When my wife first introduced me to the works of Opeth about six years ago, I was amazed by the schizo nature of a band that mixed death metal-style riffs and growls with sweeping prog-rock passages and clean, serene vocals. There was a certain Jekyll & Hyde vibe to the whole thing, and listening to their revered landmark album Blackwater Park was actually an emotionally draining experience. My usual self-destructive self wanted to hear more, mental scars be damned.
Moving through the high and (very few) low points of their catalog, I became more and more attached to this surreal, intricately designed creation of Swedish guitarist and songwriter Mikael Ackerfeldt ? a band which, at the time, had yet to replicate their loyal European following here in the States, where they nevertheless maintained a steadily growing cult of devoted fans.
My appreciation of Opeth culminated in two events: first, the dual-release of ?soft? melodic album Damnation and ?hard? companion CD Deliverance, which together formed my favorite releases of 2002-2003; and second, finally seeing the band perform live as a headliner at the Sounds of the Underground tour: a life-changing moment where their live premiere of ?The Grand Conjuration? from then-upcoming album Ghost Reveries seemed to quite literally conjure dark clouds and cool winds out of nowhere on one of the hottest days of the year. Seriously, it was a life-changing experience.
Considered the band's ?crossover? release in the US ? thanks to their recent signing to Roadrunner ? Reveries was a major success among metal fans and critics alike. Then, seemingly at the top of their game, Ackerfeldt announced a significant change in personnel for the band after the departure of two longtime members ? drummer Martin Lopez, who left due to failing health, and guitarist Peter Lindgren, who had been with the band since their debut album Orchid in 1995. He also indicated that some stylistic changes were in store for the next album, leading the band down a more experimental route. The result of that experiment is Watershed, Opeth's ninth release and, in my view, one of their finest achievements to date.
The title fits on many levels ? a ?watershed? work can represent a turning point in an artist's career, sometimes the first big step down a previously unexplored creative path. Although Ackerfeldt maintains his hold on the strongest elements of the band's previous albums, there is a dangerous edge here that confirms Opeth is taking a daring leap into heretofore unknown musical territory.
The new band members also put their own unique stamp on the Opeth sound. Former Arch Enemy guitarist Fredrik Akesson is more of a shredder than his predecessor Lindgren, whose classical-rooted style merged with Ackerfeldt's own elaborate finger-picking to create rhapsodic textures. Akesson's technique comes through in the faster passages, particularly in cuts like ?The Lotus Eater,? and he and Ackerfeldt each get some sweet solo opportunities. New drummer Martin Axenrot may lack the unique Latin-infused swing style that made Lopez's beats so memorable, but his thrash-based technical skills are first-rate ? on par with those of drum-god Gene Hoglan, who had previously toured with the band in Lopez's absence.
Despite the personnel changes, Opeth has not lost their signature dynamic ? contrasting brutal riffs and thunderous growls with gentle acoustic breaks and clean vocal harmonies ? but now many new and exciting ingredients have been added to the cauldron: for example, a female guest vocalist accompanies Ackerfeldt on the mellow prologue ?Coil,? and superb keyboardist Per Wiberg expands the canvas further, breaking out from the usual piano and Mellotron passages to add Hammond organ solo licks and moody, dark-ambient textures. Orchestral elements are prominent as always, but this time woodwinds share a key role with strings. But the most interesting new aspect here is the length to which Ackerfeldt uses production as an instrument in itself, more so than any prior Opeth album. It couches the whole sound in a feeling of overwhelming doom.
These seven tracks cover a wide range of styles, probably more so than any other Opeth album. ?The Lotus Eater? represents this variety in itself, containing some of their most powerful riffs, whiplash tempo changes, a creepy ambient section and an amazing funk breakdown; the eleven-minute tour de force ?Hessian Peel? is divided into several distinct movements that rise and fall in intensity, with moody, somber colors ? including a staccato organ line and some creepy/funny back-masked vocals ? giving way to bludgeoning death riffs and guttural roars. The doomy ?Heir Apparent? is one of the heaviest and fastest songs in the band's catalog, with a blistering double-kick from Axenrot, some sweet lead guitar lines and frightening vocals.
A slightly gentler (but no less evil) mood, in the vein of Damnation, is captured in moody tracks like ?Burden,? sounding like a classic '70s-era prog-rock ballad (complete with a great Hammond organ solo from Wiberg), but which Ackerfeldt claims was actually inspired by the Scorpions! The Gothic-flavored single ?Porcelain Heart? is more than a little reminiscent of ?The Grand Conjuration? from the previous album, which is definitely a good thing. But my personal fave is closing track ?Hex Omega,? which begins with one of their most memorable riffs, dissembling and rearranging it through quiet and loud segments until finally restating this melody in a powerful, epic climax, solidifying Watershed as one of the band's finest moments and a good omen for the future of their latest incarnation.
True Opeth devotees should go the extra few bucks for the excellent Special Edition CD, which comes in an elaborate cardboard case designed to look like an eerie, portentous letter. Inside are separate sleeves for the main CD and a companion DVD that contains 5.1 surround versions of the main album tracks, along with an insightful and funny documentary feature. This lengthy piece is built around a single rehearsal session and interviews with all band members, and includes some hilarious ?Rainman? moments involving the very eccentric Axenrot (especially the bit about his cell phone), as well as a surprise appearance from Ackerfeldt's cat, Issac of York. Also on the DVD are three additional cuts not featured in the final album; of these, ?Derelict Herds? is the only real standout. The rest ? including a cover of Robin Trower's ?Bridge of Sighs? ? are well-done, but ultimately ill-fitting with the overall feel of the album.
Fans may be torn over the band's new stylistic direction, but for my money Watershed is pure Opeth. Ackerfeldt's skills continue to grow with each new release, allowing him the freedom to let his imagination roam down eerie new pathways, and his bandmates keep perfect step with him on the journey. It's a welcome addition to the avid fan's collection, as well as a great starting point for the uninitiated. Either way, it's a must for anyone who savors the dark beauty of extreme music at its most profound.