Watershed

Opeth

Roadrunner, 2008

REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/10/2009

Swedish prog-metal band Opeth does not much like being associated with the term “death metal.” That's sensible because that would pigeonhole them in with the grunting two-chord, gore-loving dregs of metal churning out mindless, violent dreck for 14-year-olds. Founder, singer, guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt  prefers “black metal,” but this is really a progressive rock band that just happens to be really, really heavy.  And yeah, Mike growls a lot.

What’s with the death metal growling anyway? Who decided The Cookie Monster was a better model than say, Robert Plant? Well, with death metal it’s usually because the guys can't sing; not the case here. One thing that sets Opeth far above their dark brethren is Mike's outstanding voice. Åkerfeldt deftly transitions between a death-metal growl and traditional “clean” vocals with an amazing range. Hard to believe that smooth tenor and the demon growl come from the same mouth. To be fair, there are lot more clean vocals than dirty ones on Watershed. That's part of the beauty of their work, the dichotomy of dark and light. Well, not light exactly... even the quieter moments invoke darkness and doom.  As Åkerfeldt has said with a grin; “Just because it's quiet, doesn't mean it's not evil.”

Opeth's ninth album (or “observation” as they call them) brings together the best of both their worlds, creating a brilliant and stirring melange of melancholy acoustics and brain-jarring metal.  Watershed is a concept album about loss of faith leading to loss of love. The songs are rife with dark imagery, the disjointed mirror of grief and rage, and the thin line between them. The quieter moments are soulful lamentations, the powerful ones blasts of fierce rage and howling grief.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The storyline revolves around a holy man who loses his faith and is banished. In refusing to compromise his beliefs, he is forced to leave the woman he loves. The opening track “Coil” is a gorgeous acoustic number that sets the stage for the core concept' “When I get out of here \ When I leave you behind \ We'll find that the years passed us by \ And I will see you \ Running through fields of sorrow.”  The pastoral beauty of the song reflects the melancholy of loss and separation. This quiet introduction gives way to the brutal “Heir Apparent,” which spews forth rage borne of  loneliness and despair as Åkerfeldt and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson trade blasting chops punctuated by Åkerfeldt's venomous howl.

“Porcelain Heart” flows from a hard-edged lumbering intro to a folksy acoustic lament to a full-blown shred-fest of blasting riffs and spiraling leads. Åkerfeldt 's vocal is a mournful and plaintive cry for forgiveness: “I, said that I loved , eternally schemes / I, cling to my past , like childish dreams, I, promised to stay, and held my grief / I... went far away.”

The arrangements here are expansive and pull in many unlikely parts. String arrangements, the Spanish guitar and jazzy keyboard breakdown in “The Lotus Eater,” some eerie backwards vocals (nothing hidden here, Tipper), and some understated but creepy woodwinds. This will be of no surprise to anyone familiar with the band's work, they are always doing something you don't expect. My first impression was a strong resemblance to their excellent fourth album Still Life. Fans of that will eat this up. But they compare only in lyrical theme and basic musical weave; this is broader exploration of sonic textures and a potent addition to their already potent catalog.

A grossly misunderstood progressive rock band (much like Tool is in my opinion), Opeth presents to me a true and very organic evolution of modern progressive rock, applying the power of black metal to the sprawling concepts and complex arrangements once the forte of the synthesizer and space-rock crowd. The core of progressive rock has always been the “no sacred cows,” kitchen-sink philosophy that made any elements fit, even if they made no sense on paper. It was all about doing something different and reaching above the bar set by “popular music.” The more I listen to this band, the more I like them, and the higher they set the bar.

Rating: A

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