In retrospect, you cannot deny that Opeth has taken us for a serious ride post-Watershed. You could’ve, forgivably, been that obnoxious 18 year old, harshly skipping through tracks on Heritage not understanding your pubescent disappointment of not encountering the polar to what came before it, as we were all thrown down unfamiliar territory of pure prog-rock ‘punishment’, though this was a naive sentiment as the signs were easy to follow had one stowed their ignorant judgment of Opeth’s shift away. Let’s say it was the longing for your first listen of Opeth. That’s just it. Your first experience; and now we are presented with a definite statement that their return to harsh blatancy is long gone. They are beyond that, and the absence of familiarity does not bear down on us this time. It is breathlessly awaited.
From the start of Sorceress, we are greeted with calm malice in “Persophone”. Very much like it’s feminine title, the acoustic salutation in the music is light and pleasing, but not to be taking lightly in a respectful nod. Its feather embrace makes the start of the title track set the ambiance of the album to follow. The slow folk before the soar and build of the second track allows for the suspense to convince us of the music, rather than the before mentioned expectations of Opeth’s music. The album explodes from the stereo with an amalgam of haunting, keyboard and organ-drenched atmospheres and malevolent underlying riff work. It’s not a “return to the days of yore”, as some would put it, but it’s certainly an evolution from the more relaxed, easy going feel of the previous two Opeth records. The title track is ominous and doom-laden, and presents some of the most enchanting, inviting vocal lines Akerfeldt has put his name to, whereas the surrounding compositions complement all corners of this dark-tinged, occultic method the band seem to be performing throughout the rest of the record itself. A similar impression can be felt with “The Wilde Flowers” and the lengthier “Chrysalis”, yet only with the latter do the band truly spread their wings and inject a little more versatility into proceedings. “The Wilde Flowers” is unfortunately let down because of Akerfeldt’s more monotone vocal execution, failing to truly connect with the musicianship. Admittedly, it features more of the strengths that the title track suggested, but doesn’t quite build on them or indeed stretch them into new frontiers. “Chrysalis” does just this, perfecting the band’s newly menacing approach to writing songs of a much darker and more foreboding appeal.
In light of this, the odd piece out then, in a sense of immediate return, is the distinctively folk-tinged “Will O’ the Wisp”, a seeming homage to the glory days of Jethro Tull and the lighter side of Renaissance, and despite sounding worlds apart from its three accompanying heavier tracks, it stands out marvelously well from the pack. At first it presents a nice, friendly break from the down-tuned riff work and ominous atmosphere, instead reaching for a lighter, fresher experience for whoever decides to listen. Akerfeldt leads some of the most delicate musicianship Opeth have put a name to here, presenting delicate acoustics, multi-dimensional classical composition techniques and a flavoursome solo section towards the end, completing the song with a flourishing finish. It’s frankly a polarizing deviation from the “norm”, but a very unique one nonetheless. “Will O The Wisp” takes a trip down the path of lands long lost, serving as an emotional, folkloric ballad riddled with gorgeous acoustics and mystical melodies. The simplistic croons turn the song into something of a hooky pub chant as Åkerfeldt cries out;
“And time it waits for no one
It heals them when you die
And soon you are forgotten
A whisper within a sigh”
This is far and away one of the most straightforward songs on the record, but one can’t help but be impressed at just how well every element compliments one another. From some wonderful bass hooks to a mindbogglingly tasty solo that drinks deep of epic leads’ past, everything about this track feels just right. It is easy to see Åkerfeldt had a blast putting it together, and it is set to be a fan favorite.
Things take a turn for the thump in “Chrysalis”; a song fueled by low-fret rumbling and a heavy focus on the keys. The track lurches back and forth between riffs with the deft rhythm of a warhorse in flight. Axenrot’s work behind the kit is at full force here, providing an ample mid-ground between crushingly heavy (particularly during the dual guitar/keys solo in the track’s second half) and absolutely groovy, with rolling bass work and intricate cymbal play solidifying an expert performance. However, my primary gripe with this track is where it sits on the album. It sits after a campfire song, and before a one-two punch of acoustic noodling. The song already ends with a lull that could have been better implemented; had the second half of the second half (say that seven times fast) been cut and pasted into the following track, “Sorceress 2”, I feel the dynamic rhythm of the album wouldn’t be stilted by roughly 6 solid minutes of interlude.
That all being said, Opeth have undoubtedly taken a more dynamic approach on the whole with Sorceress, and title track 2.0 is a gorgeous showcase of Åkerfeldt’s talents as a brewer of the sombre and the progressive. Boasting an overall vibe more akin to a Legend of Zelda frost dungeon than anything else, the pairing of ominous undertones and an uplifting falsetto chorus is downright beautiful. The silky smooth organ tone rears its rustic face towards the middle of the song and proves yet again just how well the band are at utilizing instrumentation that a lesser hand would force into cheesy territory. It is used sparingly, but when it does crop up, it is quite something to behold. When viewing this song in light of the first “Sorceress” track, there is very little both lyrically and musically linking the two, and I do wish the song was given a title more unique to its sound because this is excellent in its own right. Had the ending of “Chrysalis” been stitched to the end of this, I feel it would suit the title “Sorceress 2” more, as the overall tone of that passage is quite indicative of the overall tone the title track sets.
Now, we may have whined a bit about the prospect of a 6-minute interlude, but collectively we did forget to mention that this is 6 minutes of Opeth in interlude format. It is ignorant and demeaning to box quieter dynamic shifts into the “interlude” box, and “The Seventh Sojourn” is out to prove that. If anything, this song proves that volume and instrumentation are not the only factors to consider when tackling the argument of dynamics, as the progressions and world-building created in “The Seventh Sojourn” are powerfully absorbing. Pairing the trademarked acoustics with tactful Middle-Eastern melodic choices, this song is about as far-removed from anything on the album both tonally and dynamically as it gets. Until the enchanting lullaby-esque outro chimed, one is convinced this wasn’t Opeth. Maybe that is the prime reason nearly 6 minutes worth of non-metal feels a tad longer than it should, because while this track is masterfully executed, it doesn’t quite fit into the thematic undertones of Sorceress. “Sorceress 2” would have made for a considerably more fitting introduction to follow-up track, “Strange Brew”, but there is no denying that for what it is when not viewed in the grand scheme of things, “The Seventh Sojourn” is a wonderful composition. And in light of this when confronting “A Fleeting Glance” and “Era”, the balance and patience in composition both hammered in any nails of doubt in the coffin of nostalgic hope and the simple fact that Opeth are done grinding for a spot in the category of pioneer. These are not tragic realizations; the songs are so damn powerful in craft and groove, bouncing with confidence in writing and production, that opinions moving towards lesser than a grand applause mark such fans as those “who missed the point”. The hook of “an ending of an era” submits the prophecy of Opeth’s transcendence in stark naked energy that hasn’t been heard in such a prominent musical force. The marks of retroactive intent in Pale Communion and Heritage do not resonate on this release. The sound is crisp and fresh albeit the “classic” tastes, as Sorceress as an album seats us in a warm space between calculated calm and uncontrollable exhilaration, even for the naysayers on previous releases.
Despite a tendency to flounder towards the end sections of their latest albums Opeth refuse to commit to what would be a “straight-forward” pattern of excellence. “The Seventh Sojourn” placates an ethereal feel, living of sweeping melodies and largely warm tones. The track is a curve ball within itself, a contrast for what is the perceived norm when Opeth is considered. Overall it jarrs with what follows as “Strange Brew” oversees a whirlwind of noise, it becomes too much on an unexpectant listener. Smooth sensual tones meet frenetic overbearance, highlighting Opeth’s natural talent for song-writing but at a cost of the music itself. Gladly, things even out as these Swedish pioneers fall back into modern progressive music. For as much as the music community complains about Opeth’s lack of metal there is even more to praise in a band that refuses to stagnate. Opeth became worthy of their praise a long time ago. Sorceress only adds to the band’s prestige. The record closes in the same way as it opens, concluding in a circular nature and triump follows. With displays in the form of “A Fleeting Glance” and “Era”, Sorceress holds onto its very forward thinking essence.
If we are to categorize Sorceress in the shelf that is Opeth’s masterful discography, this album is what Ghost Reveries was to the ‘heavy’ times. The unison of the line-up with Akerfeldt’s determination of new-dress is not forced. The group is beyond obvious progressive statement, and this album will stand as another euphoric addition to a fan’s subconscious fever of Opeth. They aren’t out to please the diehard fans of the death days. There are no attempts at breaking into completely new territory. Sorceress is the epitome of a band who knows exactly what they want to make, and fully succeed in realizing that vision. Pale Communion was the sign of a band sinking into new skin, and Sorceress is the final and powerful render. One would feel scoring this record numerically isn’t proper, as several ‘masterpieces’ in the band’s discography have earned that title for varying reasons beyond quantification, and to prop this up with a digit would lead to ugly comparison. The album soars on its own, but allows the past to stand firmly behind it, no matter the ‘deviation’ from previous form.
03. The Wilde Flowers
04. Will O The Wisp
06. Sorceress 2
07. The Seventh Sojourn
08. Strange Brew
09. A Fleeting Glance
11. Persephone (Slight Return)