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Opeth - Sorceress

Opeth, SorceressWhile Stockholm's Opeth have their roots in Death Metal there has always been more to their sound than that. Fusing progressive stylings and acoustic folk into their sound they have always stood out from the crowd. Since 2011's Heritage, band leader and main songwriter Mikael Akerfeld has increasingly indulged his love of 70's music, forsaking the death grunts of yore that peppered their songs. That's not to say the band aren't still capable of making heavy music but Akerfeld has broadened his songwriting horizons considerably.

Consider Sorceress's opening track, Persiphone. Part Blackmore's Night medieval madrigal, part haunting ballad. Guest vocalist Pascale Marie Vickery's spoken words glide serenely through the music. A subdued start but the pace picks up with the funky, Hammond driven title track. The organ eventually gives way to crunching riffs and skittering rhythms making a strong opening salvo. Akerfeld admits he has been listening to lots of old Jazz and that influence has left it's fingerprints all over this track and demonstrates Mikael's ever expanding musical palette.

The songs on Sorceress are all very different from each other but the album feels very cohesive nonetheless. I felt that Opeth's last album, 2014's Pale Communion, was a little flat and one dimensional in it's songwriting and sound. Every track had a very similar feel which made it hard to hear any standout moments. This album avoids that trap by shooting off in all directions. Every track here is memorable in its own way.

This is an album that wears it's influences on its sleeve. There's the Cream-like Strange Brew which tips a nod to messers Clapton, Bruce and Baker and is a powerful, fuzzy blast late 60's rock. There's the Jethro Tullisms of Will O The Wisp and the mystic indo-eastern flavour of The Seventh Sojourn which brings to mind Zeppelin's Kashmir as well as the Moroccan music from Page and Plant's Unledded. The tranquil Sorceress 2 could sit comfortably on either of Steven Wilson's last couple of albums. Despite these obvious reference points they have been assimilated in a Borg-like fashion and Opeth make them all their own.

I also hear shades of Deep Purple in many of these tracks, especially with the interplay between the guitars and keyboards. There are places where they echo the sublime dueling between Blackmore and Lord, sometimes battling against each other, sometimes complimenting each other. This is most obvious on Crysalis which contains an exquisite guitar solo by Åkesson that is immediately followed by a keyboard solo of which the late Jon Lord would have been proud.

Proving my point about Opeth still being able to do heavy are the aforementioned Crysalis and penultimate track Era. Arriving on a tidal wave of pounding drums, the propulsive songs charge out of the speakers at breakneck speed. Crysalis is one of the best songs Mikael has written in a long time and Era isn't far behind. The band clatter away breathlessly as harmonious vocals slide over the top of both compositions. Crysalis waxes and wanes, eventually blossoming to a quiescent climax whilst Era doesn't let up in it's angled attack, ending with a screaming solo.

Despite line-up changes Opeth have always been musically very proficient but having a stable band for the last five years has benefitted this album. There's a feeling the members are more used to working with each other now. Akerfeld and Fredrik Åkesson supply superb guitar work throughout the album, both acoustic and electric. There's some fluid soloing, solid rhythm work and a lot of creative riffs. Keyboard player Joakim Svalberg really comes into his own on this album. He conjures up a wide range of sounds and tones, often taking the lead musically while the rhythm section of Martín Méndez on bass and drummer Martin Axenrot provide a solid foundation for the rest of the band. Mention should also be made of Wil Malone's string arrangements which add another dimension where they are used. I have seen debate about the production on Sorceress but to my (somewhat cloth) ears it sounds fine. There's a clarity and warmth about Tom Dalgety's production and mixing which again harks back to the 70's and is far better than his work on Pale Communion, although this could well be down to the superior material he had to work with.

Mikael has a enchanting singing voice and his vocals simply drip with emotion, utilising a wide range of clean singing from spectral whisper to full on rock God roar. There are some gorgeous harmonies too as he is ably backed up by Joakim. As with many Opeth releases the lyrics are obliquely poetic. However it is obvious that this album deals with betrayal, mistrust, lies, lost love and emotional pain. There are catchy lyrics throughout, many of which will become lodged firmly in your head like the chorus from The Wilde Flowers; "Blinding light and the flames grow higher, Searing skin on the funeral pyre." However if you have the CD version of the album you will be taking to the Internet to actually read the lyrics as the hand drawn caligraphy in the booklet, while a nice idea, is all but illegible. The best thing about the packaging is Travis Smith's gorgeous Peacock feasting on human flesh cover art (mmmm, scrummy!).

The album concludes as it started with Persiphone (Slight Return) as Vickery whispers an end to the album. The magical lure of Sorceress is so great that it's hard not to press play again and resample its array of glittering beauties. I enjoyed Heritage but Pale Communion became almost a chore to listen to and I was concerned that Akerfeld and company would never reach the lofty heights which they regularly achieved in the past. I need not have worried as with Sorceress Opeth have shown they still have the thaumatergy to make very special music.

Released: 30.09.16

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