Production – 5/5.
Songwriting – 4/5.
Musicianship – 4.5/5.
Despite credit as 'innovators' of their craft with releases such as 1996's Morningrise and 2001's Blackwater Park, I feel that since the latter of those two albums, Opeth had become somewhat 'safe' in their approach. That is not to say their still weren't releasing great music, particularly with 2005's Ghost Reveries (despite its mild reception), but the line had began to blur between being 'progressive' and a 'prog band'. Stylistically they were not doing anything that far removed from the Blackwater Park release on any of their three previous albums. You could almost suggest there was a formulaic stream running through the majority of the material from that period. But this has all changed with their latest release, Watershed.
Watershed is the first Opeth release since Still Life that surprised me at regularly intervals throughout its 55 minutes. Opening with the three-minute, acoustic guitar piece ‘Coil’, including a guest female vocalist (courtesy of Nathalie Lorichs) contrasting Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soft croon and accompanying orchestral instruments. Another example would be ‘The Lotus Eater’. Starting with a hummed vocal line, the song launches into a blast-beat with soaring clean vocals atop soon after, alternating with Åkerfeldt’s signature growls, the band playing with a sense of urgency. The track is also interspersed with some minimalist, atmospheric interludes and an unexpected turn in the form of a syncopated rhythms and ‘funky’ bass lines(!).
As expected, the acquisition of guitarist Frederik Åkesson (who replaced long-time member Peter Lindgren) and drummer Martin Axenrot (replacing Martin Lopez) had a profound influence on the direction of material. There appears to be a greater number of guitar solos (perhaps due to Åkesson’s proficiency), but again, it is another avenue Opeth have only hinted at in the past. Axenrot’s rhythms are more straightforward compared to those of his predecessor in as much as he lacks the flair of a Martin Lopez, though he does contribute very solid, if workmanlike, rhythms.
Watershed, for me, sees Opeth taking on a more relaxed approach to their songwriting and performances. The fact that there is reversed vocals in ‘Hessian Peel’, the aforementioned funky-rhythmic section in ‘The Lotus Eaters’ and the manual detuning of an acoustic guitar at the conclusion of ‘Burden’ shows that Opeth aren’t afraid of trying something that may appear gimmicky to the average ‘metal’ listener and are perhaps taking themselves a lot less serious in the process. Even that they have a track like ‘Burden’, a clear homage to their seventies rock influences, is testament to this. I could imagine in the past the band would seeing this song as somewhat ‘too simple’ and ‘too ridiculous’ to get away with, however it goes down a treat here because of its faithfulness to those seventies bands.
I find the production to be faultless as well. I have always found the Steven Wilson-produced albums to be too dry and rather lifeless and a bit too clinical, but with Jens Brogen they have found the right balance in the precise, cutting sound heavy metal requires, and the earthy, more organic and warmer tones their prog rock and folk influences cry out for. I even recall Steven Wilson admitted that Opeth had ‘out-produced’ him with this effort.
On a whole, the songs are impeccably arranged. Personally, ‘Porcelain Heart’ seems, despite its stellar content, to be slightly close to ‘cut & paste’ arranging for my liking, leading the transitions between sections to be too drastic, causing the song to lack cohesion overall. Despite this minor shortcoming, the remainder of the album is a stellar example of what Opeth has to offer. ‘Heir Apparent’ is perhaps the heaviest I have heard Opeth, with a strong vocal performance, outstanding riffing and powerful drumming. ‘Hessian Peel’ is probably the strongest track with a catchy, clean guitar melody opening the song’s initial stages, memorable keyboard lines, jarring atmospheric sections, and perhaps Åkesson’s best solos.
Opeth clearly came close to the edge with songs such as ‘The Lotus Eater’ and ‘Hessian Peel’. Despite the strength of the album overall, I get the feeling that they are still in a transitional phase with the (relatively) recent additions of Åkesson, Axenrot and Wiberg and a far greater willingness to experiment. I imagine this will be far more telling on their next release as the group continues to jell. Maybe they will just step over that edge into something more. But for now, Watershed is a more than adequate ‘observation’ from Opeth.