as far removed from the rigid genre as could be; they broke out of the mold groups like Metallica and Megadeath had cast and virtually created a new genre because of it. Perhaps with their new direction on Watershed Opeth is doing a similar thing, but with death and extreme metal genres. Regardless of one's own feelings on such a path, it certainly is unique and I commend them for it.
If you couldn't tell from my descriptions, Watershed is clearly not one of Opeth's heavier efforts, in fact it is probably one of their softest to date. While this will most likely send much of the group's older fan base reaching for the Kleenex, I also can see this being a huge draw to many other people. I have plenty of friends who love Opeth just for their clean and progressive parts, but virtually listen to none of their more metallic tunes. I don't really see this as being a concession on the band's behalf or their pandering to a mainstream audience (calling any of this stuff mainstream is like calling Frank Zappa pop) so much as it is just their pursuit of their own creative paths. They have certainly been around long enough to earn their artistic freedom, and even if Watershed won't really change the minds of the nay-sayers it will at least quiet many of their critics. People frequently complain of Opeth's sound never changing and their songs dragging onto oblivion; with Watershed all such grievances have been addressed, but on their own terms, which is really how it should be done. Watershed is a hard album to tackle and definitely takes an open mind to appreciate, but is entirely worth the effort. This will undoubtedly be a polarizing album, and while I cannot say for sure where it stands in relation to Opeth's many masterpieces, it is truly a great and different work that deserves a fair chance. A Watershed indeed.