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OPETH Sorceress

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Thursday, September 29, 2016 @ 3:35 PM

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Nuclear Blast/Moderbolaget Records

By now, people should know better that to try and figure out what OPETH is going to do next. And they can pretty much forget about any sort of return to the sound of the band’s death metal heyday – barring a miracle, or hell freezing over or some such.

Or so it would seem, given that Sorceress, OPETH’s 12th and latest album, barely hints at “metal” at all and instead moves further down the proggy/retro path the Swedish quintet has been exploring in earnest since 2011’s Heritage. The sustained moments of genuine heaviness pretty much book-end the album – after and before the acoustic intro and outro “Persephone” and “Persephone (Slight Return)” – with the petulant title track and its ominous DEEP PURPLE-like drone and the comparatively bracing “Era” with its fitful rhythm, organ peals and direct, punchy riffs. Betwixt and between is a heady brew of jazz, folk, prog, classic rock/pop and symphonic rock, with bits of hard rock muscle here and there.

It would be easy to dismiss Sorceress as so much nostalgic twaddle – an indulgent trip down memory lane from mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt - at first blush. There is little immediacy to the album as it meanders through an almost narcotic haze, and its hippie chill and measured delivery – despite the often bitter, scornful tone of the lyrics - can get a bit frustrating. It definitely takes more than a few cursory spins to begin to appreciate its vast, varied and unorthodox sonic palette. And while this may be too much to ask of some folks nowadays – short attention spans and all - or die-hard metalheads who may never come around, for others their patience will be rewarded.

After the weighty aforementioned title track, “The Wilde Flowers” contrasts Åkerfeldt’s grim “Blinding light as the flames grow higher/Searing skin on a funeral pyre” sentiment with an engaging pop melody and the almost whimsical air of Joakim Svalberg’s chirping keyboards, before throwing a progressive fit at the end built around Martin Axenrot’s flailing drums. The minstrel-like phrasing, acoustic guitars and ethereal, flutey keys of “Will O The Wisp” recall bygone JETHRO TULL.

“Chrysalis” pumps up the energy and volume, but gets most of its heft from Svalberg’s booming organ, which would do the late, great Keith Emerson or Jon Lord proud here, especially when he trades solos with guitarist Fredrick Åkesson during one of the album’s feistiest exchanges. But “Sorceress 2” follows with some of its quietest moments, with Åkerfeldt’s whispered vocals barely audible over an eerily sparse guitar and synth backing.

“The Seventh Sojourn” boasts a mysterious Middle Eastern accent in the serpentine interplay of its keyboards, acoustic guitar and percussion, coming across like something off the soundtrack to Casablanca, while “A Fleeting Glance” goes back to the Renaissance with harpsichord, mandolin and wistful vocals before concluding with lush sweep of PORCUPINE TREE-like melody and harmonies. In between, the acoustic plucking that leads into the tiresome nine-minute “Strange Brew” launches into a freeform jam, again led by Axenrot’s stutter-step drumming, before wandering hither and yon and is the one song here I just lost patience with.

Just about everything else here, though, clicked with each passing listen. The band’s remarkable finesse, Åkerfeldt’s compelling, widely divergent compositions and the warm, welcoming tone of the album’s production go a long way in making up for what Sorceress may lack in raw power or modern convention.

OPETH obviously has grown more confident and comfortable in its new skin as it keeps daring to be different and stubbornly defying expectation. The band definitely deserves some credit for that, as bitter a pill as they may be to swallow for those pining for a fix of the death metal growl and grind of old. And if that’s the case, there’s always My Arms, Your Hearse, Deliverance or Orchid, etc., to fall back on.

3.5 Out Of 5.0

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