Opeth is now, with the release of Sorceress on September 30th, three albums and five years deep into their progressive rock phase, though at this point it seems less like a phase and more like a permanent shift. While Opeth’s move to a lighter and more accessible prog rock sound is less severe than, say, the new wave era of Yes or the pop-rock era of Genesis, the move has still been jarring. Gone is any trace of death metal and with it the contrast that defined much of Opeth’s sound, catharsis and atmosphere replaced with musical acrobatics and an extreme debt to the 1970’s. That’s not to say Opeth’s output since 2011 has been bad by any means – Heritage is disjointed but decent, and Pale Communion is legitimately very good – but as a long-time fan of the band, the change still takes some getting used to even now.
Sorceress is the heaviest and most dynamic album Opeth has put out in quite some time, one that has the highest chance of winning over the death metal purists who swear off the band’s recent material. “Chrysalis” bursts out of the gate with an immediate, driving riff but eventually settles into a moody outro reminiscent of Ghost Reveries, while “The Wilde Flowers” boasts a stomping central riff and ultimately culminates in a supremely satisfying distorted prog freakout. It’s no Deliverance, but Sorceress certainly attempts to put some metal back into Opeth’s musical palette while keeping the band’s more recent sense of musical exploration intact. This balancing act is unfortunately undercut by the production, which is muddy and has too much bottom-end. It’s not enough to ultimately detract from the album in any significant way, but it does make Sorceress a bit fatiguing to listen to all the way through.
Lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt is in many ways the centerpiece of Sorceress; his voice and lyrics are more pronounced than ever before, as is his songwriting craft, but the results this time are unfortunately inconsistent. Akerfeldt infuses moments of Sorceress with power and beauty; take “Will O the Wisp,” which combines delicate acoustic strums and clear, powerful vocals into a lovely ballad (albeit one that owes quite a heavy debt to Jethro Tull). But for every instance where Akerfeldt’s distinct presence as a lyricist and songwriter works, there’s another instance where it doesn’t – some songs, such as pseudo-instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” seem like filler, and the lyrics can be especially corny at times (such as the title track’s “I am a sinner and worship evil”). His best moments can be triumphs, but his worst moments can seem like affectations.
Akerfeldt, however, is not the only player on Sorceress; far from it. He and Fredrik Akesson both carry the guitar duties quite well, with riffs ranging from doomy sludge to hard rock to gentle acoustics. Martin Mendez’s bass work is solid, albeit somewhat overpowering due to the mixing job. Joakim Svalberg’s piano and keyboard work is exemplary, if marred by occasional bouts of cheese (the aforementioned title track’s intro, which sounds like an acid flashback to a second-rate Sega Genesis game). And Martin Axenrot seems to have finally settled in comfortably as Opeth’s drummer – though he lacks the jazzy complexity of predecessor Martin Lopez, his work is still creative and varied.
Sorceress stands as the most distinctly “metal” of Opeth’s pure prog offerings thus far, and is a solid addition to the band’s catalog. It’s not without flaws, and it lacks the consistency and poignancy of predecessor Pale Communion, but it’s quirky, bold, and very musically accomplished. If you lived through the 1970’s prog rock heyday, or even if you just wish you did, Sorceress is well worth your time.