Opeth: A Sorceress Approaches!

  • Maximus

In the current music culture, style trumps ideas. Critics praise genre executions; promoters book neatly packaged tours; labels and PR firms specialize in marketing to ever-tighter niche audiences. Though this isn’t necessarily different than how things were in the MTV era, since 1980, we’ve been speeding rapidly towards a music world dominated by bands who thrive on expectancy. People form bands to be band-first, musician second. It feels as though we have fewer and fewer groups who focus on the music above all – the fundamental levels of melodies, rhythms, and arrangements.

Whether or not you embrace Opeth’s progression since Heritage, they are one of the last large-scale guitar-based bands that are all about the ideas. Every album in their discography has – to varying degrees – challenged their abilities, audience expectations, and merit of a musical idea.

Despite what I’ve been reading from other critics, I don’t feel as though Sorceress really has much to do with “prog rock” in the sense that an album like Heritage did. To me, this album and Pale Communion have much more in common with the sensibilities of bands like Fleetwood Mac, who hid their darkness in plain sight; as if the Beatles had scored a Roman Polanski movie; Lalo Schifrin arranging for a NWOBHM band; a re-imagination of late-career Led Zeppelin. Opeth continue to blur the lines between metal, folk, neo-classical, and so many other genre-voices — not in a stylized way, but in how they apply their ideas to varying contexts.

Take “The Seventh Sojourn,” one of the band’s most ambitious compositions to date. Despite being completely devoid of electric guitars, drums, and thick keyboards, it’s one of the band’s most purely evil tunes. Much like how Revocation’s Dave Davidson conceives of “heavy” in a melodic sense, this is one of many songs in Opeth’s recent discography that thrives on minor modes and middle-eastern harmonies, moving between the flat and raised seventh-degree of the scale depending on a riff’s progression, resolving a line with upward chromatic motion, and slyly incorporating the tritone as a passing note.

For a band that’s seemingly done it all harmonically, Sorceress finds them prancing fresh ground. On songs like “Sorceress 2” and “Era,” Opeth are more naked than ever before, treading similar ground as The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, The Who’s Tommy, and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. Those albums are familiar touchstones for most Pitchforkcore bands these days – but for bands like Opeth that have thrived on harmonic surprises and “trickery’ in the past, this stripped-down, psychadelic-pop harmonic sensibility is a fresh turn.

Sorceress may also be the band’s most intricately designed album on an arranging and production level. Every tone (and tonal shift) is so carefully calibrated, and the band have achieved a new level of comfort in using the tools at their disposal – much like some of their generational peers in bands like Radiohead and The Dillinger Escape Plan. From the lightly-toasted opening clean-guitar dual of “Strange Brew” that are brought to a halt by Peter Svalberg’s distorted organ, to the pristinely realized fuzz-intro of “Sorceress,” this album shows the band working every riff to its proper sonic voice. The interplay between each member’s tones is something that Frank Zappa might have pursued for the live incarnation of the Mothers of Invention in the mid-70’s (see: Roxy & Elsewhere): organic and performed, but after everyone’s sonic palette have been perfectly-tweaked.

All this to say, I haven’t really heard many albums that sound like Sorceress, both in terms of its composition and production. It’s just, like, weird, man. You could point to the individual influences (as many music nerds love to do, given Mikael’s famous record-collecting habits), or to the familiar hallmarks of Opeth’s sound, but the band is finally beginning to find its footing in the post-Watershed era. They’ve found something strange, and they’re running with it.

There’s a curious link across time and mediums between Miles Davis’ 1967 progressive jazz album Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer, and Opeth’s Sorceress. The three works share not just titles (inspiring concepts on their own) but also artistic sensibilities. Opeth have steeped themselves in a mindset that you don’t see often these days – one which values the potential of a musical idea, pushing it to the extremes of its expression.

Although Watershed remains my favorite of their, Opeth are a band clearly in the throes of reinvention and re-conception. I’m really not sure where they’ll go next – and in an artistic climate where expectancy is the norm, they are a band to be treasured.

Opeth’s Sorceress is out September 30th via their Nuclear Blast subsidiary, Moderbolaget Records. Pre-order it here and stream the title track here.

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