Released: 2008, Roadrunner Records
Reviewer: Kyle Moore, the Metal Magnus
Few in the metal world can deny that Opeth is an unusual band. Musically, they are able to do whatever they please with few fans ever screaming “sellout!” It seems that diverging from the norms of past albums is both anticipated and desired by critics and fans alike. In most of their trademark 10-minute songs, Opeth will transition from mellow, acoustic balladry to brutal death metal without batting an eye. Very few other metal acts are able to achieve such versatility while remaining both musically and commercially relevant.
Previous effort GHOST REVERIES was frontman/songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt’s attempt to outdo 1996’s critically exalted MORNINGRISE, which has been lauded by their fanbase as Opeth’s masterpiece. The resulting output of Åkerfeldt’s frustrations left much to be desired – GHOST REVERIES sounded like a confusedly mishmashed concept album lacking the delicate subtleties and tightly executed transitions characteristic of past works. The addition of keyboardist Per Wilberg did little to elevate heavier songs, while creating some half-baked experimentation in softer passages. Something had thrown the rock-solid Opeth off balance, with the expected counterpoint and balance between ephemeral beauty and caustic brutality being somewhat muddied.
With WATERSHED, Opeth has found its way again. Suddenly Wilberg’s keyboards, formerly sounding alien in Opeth’s guitar-driven soundscape, are used much more effectively, providing delicate accent, harmony, and counterpoint without sounding out of place. The album opens with the brief, but stunningly beautiful acoustic lament “Coil,” featuring a gorgeous female vocal counterpoint and a woodwind ensemble. But the peaceful mood is soon demolished by what may be Opeth’s heaviest and most brutal song to date, “Heir Apparent.” Beginning with slow, turgid dissonance and a creepy solo piano passage, vicious riffs and Mr. Åkerfeldt’s mutilating roar take over at the one minute mark and pauses only for a brief acoustic interlude. New guitarist Fredrik Åkesson is introduced with a technical guitar solo atypical of past Opeth, but WATERSHED does not mark Opeth’s transition into a shredding type of band. Åkesson’s virtuosity is used sparingly and with delicate application throughout.
Next up is the wild and bizarre track “The Lotus Eater,” which opens with woodwind-accompanied humming transitioning into clean, harmonized vocals atop of…blastbeats!? With sudden alterations into pounding double-bass and wrenching death vocals? This quirky juxtaposition took a few listens to absorb, but after I got over the surprise of hearing blastbeats in an Opeth album, this song soon became a personal favorite. The weirdness continues with some truly deranged-sounding keyboards alternating with a punchy drumbeat, and closing out with warped conversational voices backed by malevolent keyboard harmonies. Opeth has never done anything nearly this experimental before, but after a few listens it fits together very well. Åkerfeldt has done an excellent job balancing the beautiful, experimental, and downright ugly elements of Opeth’s music, and “The Lotus Eater” is the flagship example of his craftsmanship.
New drummer Martin Axenrot does a fine job replacing longtime member Martin Lopez while adding some technical touches of his own. He even gets an oddly placed drum solo on what’s probably the weakest track on the album, “Porcelain Heart.” While it’s still an excellent song (with a notably unsettling guitar motif,) the main chord progression is directly borrowed from the ultra-repetitive track “The Grand Conjuration” from GHOST REVERIES. Bands shouldn’t rip themselves off if they have a level of talent possessed by Opeth.
Other notable tracks are the nostalgic 70’s-style ballad “Burden” (featuring some of Mr. Åkerfeldt’s best clean singing to date,) and the 11-minute epic “Hessian Peel.” Closing out is another experimental tune entitled “Hex Omega,” featuring a lot of gentle, mellow passages that suddenly give way to a hypnotic outro and warbling organ chords.
Opeth’s albums have always felt to me less like a collection of songs and more like a single auditory experience, meant to be taken in all at once and slowly processed over many hearings. GHOST REVERIES lacked this trait. With WATERSHED, Opeth have rebalanced themselves and crafted a remarkably engaging musical experience. Whatever Opeth’s musical vision in future albums may be, they won’t go wrong by evolving from the amazing music found in WATERSHED.