Opeth is one of the coolest modern (are they still modern? I’m still living in 1972) progressive bands. Hailing from heavy metal mecca Stockholm, they started out as a seriously intense death/black metal outfit, and while (to some fans’ dismay) they have shifted to a more “retro,” less heavy musical style, they have lost none of their styrka (Swedish for intensity). I’m happy to report that In Cauda Venenum does not disappoint!
The band is led, of course, by the venerable Mikael Åkerfeldt. Besides singing and playing guitar, Åkerfeldt also serves as the primary songwriter and leads the band’s musical and stylistic direction. Opeth is a revolving door in terms of members, but the current lineup includes bassist Martin Mendez, drummer Martin Axenrot. keyboardist and vocalist Joakim Svalberg, and guitarist and vocalist Fredrik Åkesson. While Åkerfeldt is clearly the star of the show, I’ve also greatly enjoyed Svalberg’s keyboard playing. His sweeping Mellotron and funky organ give In Cauda Venenum its wonderfully retro vibe. The other three players, in turn, form one of the tightest rhythm sections I’ve heard this year. The rhythm section, in my opinion, chooses the feel of the tune, and on this album we hear swinging jazz grooves, earth-shaking blast beats, and everything in between.
Some have criticized Opeth for being “too” retro in recent years, and while you might convince me of that for, say, Damnation, this album ought to end that argument once and for all. It doesn’t sound like a 1970s record. It sounds new and fresh. The production is powerful, yet intricate, and you can tell instantly that it was made in recent years. And though the songwriting has a decidedly “classic” feel, it’s not in the least derivative: Opeth draws from jazz, classical, Swedish pop and folk, and yes, extreme metal to create a sound of their own. Retro prog, perhaps, but nobody would mistake In Cauda Venenum for “neo-prog.” And while Mikael growls no more, make no mistake: to this day, Opeth is a heavy metal band, and the riffs have lost neither a jot nor a tittle of their power.
Before we go into the track-by-track, I’d like to point out that the album is bilingual. Disc 1 is in English. Disc 2 is exactly the same, only the English vocals have been replaced by Swedish ones. I wouldn’t say I have a particular preference. The English version speaks more to me emotionally, but I love the sound of foreign languages. Åkerfeldt sings with ease and comfort in both languages-the very model of a seasoned polyglot. For the purposes of not wanting to spell-check everything a million times, I’ll be referring to the songs by their English titles. Without further adieu…In Cauda Venenum.
The album begins with “Garden Of Earthly Delights,” which is a sort of intro track. Normally, I don’t love intro tracks, but this one suits the album perfectly. It begins with choral oohs and aahs, and I’m not sure how much is synthesizer and how much is voice. About a minute in, Svalberg adds a strange electronic bass line. It ends with some Swedish spoken word. “Dignity,” the first real song on the album, opens with a proggy, chaotic riff and a gorgeous guitar solo before resolving into a melodic verse accompanied by the acoustic guitar. Suddenly, the electric guitar returns for the chorus! The song ends with another acoustic section.
“Heart In Hand” wastes no time: it begins immediately with one of the heaviest riffs on the album. Contrasted against the heaviness is one of the album’s catchiest melodies, both in the verse and the chorus. I’m also fairly certain that this isn’t in 4/4. This song is proof-positive that Opeth hasn’t abandoned their extreme metal roots! About halfway in, the song changes into an emotional acoustic ballad. The bass line at this point (courtesy of the great Martin Mendez) is phenomenal! “Next Of Kin,” my favorite song on the album, is doom metal with a prog aesthetic. The blast beats and slow, sinister riffs contrast with the washy effects and shimmering Mellotron. It ends with the song’s main motif played on an unearthly organ.
“Lovelorn Crime” is a gorgeous ballad. Opeth has always written really beautiful mellower songs (even in their death metal period) and this song continues the tradition. The melody is fantastic, as are the lyrics, and the Mellotron (of course!) is the perfect touch. The song includes an awesome guitar solo, reminiscent of the most evocative improvisations of the 70s. “Charlatan” begins with a speedy thrash riff and has probably the best chorus on the record. The middle is full of awesome riffage. “Universal Truth” has a haunting, slightly off-color melody, reminiscent of 60s “Canterbury scene” prog. The choruses, however, are heavy. There’s a nice acoustic bit in the middle. Unlike most “acoustic” bits, it sticks to the bare minimum: acoustic guitar and vocals. It’s an oasis in the midst of an intense album.
Next, we hear the most unique tune on the record: “The Garroter.” It begins with some flamenco-style acoustic guitar, followed by tender piano chords in a minor key. This is soon replaced by a hot jazz drum groove and a foreboding piano riff. The title evokes images of Luca Brasi’s grisly demise in The Godfather, and appropriately, the music sounds like the theme music of some similarly shady character in an opera. The melody is quite catchy as well. It ends with a really funky synth solo. I’m not sure what sort of synth exactly; it could be a Moog. It’s unlike any song on this album, bu in a very good way!
“Continuum” opens up with a funky 16-beat drum groove before adding some very mysterious acoustic chords. It’s a jazzy song, but not really in the same way as “The Garroter.” Kind of Latin-sounding, one might say. Suddenly, at around the three-minute-mark, it starts to get seriously intense. One of the guitarists (not entirely sure which) lets loose the fastest, shreddiest solo on the album. (At the risk of repeating myself: Opeth is still metal!) After another chorus, the song ends with a quieter acoustic bit, bathed in Mellotron flourishes. The album closes with “All Things Will Pass.” The ultimate track of In Cauda Venenum begins with an ethereal guitar lick, reminiscent of a Robert Fripp solo. This then builds into a slow but extremely powerful riff. In fact, a lot of the guitar work from both Åkerfeldt and Åkesson (the Brothers Å?) reminds me of mid-70s King Crimson. The melody is fantastic, the bassline pushes forward, and Axenrot’s cymbal work begs you to air drum. At about the six-minute mark, we hear a call-and-response featuring Svalberg and the Brothers Å on vocals, as well as some very nice piano counterpart and some melodic bass work from Mendez. The majestic finale closes this modern-day Opeth classic.
Long story short: they’ve done it again. For me, personally, In Cauda Venenum was the final push I needed to go from “guy who likes Opeth” to “Opeth fan.” I think this is their best work in at least a decade-possibly since my favorite Opeth album, 2005’s Ghost Reveries. I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be headbanging to this one pretty regularly.
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It seems after 3 albums (Heritage, Pale Communion, Sorceress) they finally found a harmonious way to fuse all their influences into a coherent and pleasant whole.