A bracing reminder of the subtlety and complexity that underpinned even the band’s most fearsome tracks.
It’s been nearly a decade since Mikael Åkerfeldt pivoted Opeth away from being the most forward-thinking band in death metal toward becoming a softer rock band that foregrounded the frontman’s interests in obscure classic prog rock. In that time, Opeth’s releases have grown less and less interesting, with 2016’s Sorceress suggesting that a once great band had all but washed up. As if to confirm that he was running out of ideas, Åkerfeldt announced he was taking a sabbatical to rest up. Instead, he was writing material within a few months of taking a break, and the ultimate results of that short-lived rest form In Cauda Venenum, the group’s finest album since 2005’s Ghost Reveries.
To all the old heads who insist on upsetting themselves: no, Åkerfeldt doesn’t employ his death metal growl here, and it seems like a safe bet at this point to stop wondering if he might ever go back to it outside of playing the classics on stage. One of the great ironies of Opeth’s transition away from extreme metal is that Åkerfeldt’s clean vocals, now the main attraction rather than a counterpoint to the singer’s growls, receive less attention than ever. Where once people made note of the melodicism and emotion of his sung passages, now all discussion concerns the absence of one aspect to Åkerfeldt’s vocals rather than the strengthening of the other. And the frontman’s voice has never been more powerfully phrased than it is throughout the album, the product of committed practice to increasing his range and control. That the album was originally conceived and sung entirely in Swedish, with an English-language counterpart recorded as an afterthought for fans, only deepens the sense that he crafted the album as a passion project first, and a product for others second.
Åkerfeldt‘s increased vocal conditioning is evident from the start of the album. On “Svekets prins”/“Dignity,” he opens with high, multi-tracked choral vocals that sound closer to what you might find on a Devin Townsend release than an Opeth LP, and Åkerfeldt hits verses with a throaty yell that briefly lends an anthemic quality to a track that otherwise boasts the return of Opeth’s knotty and sinuous riffs. “Minnets yta”/“Lovelorn Crime,” a piano-driven ballad, Åkerfeldt floats over the track, occasionally drifting up into falsetto before falling back into mid-range. He even puts a bit of swing into “Banemannen”/“The Garroter,” a dark cabaret number that features all the dark, violent lyrics of Opeth’s dark days but spin with a bit of smoky flair into lines like “A mother says no and father cracks a simple plan/A knife is sharpened, his children run but he’ll advance.”
The emphasis on vocals makes the frontman’s voice a contrasting element with the instrumentation, which may lack the pummeling tuning and distortion of classic Opeth but nonetheless provides the best showcase for the band’s technical complexity in an age. Earlier Opeth albums used lighter, sinewy guitar patterns as fills and transitions to break up the monotony of death-metal barrage, but here such lines dominate the arrangements. “Ingen sanning är allas”/“Universal Truth” sends Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson’s guitars darting around Martín Méndez’s jazzy, intricate drumming, the band’s secret weapon since the drummer joined in 2005. Eschewing the tedious arpeggio porn that plagues prog metal for dense, intersecting lines and suite-like composition, tracks like “Universal Truth” and the filigree-laden “Kontinuerlig drift”/“Continuum” more readily recall the genuinely progressive stylings of the likes of King Crimson.
Admittedly, Opeth’s decision to depart from their core sound has likely permanently hobbled their relevance. But for the first time since Åkerfeldt shifted gears with his outfit, the band has produced something that stands proudly with their earlier classics as proof of their singular sound. None of Opeth’s softer records entirely abandoned the compositional techniques and subject matter that always drove the group, but In Cauda Venenum is a bracing reminder of the subtlety and complexity that underpinned even the band’s most fearsome tracks. For once, Åkerfeldt sounds not as if he’s revising the band’s sound, but clarifying its essence. At long last, the absence of Opeth’s most prominent characteristics has only made it easier than ever to hear what was truly shaping the group all this time.