On the surface, Sorceress is a bright, relatively sunny affair, especially compared to Opeth‘s past, even their more melodic recent work. Look a little further and you hear the menace and malice. This is a dark, deep album, and it doesn’t truly unfold unless you can pay full attention. I’d expect no less from Opeth.
My introduction to Opeth was 2001’s masterpiece Blackwater Park. I picked it up used at a local record store years after it was released, because I liked the album art. It was my first death metal album, and even though it was a little too intense for me at the time, I returned to it over and over. The melodic passages were enhanced by the sheer rage of the metal segment, and the ever-present prog influence that has been a staple of Opeth‘s sound since their inception drew me into the lengthy instrumental sequences by keeping me guessing. It is, to this day, one of the best albums of its genre.
Listening to Opeth‘s newest release, Sorceress, it would be nearly impossible to recognize this as the same band. Frontman and songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt has transitioned away from screaming entirely, and the musical passages have continued to mellow. The prog element has risen to front and center, to the point where Sorceress feels more like an opera by Rachmaninoff or Vivaldi than a collection of individual songs. Akerfeldt once again shows his prowess, however, and creates both a cohesive, flowing work made of many parts, and for the most part, interesting, attention-grabbing songs.
Instrumental intro “Persephone” is a gorgeous classical acoustic piece. It has a very cinematic quality, sounding like the somber music playing as the camera pans over a quiet Spanish hamlet in an art film. The title track follows, and dives right into a downright funky bassline that rolls through the entire song. Musically, Akerfeldt’s debt to classic 70s prog shows through clearly; this could easily be an ELP or Yes song, if they decided to get spooky. The verses are thick and menacing and the chorus hook hinges on a whammy dive straight out of the Zakk Wylde playbook, and although nothing here ever gets heavier than you might expect on a Ghost record, it manages to sound just as dark as their metal side. The outro even sounds like it’s the start of a signature longform Opeth instrumental, but transitions relatively quick (in Opeth terms, this is still over a minute) into “The Wilde Flowers” instead. This one has an even stronger Ghost sound, with some fun Hammond organ buried in the background for texture. The riff manages to stomp and groove simultaneously, with a very vaguely middle eastern flavor. The chorus doesn’t do much, as it actually scales back all the elements that make the song work, although the Sabbath-meets-Deep Purple solo in the middle of the song shines, as does the clean, melodic final act of the song, and they wisely end with one more freakout after the song begins to drift. “Will O The Wisp” opens with a bright, jangly guitar line that has elements of Irish folk, and somehow it works. The minimal introduction is quite possible the strongest moment on the entire album, in fact. By the end of its five minutes it’s grown into a Jethro Tull-esque dark lullaby, but truly sounds best scaled back to just an acoustic guitar.
“Chrysalis” is the most energetic song on the album, dripping with front-and-center Hammond and a galloping classic rock riff. The only problem with the song is it feels utterly derivative. It sounds so much like a classic rock song that were the production a little muddier, it could easily pass for a lost Deep Purple track. On the plus side, had this song been released during the 70s, it would have easily held its own against the defining tracks of the era. “Sorceress 2” drops back to just an acoustic guitar and a restrained orchestra of strings and what sounds like a flute. Akerfeldt filters his vocals through a mix of autotune and reverb that grants him an ethereal, almost angelic quality. The guitar line also deserves special mention. It has to carry the entire song and does with ease, despite never containing a riff of any kind. “The Seventh Sojourn” is an instrumental passage, and while it sounds very pleasing to the ear, it also feels very out of place. It sounds stock background music that plays in the background of any given movie that features a scene in a Moroccan or Egyptian marketplace. It doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself, and saps the momentum of the album.
“Strange Brew” starts gentle then explodes into a psychedelic freak-out around two minutes in. None of the instruments in this song would work on their own, but together they form the most interesting musical passage of the album. The song slips into a piano-led instrumental passage for a while as well, which seems to only exist for the purpose of making a second freak-out near the end (this one mines Pink Floyd for inspiration) more effective. “A Fleeting Glance” starts with an acoustic passage that sounds like something from Lord Of The Rings, but the meat of the song continues the Pink Floyd feel, with a very prominent Wish You Were Here era jazzy guitar line providing the backbone. The vocals are processed to sound ghostly and this only enhances the similarities. “Era” starts with a classical piano piece, transitioning into a mid-tempo but groovy rocker that is once again very similar to fellow Swedes, Ghost. Drummer Joakim Svalberg gets to cut loose around 3:45 in, and his fills and off-kilter rolls are incredible, overshadowing the rest of the song, save an 80s hair metal solo thrown into the mix that somehow complements the song rather than being confusing. The piano outro of “Persephone (Slight Return)” brings things to a close, and for those who like to loop their album plays, Sorceress feels meant for it, as the last piano notes fade perfectly into the opening string picks of “Persephone.”
Perhaps the best way to describe Sorceress is to direct you to the album art. On first glance you see a peacock spreading its tail fan, a glorious display of color and beauty. It’s only when you look closer that you see this magnificent bird is glaring as if possessed, and rests on a pile of gore and bones that it is hungrily picking at. On the surface, Sorceress is a bright, relatively sunny affair, especially compared to Opeth‘s past, even their more melodic recent work. Look a little further and you hear the menace and malice. This is a dark, deep album, and it doesn’t truly unfold unless you can pay full attention. I’d expect no less from Opeth.