Reviewed: February 2020
Released: 2019 Nuclear Blast Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Better rather late than never to tout the 13th studio album by Sweden’s ever-evolving Opeth. Issued in late September, In Cauda Venenum somehow got overlooked here, perhaps in a case of everyone just assuming someone else would be writing it up – and, thus, no one did. Regardless, this an album that certainly deserves attention, now, then or whenever.
In Cauda Venenum is another benchmark release by a band that has a long history of them as their sound has continued to shape shift over the years – from the epic death metal of My Arms, Your Hearse, to the death/prog majesty of Blackwater Park, and the transformative Watershed where the more “extreme” elements made their grand exit. It marks the culmination of Opeth’s – and specifically, band leader/guitarist/vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt’s – long progressive rock/metal metamorphosis, which really took hold with 2011’s Heritage, yet is their most immediate work probably since Blackwater Park.
The album is challenging but never loses itself in prog pretense, even with tracks like the jazz-flavored “The Garroter.” Indeed, the songs by and large are quite accessible, even downright catchy given their supple melodies and vocal harmonies, which hit right off the bat with the soaring, gang sung “Aaaahhhhs” that kick off the first full track “Dignity.” Yet they also rock pretty hard when they want to – as on turbulent “Heart In Hand,” the genuinely frisky “Charlatan” with its fuzzy, profound bottom end, “Continuum” which sandwiches some of the album’s biggest, boldest riffs around a folksy start and finish, and the Zeppelin-esque closer “All Things Shall Pass” – something that has been a bit lacking on recent releases.
The sterling, natural production here – which offers a nice balance of Steve Wilson era sheen and more recent trippy rawness – really makes everything resonate. The heavier moments are contrasted by an equal share of lighter, far more mellow fare – notably the ethereal “Lovelorn Crime” and a good portion of “Universal Truth,” and the aforementioned “The Garroter” – yet are treated with an even hand that smooths out the peaks and valleys to a certain extent, making for a seamless, consistently engaging flow. This provides ample space for the stellar guitar and keyboard work of Fredrik Åkesson and Joakim Svalberg, respectively, both of whom figure quite prominently here and really shine in the spotlight.
Originally recorded in Swedish but later redone with English vocals, In Cauda Venenum – Latin for “venom in the tail,” just to complicate things further – also offers an uncharacteristic yet refreshing sense of whimsy in the odd voice-overs and sound clips built around the singing and chattering of small children that seem part of an old Swedish radio broadcast or some such. There’s also the matter of the throbbing keyboard/synth intro “Garden Of Earthly Delights” by Svalberg that very much echoes the “Stranger Things” theme-music and sets a cinematic tone from the outset, something that continues all the way through the stirring finale to “All Things Shall Pass.”
In any language, In Cauda Venenum is a brilliant effort by a band that keep resetting the bar for themselves, and then leaping over it once again. Great songs, loads of variety, an inspired performance by the entire ensemble and arguably the best vocal work Åkerfeldt has done – and yes, it’s all clean – will certainly make this one tough to top.