Few bands have evolved in quite the way Opeth have during their illustrious career. The one time darlings of the doom tinged death metal scene injected the kind of handbrake turn a few years ago rather more readily associated with getaway drivers at a bank heist than metal bands. But once enigmatic frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt had committed to that prog path nothing was ever likely to dislodge him from it.
His initial intransigence to the fans, and steadfast refusal to serve up any favourites from the likes of the Candelight years probably meant Opeth did go through a period of losing a few disenfranchised fans.
Now though eight years on from the ground-breaking Heritage, Opeth observers have got the message, although Åkerfeldt himself is now perhaps a shade more willing to throw in the occasional old Blackwater Park favourite when performing live.
That said, when Opeth headline the UK’s premiere one-day indoor festival, Damnation in Leeds on Saturday night, the likelihood is that we’ll hear plenty of material from the recently released In Cauda Venenum. But for those fans who have invested time and emotion with this album – Opeth’s 13th in 30 years – the feeling is that they’ll be more than happy to witness some of its undoubted highlights in the flesh.
After a suitably obstinate Opeth opener in “Garden of Earthly Delights,” in which bewitching choral cries blend with silky contours of psychedelic synth, the veteran Swedes showcase their holistic approach with “Dignity” a song that positively explodes under a white lightning intro, before going on to navigate its way across so many levels that you almost feel the need to take the lift just to keep up. Without doubt one of the finest tracks on this, or any other, Opeth album.
The charismatic Åkerfeldt is even more to the fore on one of the album’s lengthiest tracks, “Heart in Hand,” a mesmerising multi-layered futuristic fusion of Opeth at their most mind-numbing best. In the latter stages a mournful and reflective Åkerfeldt is given the space for a near lullaby-like moment, crooning softly over a sympathetic percussive pillow.
At times “Next of Kin” wanders off into abstract Ennio Morricone cuts and you can almost imagine the gunslinger riding into town, Åkerfeldt clearly in the Clint Eastwood role. Eventually the canvass unravels to reveal a much more strident soundscape, towering rhythmic sweeps changing the song’s dynamic.
Opeth have always operated at the more intelligentsia end of the metal conveyor belt and as though to reinforce their aural academia this album is released in both their native Swedish along with English. Åkerfeldt actually wrote the whole album in his native Scandi tongue before deciding to cover all bases by doing an English version too. So take your pick, although this review is based on the English version.
On “Lovelorn Crime” the tempo is more measured, the textures more intimate and the overall ambience softer with Åkerfeldt smooching, “Yes, I will always wait for you” against an aching aural arc that almost quivers with emotion.
Opeth’s purposeful prog investment rewards those who spend time getting to know and understand this album, although “Charlatan” is a particularly challenge with its stuttering grooves, when compared to the more engaging patterns of “Universal Truth” with its melancholic meanderings occasionally swallowed whole by an eclectic energy booster. “The Garroter” sees the Swedes try to put as many ingredients into the mix as possible, from opening baroque acoustic guitar licks through to tickling the ivories on the piano, Åkerfeldt rising and falling through the interlocking twists and turns.
The keyboards of Joakim Svalberg have never felt so influential within the band and are now higher up the instrumental food chain than they may once have been. “All Things Will Pass” is the longest of the 10 tracks and provides a rousing finish, with some scorching riff thrusts and pounding drums from Martin Axenrot.
So yeah the blastbeats and growly barks are no longer, and four albums into the second phase of the Swedes’ career we can safely assume they ain’t coming back any time soon. Thesedays Opeth are more in step with 70s icons such as Jethro Tull and Yes than Cannibal Corpse. But as long as Opeth continue to pulse with the kind of all-consuming creativity that leads to songs such as penultimate piece “Continuum” then it would be churlish to grumble while listening with a pint of Swedish lager in hand.