Issue 2008-031: Opeth - Watershed - Round Table Review
Tracklist: Coil (3:11), Heir Apparent (8:50),The Lotus Eater (8:51), Burden (7:41), Porcelain Heart (8:01), Hessian Peel (11:26), Hex Omega (7:01)
Tom De Val's Review
Opeth’s Watershed is an aptly titled album for a number of reasons. Firstly in personnel terms, it sees the debut appearance on a studio recording of the ‘new boys’ Fredrik Åkesson (guitar) and Martin Axenrot (drums), and sees the departure of founder member Peter Lindgren. Secondly, it’s the first album the band have released where, due to the huge rise in their profile since signing to Roadrunner and releasing the artistically and commercially successful Ghost Reveries album, there was a massive air of expectation over this new opus. Finally, it sees band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt really stretching out into new musical territories here – surely this album will finally dismiss the naysayers who still refuse to accept Opeth as a ‘progressive’ metal band!
There’s no hint of metal at the start of the album however; it would be lazy (if not completely untrue) to say that the ballad Coil sounds like something from the Damnation sessions, in fact it is more like a logical continuation of the sparse, melancholy Isolation Years which closed Ghost Reveries, whilst the vaguely Celtic feel to the unobtrusive instrumentation leads to a comparison (musically speaking) with parts of Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn. Really, though, this is about two vocal performances; Mikeal Åkerfeldt’s, who delivers an impassioned yet controlled performance, and the fragile female vocal (certainly a first for Opeth!) of Nathalie Lorichs, who compliments him perfectly. Perhaps an unusual way to open the album, but certainly an effective one.
We go to the polar opposite of Opeth’s musical spectrum for next track Heir Apparent, which sees the heaviness factor turned up to 11. A stately opening leads to a huge slab of a main riff which kick-starts the song as it means to go on. There’s ferocious power on show here, both to the music and to Åkerfeldt’s trademark guttural roar, and Axenrot (also the drummer in death metallers Bloodbath) will certainly have felt right at home when laying down his parts for this track; that said, as usual Opeth manage to inject some highly memorable melodies, not to mention some inventive and technically impressive guitar solos, in amongst the general aural carnage. Add in several well-worked acoustic sections and some nicely unobtrusive yet haunting keyboard work and you have a real winner which is bound to become a favourite amongst Opeth’s legions of fans.
If Heir Apparent follows what you could (at a stretch) call a ‘standard’ Opeth blueprint, then The Lotus Eater goes down numerous roads less travelled. Even the start is pretty off the wall, Åkerfeldt humming along to a cello-like keyboard melody before delivering the rarely-heard combination of clean vocals and blastbeats – perhaps unsurprisingly (given that this is Opeth), it seems to work perfectly! From here, the song fair barrels along from one well-worked segment to the next, with Axenrot and bassist Martin Mendez driving things along with some tight yet flexible grooves. There’s some more superb guitar work, with a particularly strong, melodic yet passionate solo which certainly indicates that the addition of Fredrik Åkesson has spurred Åkerfeldt on to greater heights when writing the guitar parts. The song breaks for a classical guitar and flute interlude, before we get thrown another real curveball in the shape of a sub-funky, keyboard led melody which sounds like it was played on an old Bontempi organ! This shouldn’t work, but as usual Opeth get away with it, especially as it seems to lead naturally to a crescendo, Åkerfeldt’s voice at its most passionate and far-reaching, aiming for (and hitting) notes I don’t imagine he would have tried on past releases. Even the weird ending – a disembodied cacophony of ‘foreign’ sounding voices over a wheezing fairground organ, culminating in Åkerfeldt’s rather Beavis-and-Butthead-like laughter – seems in keeping with the spirit of what is, perhaps against the odds, a superb track.
Once again pitting contrasting tracks alongside each other, Burden is a far more conventional affair – conventional that is in structure; it hardly sounds like typical Opeth fare. With the cover of Soldier Of Fortune which appeared on the expanded edition of Ghost Reveries, Åkerfeldt signalled his love for the mid-70’s, David Coverdale/ Glenn Hughes-led incarnation of Deep Purple, and here we have a slow-to-medium paced, emotion-drenched classic rock track which could have come from the same period – as well as Purple, there’s a definite Uriah Heep feel there too, no doubt helped by the Hammond organ which sits high in the mix; Per Wiberg even gets to fire off a high-calibre solo on the instrument early on. Åkerfeldt’s vocals have never sounded like this before; on past albums his ‘clean’ vocals have seemed rather reserved, but here (as on Coil) they have a real emotion and sense of urgency about them. Not entirely sure about the ending, where a repeated chord sequence is played on an acoustic guitar which is gradually taken out of tune; its interesting for a couple of listens but does begin to grate.
Porcelain Heart was chosen as the first single from the album; not sure why, as it is easily the worst track on the album. Granted, some of the melodies are quite memorable, but many sections are overextended – such as the painful over-repetition of the main riff, with Axenrot getting to put drum fills all over it, which only shows that he rather lacks the touch and dexterity of his predecessor, Martin Lopez. There’s also some modern metallic riffing which is undeniably similar to those that crop up on the Ghost Reveries track The Grand Conjuration; as that track was my least favourite off that album, it didn’t serve to further endear Porcelain Heart to me.
Hessian Peel is a far more complex, ambitious beast, a dense prog epic which starts darkly, before briefly entering more pastoral, whimsical pastures, with the guitar work having shades of the likes of Camel and Wishbone Ash, and some flute-like keys adding to the seventies English prog feel. The intricate, shuffling underlying melody which follows reminded me strongly of that which drives the Genesis classic The Carpet Crawlers. The song gradually fades to just Wiberg tinkling away on the piano, before we delve into a raging, heavy section, Åkerfeldt dropping (briefly) back into his ‘cookie monster’ guise. There’s another great guitar solo before the song strips back again, but keeps Mendez’s driving, pulsating bass at the forefront, with other instrumentation gradually fading in and out over this, giving the song a rich, suspenseful feel. Things perhaps get a bit repetitious towards the end, and it has to be said that some of the switches between styles do occasionally (unlike on The Lotus Eater) feel a bit unnatural, but I think this is one track which needs a lot of time to grow on you – and its certainly going up in my estimation every time I listen to it.
Album closer (at least on the ‘normal’ version) Hex Omega seems to hark back a little to the style the band were employing on the Still Life album – as this is still my favourite amongst many great Opeth releases, this is no bad thing in my book. There’s a nice build up and subsidence between the icy synths and deliberate guitar work of the ‘verse’ and the beefier riffing in the ‘chorus’ (whether Opeth songs actually have verses and choruses in the conventional sense being a bit of a moot point). The warm yet slightly edgy keys and effects-laden vocals which dominate the mid-section offer the listener a period of contemplation before some churning, Sabbath-esque riffs close out the song. Initially I thought this felt rather unfinished and patchwork-y, but like Hessian Peel it’s a real grower.
Listening to this album numerous times in order to write this review over the last month or so, I’ve gone through an equally numerous array of feelings about what I was hearing. On reading advance reviews, I knew that this – as indeed with all Opeth albums – was not going to be an instant smash, yet it took longer than I thought for me to fully get my head around it and embrace it as I have the majority of the rest of the band’s work. Possibly this was due to the seemingly extreme contrast between songs (particularly track one through to four) and the fact that it appeared at times that the band were throwing loads of different musical ideas against the wall to see which ones stuck. Gradually, however, the album has clicked to the extent that it’s fast rising in my ranks of Opeth albums – I’d say it currently stands beyond the likes of Morningrise and Deliverance, but a little way short of Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries. The main downsides remain the rather tired-sounding Porcelain Heart and the fact that there are still a few occasions where the band seem to be overreaching themselves; however, I’d rather have the latter than seven versions of the former, and Opeth have to be applauded for continuing to push musical boundaries and coming up with yet more classic material to add to their already full-to-bursting cannon. The only problem now will be how on earth they’re going to choose what to play for their forthcoming headlining dates…
Chris Jackson's Review
There have only been a couple of bands that I have come across so far that have really expanded my musical tastes in unexpected directions. As stated in my previous review of The Roundhouse Tapes, Opeth was the key that allowed me to gradually and deeply appreciate most types of death/black metal. Well, at least the kind with a large emphasis on taste and not who is the most kvlt - .i.e. living in a castle in the backwoods of Sweden and surviving on nothing but small animals and nearby streams of water - and then writing an album about it. There are some great bands out there that, when approached with an open mind, can really fill a musical void. You just have to know where to look.
While Ghost Reveries was a very dark and haunting album, Watershed has a lot of optimistic and even happy moments that where missing on their earlier albums. The most obvious is the opening track Coil, which is an entirely acoustic piece, sung by Mikael Åkerfeldt and Nathalie Lorichs. There is strong folk feel to this and, even though it is only a few minutes long, it is already one of my favorite songs on the album.
Next up, and shedding any sense of optimism, is Heir Apparent. This is by far the most brutal song on the album and is comparable to the direction taken on their 2002 album Deliverance. Only about halfway through, and for only a minute or so, does it slow down and take on an acoustic vibe. There are no clean vocals to be found here, just growls. This all leads to an instrumental and very climatic ending. To me, this track seems like an attempt to balance the softer, more melodic stuff on Watershed. The overall balance is shifted in favour of the more melodic – which leads me to believe this will appeal even to people who don’t like growls. This is definitely not my favourite track on the album, but after taken in the context of everything else it begins to grow favourably.
The Lotus Eater finally picks up in the classic Opeth style with a great mix of grunts and clean vocals. This time however they are interspersed side by side to great effect (this must be hard to pull off live!). The first minute is one of the best build ups I have ever heard. The middle half slows down considerably to just a few random, little guitar melodies. Now it begins to get interesting again with a very syncopated piece that, for some odd reason, brings on the feeling of circus music. As quickly as it begins, it ends much in same way it began. I enjoyed this song a lot; however the transitions are a little disjointed, although, that hasn’t detracted much at all from an otherwise solid song.
If there was one song I had to choose from in Opeth’s past two albums where Per Wiberg shines the most, it most certainly has to be Burden. It is a slower, acoustic song with a strong mellotron presence, not really too much unlike something Anekdoten could have done. There is even a very Rick Wakeman inspired keyboard solo, which is the highlight of the song for me. As with Coil, Burden has somewhat less dark overtones than what most fans who know the band would expect. If I recall correctly, Blackwater Park had a few instances of out of tune playing, like, for example, playing a melody on two different guitar strings and slightly detuning one string to create dissonance. It sounds as if someone is actively changing the pitch while Mikael is playing a nylon string part around the last minute. To be honest, this part is unbearable to me. It actually gives me a headache.
By now, the most well known song on the album has to be Porcelain Heart because it was the first single put out prior to Watershed's release. Lasse Hoile, who you may remember as a collaborator on many Porcupine Tree videos and album covers, directs the music video for this. If you haven’t watched it yet do so as it is very interesting. Again the growls are abandoned in favour of clean vocals. There is a lot of dynamics present ranging from straight ahead heavier riffs to classical guitar. I have noticed that this time around Mikael chooses classical guitar over standard. It took a little while to get used to the smoother sound, but it actually sounds a great deal better.
The last two tracks, Hessian Peel and Hex Omega are arguably my favourite songs on the album. Hessian Peel begins with a typical Opeth acoustic section that, with the exception of the layered keyboard, wouldn’t be out of place at all on Still Life. After playing this track a couple of times I noticed a few seconds of unintelligible lyrics. I searched around the internet and came across a clip of this section played backwards and it is apparently, although not yet confirmed, a nod towards Stairway to Heaven’s supposed satanic reference. When played backwards it reads:
"Out on the courtyard, come back tonight. My sweet Satan, I see you."
I don’t know the actual reason why this was put on here, but I do know I’m going to listen to the rest of their albums backwards.
Hex Omega is a very haunting song dominated in large part by spacey keyboard sections and the all too common Opethian dynamic of soft and heavy sections. The atmosphere on here is very interesting. In many ways it is like the slower sections of The Baying Of The Hounds or Beneath The Mire from Ghost Reveries.
The first noticeable difference between this and all of the earlier albums, (with the exception of Damnation, of course), is how much less of a role growling vocals play on Watershed. This can be good or bad depending on how your tastes vary. If you where initially put off by them I would recommend this as the perfect starting point as it may be easier to digest. As a long time fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this album. Even with two new members there are not many differences in style or delivery. It’s only been a few weeks since first hearing this album and I’m holding off to see exactly how much it will stand the test of time. Overall, this is a solid and admirable record that will surely please many fans new and old.
Dave Baird's Review
Opeth have one hell of a track record and their modern era releases (Blackwater Park onwards) have all been enthusiastically received by DPRP, receiving a 9+ average from multiple reviewers. This raises the expectation level somewhat and to a certain degree must put pressure on the band to deliver the quality that we are accustomed to - we are not wondering so much if the album will be good but rather how good will the album be? Fortunately Opeth's ninth "observation" does not disappoint. That's not to say there aren't some slight reservations but overall it is, as they say, 'the dog's bollocks'.
Last time around, with Ghost Reveries, there was some fear that the addition of Per Wiberg on keyboards may just upset the near perfect balance that Mikael Åkerfeldt had spent many years constructing. This trepidation was unfounded as Per's presence mostly added atmosphere and depth, augmenting rather than detracting from the classic sound. This time around we're faced with two personnel changes with the (perhaps long-anticipated) departure of the much admired Martin Lopez being replaced by the wonderfully named Martin Axenrot, and (more surprisingly) the departure of Peter Lindgren last year to be replaced by Frederik Åkesson (previously from Arch Enemy). Peter and Martin were both very fine musicians and Lopez especially had a very distinctive style adding a lot of character to Opeth's sound; both hard acts to follow.
It comes as quite a surprise in many ways (and is perhaps a strange statement) that Watershed actually sounds more like Opeth than any of their previous albums albeit with some marked changes. One could imagine that the female vocal (Martin Axenrot's partner Nathalie Lorichs) duet with Michael on the opening track, Coil, probably caused some palpitations from the hardcore fanbase before normal service is resumed with Heir Apparent and The Lotus Eater. Both tracks are classic heavy Opeth and could easily have been from the Blackwater Park/ Deliverance era except that three things stand out at this point - drums, keyboards and guitar.
Axenrot is clearly an immensely talented drummer but compared to Lopez he is a machine, a monster even. Comparisons are inevitable and perhaps somewhat unfair but Lopez was a master of understatement often choosing to lay down down a laconic, swinging groove rather than go nuts on the double-bass pedals. Axenrot seems to be more of a mainstream death-metal drummer insomuch as he's bashing the hell out of everything as much as possible, for sure it's mightily impressive but one feels that more, in this case, is less. The opposite can be said of the keyboards, Per has stepped-up this time around and is much more to the fore, even taking some lead parts. What's nice to see here is that we are mostly constrained to classic keyboard sounds - Mellotron (pure bliss), piano, Hammond, Pianet etc. It's incredibly tasteful and adds so much. Then there's the guitar - it's always difficult to say "who plays what" on Opeth albums as regards lead but there's a more fluid style on display here, not unlike John Petrucci's style. Whether this is Michael or Frederik I can't say but it's very good and sits well alongside the more angular phrasings.
Burden is a more relaxed and melancholy (aren't they all though?) piece that could fit well on Damnation. This is surely the very best mellow track that Opeth have yet recorded and Michael's voice is just amazing, he has moved to another level in my opinion - listen to him singing at 1:42 into this track, this is beautiful and passionate, tell me you're not moved... Added to this we have a phenomenal solo at the three minute mark and an sing-along melody that sticks in your head for days (even my four-year old girl, Summer, is singing it), a really beautiful track, moving and memorable. Porcelain Heart, Hessian Peel and Hex Omega return to the heavier format interspersed with quieter passages. Hessian Peel has a particularly interesting acoustic guitar and drum section with the ever delightful Mellotron filling in underneath - took me ages to place this but now I'm convinced it has a very early King Crimson thing going on. It's perhaps becoming a bit of a bore to say but this is another classic Opeth track, it's so damn good it makes you want to weep. Hex Omega again allows the keyboards to come to the fore and contains quite some mellow passages between the metal madness building up to a typical climactic finale.
So, how good is it? Very, very good indeed. Opeth have succeeded in changing half the band members but retaining all that was good and adding a bit on top to keep things moving forward. Yes, perhaps Axe's drumming is a little over the top at times but I think that's more a matter of being so used to Lopez before him. Frederik has clearly filled Peter's shoes with some aplomb and Per's keyboards are a revelation, what a wonderful talent he is in the band. Michael's song-writing is, as always, spot-on and production is superb. Maybe a mention for Martin Mendez - his bass work on this release is excellent, very tight and busy, again perhaps missing a little Lopez but we'll get used to it.
As always with Opeth releases you are made to feel comfortable whilst being guided a little astray from the familiar path - not so far as to get lost but just enough to see a few things you didn't realise were around the next turn. This time around along with the usual metal chops and sad ballad there's a definite hint of prog that could well entice the otherwise recalcitrant objectors into the fold.
Not only are Opeth in a league of their own but they've created their own genre too that embraces metal, prog and mainstream, ignore them at your peril.