Opeth’s 12th album is upon us, and as promised, Sorceress is their heaviest in years – certainly since Watershed. It is also their best since then. The pendulum has not swung back to 2008, though. This is still not a metal album, per se – certainly not the progressive death that made them so beloved throughout the metal universe – but it is most definitely an Opeth album.

Heritage saw the band experimenting with a new prog-rock direction, oftentimes more successful than not, but it was still the first stumble in an otherwise pristine and brilliant discography. Pale Communion was more surefooted and cogent, with a relaxed yet confident energy. Sorceress, then, is the work of a band very much at peace with their identity. Opeth is once again free to be who they are – which is to say, shaggy and capricious and inspired and beautiful and often just plain fucking weird. And so Sorceress is just a joy to listen to.

First of all, that cover art. The peacock is garish and sublime, the jumbled corpses a bit silly, but the combination is outré and ostentatious. And yes, it’s a bit obvious too. It’s the band’s new sound perched triumphant upon the bones of the old, and while there are plenty who still mourn those old bones (death roars and emotional crescendos and all), you can’t deny that the band is free to employ a much broader and vibrant palette of color today. In fact, if I had to retouch that cover, I would have turned those salmon-and-mauve corpses to gray and blacks, just to better underscore the link to Opeth’s more somber yesteryears.

That look-at-me riot of color is unleashed throughout the album with a variety of textures and moods. “Sorceress,” “The Wilde Flowers,” and “Chrysalis” dominate the first half of the album with jazzy, rollicking groove, but so down-tuned and sludgy as if to say, “There, we’re heavy again, you happy? Now shut up and let us get on with it.” Later on the album, “Era” adopts a brighter, more positive rock-star stance as well, but death metal or no, the riffs on these tracks all rock. The rhythm work is serpentine and seductive, then pummelling and thunderous, and the organs are bolder and more baroque than ever before. Mikael also sounds more free and confident as well. Unchained from the constraints of his earlier heavy-light duality, he croons, screams, and wails with the personality and bravado you’d expect from a 70’s frontman. I love all of the now-classic Opeth sound, but those songs and moods didn’t always free him to be quite so expressive as he is now.

That Opeth other-ness also hasn’t disappeared despite all these other shifts. The warmth, the sweetness, the big choral blooms and delicate, wafting dreaminess – it’s all still shimmering and slithering through these tracks, and accented with ripples of quirky, proggy phantasmagoria. I still hear the old band I know and love – moments that are big and bouncy like “The Funeral Portrait” and “The Baying of the Hounds,” or exotic and unleashed like Damnation’s “Closure.”

And of course, the more overtly quieter moments are here as well. The album unfurls with a lush and lovely Mediterreanean ballad called “Persephone,” and a few tracks later, second single “Will O’ the Wisp” charms with straightforward, summery goodness and a flat-out gorgeous solo. “Sorceress 2” recalls the murmuring beauty of “Patterns in the Ivy,” still a heartbreaking favorite. Mostly-instrumental arabesque “The Seventh Sojourn,” seems to flow by too quickly despite its 5-minute length, but maybe that’s more because it’s so effortless and pleasing, with no sudden shifts to disturb your reverie.

If there’s one black spot on Sorceress that did disturb mine, it’s the aptly titled “Strange Brew.” The other heavy-prog tracks on the album sound loose yet still purposeful, but this is a jumble of moods and influences and jarring shifts. The Cream reference in the title is likely intended, as there’s some great bluesy groove worked in (not to mention some wah-wah nods to “Swlabr,” my all-time favorite Cream track), but I could have done without the orangutan freak-out that precedes it. It’s probably the one track here that will never cohere for me, but who knows, maybe that was the intention. 

Luckily, it’s followed by “A Fleeting Glance,” perhaps the oddest, and most oddly charming track on the album. It starts as a playful medieval ballad, then switches up to a staccato, sing-songy confection shot through with soulful soloing, like Steely Dan covering Abbey Road. Some heavy groove, back to the balladry again, and then the song swells in its final minutes to become full-bodied and sunny and wonderful. I remember the old days of waiting to hear what new instrument the band would unveil on each new album – brush-played drums on Still Life, bongos and mellotron on Damnation – but I never would have predicted that they’d one day do a song like this.

Mikael Akerfeldt has described Sorceress as purposely diverse and adventurous, where one song is not like the next. That’s not entirely true, as I think the album is fairly cohesive overall: massively-heavy prog, lovely interludes, and whimsical atmosphere piped directly from Mikael’s infamous record collection. I don’t know obscure 70’s prog well enough to pinpoint any of his inspirations, but it’s obvious that he does. Sorceress feels like Opeth’s interpretation and modern-day activation of that hazy, haunting sound, blended in with other famous cues like Jethro Tull and Deep Purple. It’s still much more than a backwards-looking homage – it’s confident and fresh and pleasurable, but most of all, it still sounds like Opeth to me. And the band sounds happy. So I am too.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
September 28th, 2016

Comments

  1. Commented by: Chris D

    Beautiful review, Jordan!


  2. Commented by: bast

    “…It’s the band’s new sound perched triumphant upon the bones of the old, and while there are plenty who still mourn those old bones (death roars and emotional crescendos and all)…”. I didn’t thought of that but it is obvious as you say.
    In an interview Akerfield reveals that this album is influenced by love and the toll it takes on us. In that sense I think that the cover art represents this too. The peacock in this interpretation would be “love” or some other passion, beautiful, intense and devastating.
    Waiting for my hard copy.


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