Thirteen albums in, I’m still excited about new Opeth records. While I am, indeed, an Angry Metal Guy, I appear to have taken the band’s merger into progressive rock better than other metalheads, having loved Pale Communion and enjoyed Sorceress. And being Angry Metal Guy, the responsibility for (and privilege of covering) such a huge event like a new Opeth album falls to me. The problem, of course, with being the guy who has to review the new Opeth record is simple; I am the guy who has to review the new Opeth record. And reviewing In Cauda Venenum is a major endeavor. As the next step in Opeth‘s journey, In Cauda Venenum is a fascinating, complicated album. And In Cauda Venenum is not a journey that everyone is going to love taking.
By now, Opeth‘s sound needs little introduction and In Cauda Venenum sounds first and foremost like Opeth. At its base, bassist Martín Méndez and drummer Martin Axenrot drop the anchor of the band’s sound, giving impressive performances on material that ranges between proggy versions of classic Åkerriffs (“Hjärtat vet vad handen gör”) to swinging drums and walking bass (“Banemannen”). Helping to really sell the classic prog sound, Joakim Svalberg’s piano, keys and Mellotron define the contour of the album—even evoking Peter Lindgren’s love of eBow in “Kontinuerlig drift”—and offers an indispensable dimension to their sound. Åkesson and Åkerfeldt’s guitars rock a sound that you know: a PRS with crunchy amps and a stadium rock overdrive. Over it all, Åkerfeldt sounds like Åkerfeldt; an untrained baritone with a slightly reedy timbre—except this time he sings with a Stockholm accent.
Yet, while In Cauda Venenum shares musicians and production (and the riff on “Allting är slut”) with its predecessor, it is a distinct and inventive album. The writing feels impulsive and experimental, but with a crafty use of samples, In Cauda Venenum also flows smoothly like a concept album. This doesn’t mean that they settled down on a single sound, per se. Rather, the record moves expertly from its introduction through the end, navigating a variety of styles and somehow weaving them together gracefully. And, like so many of the best albums, the anthemic chorus of “Allting tar slut” brings the record to a close in a way that impels one’s finger to press play again.
In between the introduction and the closing anthem of “Allting tar slut,” listeners are walked through the paces of Opeth‘s characteristic brand of progressive rock. Like Sorceress, In Cauda Venenum features some genuinely heavy material—even peaking into double kick at one point (“Hjärtat vet vad handen gör”)—but where the band shines is rather in unpredictable riffs and ideas (“Det närmast sörjande”), orchestra-drenched tracks with power choruses (“Minnets yta,” “Ingen sanning är allas”), and that creeping Jazz på svenska feel that has started showing since Heritage (“Banemannen”). This is equally impressive, in my opinion, because it was first when taking notes that I realized just how diverse every track on In Cauda Venenum is. Given the concept-album-like flow, it was almost surprising just how many different eras, tones and textures that Opeth managed to stuff into 66 minutes of album.
Conceptually, Åkerfeldt has said that the album is about loneliness. I think that the record feels like it’s about death. After Sorceress—Åkerfeldt’s “angry about my divorce” album—In Cauda Venenum feels more personal and reflective. The use of Swedish helps to cement an intimate feeling for me. While I haven’t been given the lyrics, the bits and pieces that I understand make it clear that writing in Swedish has made Mikael a much more relatable vocalist. To paraphrase Åkerfeldt himself in one of the preview videos, the reason for this is simple: he can’t bullshit in Swedish.1 This feeling of thematic wholeness and Åkerfeldt’s mastery of his native language are strengthened by the particularly inspired use of interviews with children about God and death. I don’t know what the clips are from, but I can only assume they originate on Swedish public television (SVT) in the 1970s or 1980s, when interviewing children about God and death seemed like the kind of thing that a be-bell-bottomsed reporter with feathered hair and dewdrop glasses would think of doing while eating Kalles kaviar for breakfast. The interviews—which you cannot understand because you are an uncultured twit—are magical, including one young girl bullshitting up a storm about how each country (of which there are a hundred bajillion) has a God, but they can’t talk to each other. Another great clip is the adolescent boy who says “I think that when you die you mostly just lay around in your grave” (“Charlatan”).
The album starts with a little girl saying: “Om man slutar tänka, då blir man död” (directly: “if one stops thinking, then one becomes dead”). There is no more perfect synopsis of the feel of Opeth‘s music in 2019. And if this is Mikael’s grappling with mortality album, then I suspect he’ll be happy/slightly worried to know that he probably could stop here and feel happy with what he produced in his life. At album 13, Opeth is vital, and In Cauda Venenum finds the band both experimenting and starting to really coalesce as a unit. While I wish that it was produced by Steven Wilson,2 I cannot help but be impressed by how Åkerfeldt has gotten this band to the place where they can do about anything they want. And that last reflection makes me think that I would be pretty excited for full-length number 14, as well, because In Cauda Venenum is the Opeth album that we deserve.
Written By: El Cuervo
It’s the Year of Our Lord 2019 and Opeth are primed to release their 13th full-length record, entitled In Cauda Venenum (“The Poison Is in the Tale”). As an Opeth nerd and Åkerfan, I’ve more or less enjoyed Opeth in all its permutations, and I regard Still Life through Ghost Reveries as one of the greatest album runs ever.3 Shock and excitement welled on promo release-day as AMG Himself approached me with a proposal for a double feature. I nearly broke off His hand in acquiescing, such was my enthusiasm to firstly share (metaphorical) ink with Him and secondly to get my grubby mitts on new Opeth music! It’s no secret that Opeth is a band in a continual state of development. So, where does a 3 year gap and Åkerfeldt’s ceaseless plundering of the vinyl bin marked “70s” leave the group in 2019?
The most obvious place to begin answering that question is in the instrumentation and influences guiding the music. 2019 sees Opeth using Sorceress more than Sorceress used Pale Communion. They take Sorceress as a mold while adapting it, integrating fresh sounds. The three minute, atmospheric opener “Garden of Delights” introduces a spacey synth that accentuates ominous choral vocals; a pulsing undertone conferring an almost Tangerine Dream feel. Svalberg’s synths are more apparent than previously, complementing the introduction of jazz piano (“Next of Kin”), clarinet (“Continuum”), and even a Flamenco feel (“The Garroter”). Most notable of all is the heavy use of strings. Accommodating these differing sounds within Opeth‘s already dynamic sound, confers a real depth to Venenum. The arrangements are detailed and diverse, traversing a familiar—but deeper—fusion of the progressive rock, hard rock and folk featured on Sorceress. As a result, In Cauda Venenum is impossible to appreciate in full on the first listen, so it rewards return visits.
One development which may appeal to fans of old (‘heavy’) Opeth is that In Cauda Venenum doubles down on Sorceress’ sparse heavy moments. There’s a real heft and crunch to many of its riffs; while it hardly approaches death metal, it’s the heaviest record since Watershed. “Heart in Hand” sports a strong selection of groovy metal riffs prior to its signature transition, while “Continuum” features a heavy refrain. “Charlatan” even uses a djenty lead which fuses surprisingly well with its jazzy piano. As a band subject to scrutiny on account of their shirking of a metal framework, it’s worth comment that Venenum is at the very least metal-adjacent. Echoes of the metal past are perceptible and it justifies its inclusion at this blog as a ‘heavy’ record.4,5
Despite the depth of some of the arrangements, Åkerfeldt employed a stricter song-writing style. “Heart in Hand” is arranged around a core riff and strong melodies which carry the track. It’s a single idea embellished and developed but which remains consistent. Similarly, “Lovelorn Crime” demonstrates Åkerfeldt’s ever-cleaner vocals at their emotive best, featuring a pathos-drenched refrain conferring the feel of a traditional love song. Its clear melodies and (relative) brevity ensure that it’s one of the most compelling and cohesive individual tracks. Opeth retreats from the whimsical edge present on Sorceress in favor of clearer melodies and song-writing, in spite of the sometimes dense compositions. However, detracting from this seeming pursuit of more clearly defined songs are track lengths, padded by simple repetition, typically exceeding six minutes and frequently approaching eight. Though there’s no single track I would omit, the ten tracks are too long for consumption in one, fully engaged sitting. Opeth is by no means unfamiliar with long albums, but the material on In Cauda Venenum does not justify the length.
In Cauda Venenum feels like the record which has been in the works since Heritage. It’s a progressive release which is not fragmented (Heritage), an obvious homage to 70s prog bands (Pale Communion) which demonstrates an increasing interest in Swedish folk and blues rock (Sorceress). It’s a distinctly Opethian record such that overt influences are no longer apparent, other than Opeth itself.6 “Dignity” weaves its vocals, guitars, keys and drums into a uniquely Opethian composition, while the guitar tone combined with the jaunty piano on “Charlatan” evokes Ghost Reveries. Furthermore, a number of the tracks feature those fantastic transitions between light and heavy passages which are Opeth‘s quintessential characteristic. “Heart in Hand” shifts from its strong core riff to a lovely, swaying acoustic passage at its conclusion, while “All Things Will Pass” easily crescendos from its gentle, looping introduction into a heavy segment. However, I wonder whether this careful distillment of the record results in music which is actually better and more compelling than prior releases. In Cauda Venenum is a sophisticated release, but not one I rate more highly than many by Opeth. The arrangements and transitions have been stronger previously and references to prior work simply encourages me to dig those out.
I enjoy and appreciate In Cauda Venenum, but I don’t love it. The album is an admirable, and commendably creative, release by a veteran band. Many bands rehash material at this stage of their career, but Opeth refuses to capitulate in this way. However, the album’s deficiencies — its runtime and compositions — do not allow it to eclipse Pale Communion as the band’s best modern material. Stylistically, Venenum is a culmination of this era of Opeth, but it raises the question of what the future holds. Will the song-writing become even tighter? The band’s progression suggests this may be the case — cutting repetition would be a boon7 — but will Opeth ever be a band to release an album of 4 to 5 minute tracks? While the answer to this remains to be seen, I would summarize Venenum thusly: fans of newPeth will enjoy it. But if you wish for Oldpeth‘s return you will (continue) to be disappointed. Original, right?
- And let me just say that this is precisely why I hate lyrics in heavy music. But it is clear to me that so many people do precisely what Mikael essentially admits to doing in that video. He doesn’t give two fucks about the lyrics, he says. They just have to sound in a certain way. Yeah, well that works if you don’t actually speak the language as your native language. But for those of us actually do care about the poetry of lyrics and the meaning of how words are used, I can say that this phenomenon is an endless struggle. The solution? Write in your native language and suddenly you can’t write nonsense anymore, because you realize how fucking dumb it sounds. /rant ↩
- And not mastered by a guy with the nickname “pounda” as that’s apparently what he did to the master. ↩
- You misspelled Morningrise. – AMG. ↩
- As I once said, you can take the dirty hippy out of metal. But you can’t take the metal out of the dirty hippy! – AMG ↩
- Also, LOL. Who needs to justify the inclusion of prog at this blog? Nobody. – Amiable Prog Guy ↩
- And a healthy dose of Camel in some places. – AMG ↩
- Paging Steven Harris! – AMG ↩