Review Summary: A scattered, towering masterpiece that caps off Opeth’s legacy and serves as a solemn farewell to their signature musical style. Boasting newfound maturity in imagery and lyrics, Watershed is Opeth’s most interesting and underrated achievement yet.
Watershed plays a vitally important if underappreciated role in Opeth’s history. Coming straight from their masterpiece Ghost Reveries (2005), it revealed itself to be a drastically different beast altogether. It displays a plethora of sonic landscapes and explores musical terrain they had been known for throughout their career, but is accomplished in a very different way. Genrebending was always their go-to shtick for a sharp right turn in songwriting, but never before have they gone all out quite like they do on Watershed. For the first time they include more meditative prog rock songs than metal epics. Most tracks contain extended, bizarre outros consisting of downtuning guitars and ghostly whispers. Watershed is possibly their most haunting and schizophrenic release yet. Despite these dramatic flourishes, the imagery and lyrics of Watershed are among their most cryptic and mature.
The first catalyst for what Watershed would become is the absence of long time members guitarist Peter Lindgren and drummer Martin Lopez. Both departed the group shortly after the release of Ghost Reveries. With 50% of the main band gone, Akerfeldt felt more pressure than ever to impress his new bandmates and anxious fans alike. The arrival of his second daughter would further serve to inspire the lyrics and meaning of Watershed. With these lifechanging events, especially with his family, he became disillusioned with the state of the world. They also made him reconsider his former girlfriend who tragically ended her life while the band was in the studio. Surging emotions and life-altering events and realizations are the centerpieces of Watershed, and establishes Opeth with a newfound maturity and evolution rarely seen amid their gothic themes of the supernatural and celestial.
The “Heir Apparent” on the album’s cover remains the most significant mystery behind Watershed. While the lyrics cover a far reaching spectrum of personal emotions and experiences, the solemn figure at his desk bathed in a haunting fluorescent green glow largely remains a mystery. While Akerfeldt explicitly stated that Watershed is not a concept album, he admitted that it is about a character. Specifically, a manifestation of himself after his epiphanies that came with fatherhood and seeing the world through a new vision. The lyrics mainly detail a tyrannical figure presiding over some kind of society, possibly our world. “… His touch soiling what used to be clean, his gaze burning on the edge of our dreams. Cold days, and again he rides… It's September and he covets the gullible, skeletal wish, hunter… Hear him spewing forth a meaning to miserables lies, see the twisted hand of doubt seal the affair… Pearls before swine, they are nothing but blind.” Akerfeldt stated that these new personal evolutions have left him feeling anxious and paranoid about the state of the world around him, as the “Heir Apparent” is a representation of his fears encapsulated in a tyrannical figure ruling over our blinded society.
The tranquil Coil precedes the crushingly brutal Heir Apparent featuring Akerfeldt and drummer Lindgren’s girlfriend Nathalie Lorichs hauntingly crooning of loss and regret, “When I get out of here, when I leave you behind, I'll find that the years passed us by. And I can see you, running through the fields of sorrow.” These lamentations refer to the regret he feels regarding his former girlfriend and her child, further exhibited in Hessian Peal and Hex Omega, “Will their children cry, when their mother dies?… The light comes on, the signal for us to end our lives… I left you alone, we all left you alone… Lock the children away from harm, they'll lock all your reason why, seeking tenderness with a dagger, skin is blocked by the years of trial. You felt abandoned in the fog of flesh sitting in place from the dead, awaiting the face of the moon to ascend. You follow the siren in your head.” “… Held him In your arms, your fever subside. Always safe from harm, kept demons inside. Still you always start runnin.' Touch the light from the moon, some way mother cried, left us space here.” Akerfeldt’s former girlfriend left behind a son, the same age as his oldest daughter. Heartbreaking prose and clever wordplay weave themes of loss, regret, and death while staying true to Opeth’s gothic tone and imagery. Hessian Peal and Hex Omega ultimately come across as among the most heartfelt and tragic of their lyrics, ending Watershed, and a distinct part of their legacy, on a truly solemn note.
Watershed is Opeth’s ultimate turning point, and a long expected farewell to progressive death metal and medieval, supernatural atmosphere for Akerfeldt’s musical vision. The finalities uncovered in its’ layered textures are numerous and significant to the true understanding of what it represents in the identity and legacy of Opeth. While it is a “watershed” in their history, it certainly does not deserve the reputation it has unfairly acquired: that it stands with the more death metally influenced Deliverance as their least accomplished releases. Watershed remains the ultimate testament to their style and represents a beginning of new ideas for Opeth that would be further explored in the vastly differing Heritage (2011) and Pale Communion (2014). The musical influences are more far reaching than ever before, with some of the most brutal death metal in tracks like Heir Apparent, to bouncy folk sections in Hessian Peal and The Lotus Eater. Burden is a full on jazz ballad, and one of their most consistently beautiful songs.
Watershed ultimately closes an era for Opeth, an era of what some would say is their signature style. However, here Opeth show that daring experimentation and jarring shifts in structure and songwriting is what they do best. Watershed is ultimately a message to the longtime fans: to trust them, that they know what you want, and dissonant, layered guitar riffs and guttural vocals aren’t always needed to make a fantastic Opeth record. Watershed exhibits this transition seamlessly. It is an album of finality for the group and a goodbye to their assumed musical identity, their image, certain people in their lives, and a closed book for their unrivaled legacy.