In Cauda Venenum

This review is long overdue – about four months late – but can you blame me? There was a lot to take in on this one! And since it’s going to wind up high on my year-end list, I figured it’s time.

I’ve been an Opeth fan since late 1997, when I first heard “Nectar” on a Century Media comp. I was intrigued, and after tracking down copies of Morningrise and Orchid, I was in love. (My Arms, Your Hearse came out shortly afterwards, and cemented their status as my #1 favorite band – and that hasn’t changed since). I can remember back to the release of every new album, breathlessly awaiting the first samples that would drop. “Moonlapse Vertigo,” “Harvest,” “Wreath,” “Windowpane,” “The Grand Conjuration,” “The Lotus Eater.” This is long before streaming services – remember, we actually had to wait for mp3s to get posted? And then as soon as the album would appear online, I’d find it, gobble it up, and play it endlessly until I received my physical copy. And then continue with my listening spree. 

This time, I did something very different. My wife and I finally invested in a record player a few years ago, and so not only did I wait to listen to In Cauda Venenum until it was actually in my hands, but I also bought it on vinyl. In Swedish. And then I did something even more uncharacteristic. I waited almost a week longer, until the house was empty. Wife out, kids out. I pulled a chair over to the speakers, poured myself a good beer, laid the record sleeve open on my lap, and I finally hit play.

There have been many, many listens since that first one, but even now, I still can’t shake the odd thought that bubbled up somewhere around the lovely, sunlit wanderings of “Ingen sanning är allas/Universal Truth”: I forgot I was even listening to Opeth. And then an even stranger fantasy occurred to me.

Imagine that it’s 2008 again. You’re a massive Opeth fan. You know every note on every album, from Orchid throughout Watershed. You know them as well as you know any pieces of music. And then, you fall into a coma. Doesn’t matter how, you’re just gone from the world. You miss out on the big shift, and the rumors of the two deleted post-Watershed death metal tracks. You miss out on Heritage, on Pale Communion, on Sorceress

And then you wake up in a strange house.

The house from the album cover, in fact. A stately English manor house, with the gentle crush of evening settling all around, and warm golden light blazing from within. You’re lying in a plush and monstrous bed. Smooth white sheets, dark green velvet coverlet, mahogany posts carved in baroque patterns. The bed is comfortable and warm, like the rest of the chamber, and yet, your first thought is a dark one. Someone died in here. The corners of the room are obscured by shadow. Maybe that person is still here.

And then a man steps out of those shadows. A familiar face, bearded and with a wry smirk. It’s Mikael Akerfeldt. He’s dressed in a smoking jacket and top hat – a bit eccentric, sure, but it suits him well. He’s got a gleam in his eye. He slips a snifter of brandy into your hand, waits for you to pull on a silk pair of pajamas, and then he gives you a tour of the place.

It’s an elegant home, solidly built and handsomely furnished. Everything is luxurious, ornate, but also darkened with the patina of years. Well-worn and lived in. And there’s music playing in every room. It’s Opeth, Mikael confirms, but it’s not the band you remember. There’s still that same duality of darkness and light, heavy vs delicate, but where are the biting guitars? Where are the thunderous rhythms, the roaring vocals? It’s a different palette altogether. And yet, it’s still assertive without being aggressive. It commands your attention. And it’s rich. Rich and dark and exquisite. And as you wander through the house, you bathe in that music, letting it warm you back to life.

It often sounds familiar – a chord progression here, a layering of melodies there, and buoyed along at all times by Mikael’s honeyed voice and the band’s pristinely detailed playing. And it varies in mood, each piece matching the decor and feel of its respective chamber. Some rooms, filled with the sounds of “Kontinuerlig drift/Continuum,” or “Ingen sanning är allas/Universal Truth,” are relaxing. There are deep, comfortable chairs in there, fine food and drink to sample, and fascinating books to peruse. You feel refreshed and stimulated just being in those spaces. In another chamber – smaller than the rest, but opulent and colorful, there’s a song playing called “Minnets yta/Lovelorn Crime.” It’s so yearning and heartbreakingly pretty that you don’t want to move on, but you know that there’s more of the house to explore, and your time in this room is limited. 

And then there are the parlours and halls that surprise and delight. At one point, you step outside into “Livets trädgård/Garden of Earthly Delights” to get some air. Hushed mutterings and tinkling chimes float to your ears through the twilight. When you step back inside to the manor’s entry, a chorus of crying voices whirls you around to confront the cavorting bray of a heavy organ coming from an adjacent parlour. 

This room is called “Svekets prins/Dignity,” Mikael says, and it’s one of the strangest in the entire house. The walls are covered in paisley wallpaper and gilded, gleaming frames, but whereas some of them feature the face of a angelic young woman, the others are filled with grotesque old men, their leathery jowls pulled into scowls and leers. At the very rear of the room, someone has balanced a jumble of smashed and splintered furniture atop a pile of filth-stained tapestries. 

Towards the back half of the manor, you find the most peculiar room of all. Other chambers have been tasteful and often restrained, but this one is painted in garish red and accented in black-and-white carnival striped drapery. Black candles gutter on a scattering of low-slung tables, and a lone piano stands in the center, playing a cycling and ominous melody. And there’s not a single right-angle in the entire chamber. Just standing in here makes you feel off-balance. This room is called “Banemannen/The Garroter,” Mikael grins, and at first, you’re not sure you’re even in the same house anymore. But as your recuperation continues and your stay in this house extends for days, and then weeks, you find that you return to this room more often that the rest. In fact, if Mikael were ever to expand on the manor house, you hope that he would construct more rooms like this one.

I can probably extend this synaesthetic fantasy for a few more rooms/songs, but this is where your own imagination should take over. And with an album as unique and nuanced and superbly crafted as In Cauda Venenum, I hope that won’t be hard. As much as I’ve enjoyed every Opeth album, this is the closest they’ve come to creative, inspirational brilliance since the glory days of Still Life and Blackwater Park and Damnation. And so that should make any Opeth fan – long-time or brand-new – very excited for the future.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
December 23rd, 2019


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