Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The times they are a-changin' (a little, anyway)

The band that divides metalheads like no other -- there, that ought to scare everyone off even more than a sports post ever could -- which is coming tomorrow, muahahahaha, etc. -- are they the White Castle of headbanging, love 'em or hate 'em? -- has returned with their ninth full-length, Watershed. An audacious title, no? Or an entirely accurate one unrealized upon first glance? Neither their most brutal album, nor their most mellow, it's unquestionably their furthest exploration into the depths of 70s progressive rock, one of their creative foundations, nearly as equal in importance as thunderously sick metallic riffs. And it's unmistakably their most layered, their moodiest.

Coil
rises up, a jarring shock to the system used to the rolling, viciously sprawling ten-minute power chord-saturated openers of the past such as The Moor, Advent and The Leper Affinity, to instead strike with three minutes of dark neo-folk guitar and narcotic voices, those of mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt and guest Natalie Lorichs, surreptitiously dragging us ever so delicately down into the bleak.

And what is bleaker than the sludgy darkness announcing the doom awaiting the Heir Apparent? A crushing riff, the eerie tinkling of piano keys, the triumphant return of said riff layered with corrosive death metal vocals. All these trappings of the genre are expertly woven within each measure. Oh, when you reach the bridge, toss in a few jazzy snare hits underneath a smattering of ambient guitar and don't forget the machine-gun percussion and snarled lyrics leading to the hypnotic denouement where, wrapping up the proceedings, guitar lines are stretched to the limits as to let the emotion pour forth as blood from a fatal wound. Thanks.

Yeah, the song is pretty fucking good.

Amidst the plethora of seemingly ephemeral, if not outright jury-rigged and glued-on wanderings -- the constant fluctuation between light and shade, heavy and soft -- an Opeth song is nothing but a teleological argument; there is a purpose, despite the inane ramblings of troo kvlt partisans: human feeling, and all its hues -- and the world contained therein -- is examined. The gentle hum of a troubadour before the off-kilter juxtaposition of clean vocals over blastbeats followed by deathly ones over more standard, yet still galloping, fare, trading jabs over a bedrock of propulsive riffing, meandering off course, shipwrecked on shores lapped by waves of barely audible, resonating keys and green, verdant guitar, the land of The Lotus Eater, a drama spiraling out of control, captured in an awkward, descending chord progression that mutates into a neo-funk riff before pushing back into the uncertain future, the possible end of one's world.

The hours of that world contain our Burden, and the notes growing within display the full flower of the band's longtime progressive leanings. Shadowy, emotional lines create an ethereal panorama inhabited by a searing Fredrik Åkesson guitar solo, the presence of a rippling organ line; this is saddened Deep Purple and melancholy Yes filtered through one of the foremost purveyors of Scandinavian death metal at their most despondent. The guitars fade until only one remains, fluttering into discordance and accompanied by an understated laugh, a lost character from the mass of lunacy at the beginning of Black Sabbath's The Writ, chuckling at our pain.

That pain is released with the inevitable shattering of those with a Porcelain Heart. Pregnant with a forlorn temperament, the murky, gothic sentiment of black walls closing in around us, faint whispers of deeds we've done, the ghosts of our past, those memories of loss, calling to us in soft, single notes between torrents of undulating, disjointed chords and wordless harmonies before the opening motif's reprise, a declaration that such despair cannot be vanquished.

A monochrome underpinning gently giving way to the veils of a dreamy Technicolor kitchen-sink prog workout, Hessian Peel wonderfully displays the largest improvement over the last album, the far better utilization of the keyboards. They never dominate proceedings but provide atmosphere, context and when necessary, epic sweep along the gently ascending guitar riff, climbing the beautiful, sloping, yet neverending meadow before settling at last on the rock of abrasive death metal on which the song pivots. And which should have been a bigger piece, you goddamn bastards.

Reading the song titles, I expected this to be an excursion into violence. Though the subject matter -- as is the case with every Opeth song -- isn't full of fuzzy little bunnies, the dynamic of Hex Omega never fully opens up, merely teases, threatening to burst. Executing such a construction often fails with spectacular results, but here it works and the song is growing on me with each listen. Quiet into loud with classic, vaguely eastern-sounding metal riffs arriving before a shift into a sweep of keys that guide us to the end of the piece with it's fuzzed-out guitar and marching, insistent drumwork.

Ask Norway's monumental Enslaved about purists, those of the black metal variety in their case, laying childish complaints -- based in ever-weakening attachment to some long-dead school of the old descending further into the recesses of history -- at their feet and how that impacted their natural musical progression not one iota. I'm sure the death metal weenies out there will find plenty to bitch and moan about here, but Opeth are not Suffocation, nor Deicide, and they never were. It's quite convenient to leave Silhouette or To Bid You Farewell or Credence out of the equation, isn't it. I myself would be remiss in not admitting that I wouldn't have minded another steroid injection or three of Blackwater Park or Demon of the Fall-style brutality, and after the addition of a full-time keyboardist -- and with three years of retrospection, the partial (for them, from their lofty creative perch, anyway) misstep of Ghost Reveries -- one could be justified in clinging to a wary nature. Yet to look back once more upon that musical landscape, the previous album was still among, if not the, best releases of 2005; that's simply how high Opeth have set the bar. Their 'fuckups' would proudly be the masterworks of others. Lessons learned, gentlemen. Watershed does its moniker proud.

21 comments:

pissed off patricia said...

Is this a cake occasion or just rum and coke sort of thing?

okjimm said...

Wowsers!!!

I gotta tell you...I like metal about as much as I like root canal work or hockey...but!!!

your review is really cool(or,truly...a step or so beyond cool...kinda like a fade away three pointer at the buzzer)

"Amidst the plethora of seemingly ephemeral, if not outright jury-rigged and glued-on wanderings -- the constant fluctuation between light and shade, heavy and soft ..."

"epic sweep along the gently ascending guitar riff, climbing the beautiful, sloping, yet neverending meadow before settling at last on the rock of abrasive death metal..."

looka... I most certainly will not buy this .... but your reviews are fantastic!! I need to know what drugs you were doing when you wrote this! Shit&Whiskers!!

"Pregnant with a forlorn temperament, the murky, gothic sentiment of black walls closing in around us, faint whispers of deeds we've done, the ghosts of our past, those memories of loss, calling to us in soft, single notes between torrents of undulating, disjointed chords and wordless harmonies before the opening motif's reprise, a declaration that such despair cannot be vanquished."

Gees, SlapmyAss&CallmeSally!!!

DivaJood said...

Whoa, nelly. I'm calling okjimm "sally." At least this isn't a Jerry Lewis tribute.

Randal Graves said...

POP, no cake as it's no one's birthday (except Parker Stevenson's - you aware of that, LBR?). Kick back with something cold and let the power chords flow.

okjimm, man, you don't like nothin' that I like, ya bastard! Get the hell outta here! No drugs, save caffeine. I love me some music. Basketball tomorrow, Long Tall Sally!

diva, lemme tell ya 'bout Keith Jackson. You don't like Jerry Lewis, do you.

F.O.T. said...

This is a really good post Randal. I like metal music sometimes (along with jazz, classic and trip). What I dislike is the reaction people have when I'm listening. I've had people say, and i'm not kidding, "why are you listening to this, you aren't in high school anymore," "I'm scared of you now."

Ah well, fuck 'em.

I really like this album.

(not an eloquent comment... I have no valid excuse)

b said...

Although I really am not into metal, your incredible descriptions here have inspired me to go check it out on iTunes later. After all, I am forever grateful that you turned me onto Katatonia!

The way you describe music leaves me in awe. "Yeah, the song is pretty fucking good." ... That really is the furthest I find I can go with describing music or poetry. They evoke so much and yet, I am without the words to adequately convey what is going on. However, you have an amazing ability to describe songs in such a provocative way! That is talent, my friend!

La Belette Rouge said...

As another of your readers who lacks appreciation for the brilliance of metallics, I am dazzled by your description of the music. I feel sure I have enjoyed your take on the music much more than I ever would enjoy the metal in and of itself.

I know you meant to showcase the talent of others--but instead you once again showed your fierce and profound talent.

okjimm said...

seriously

Rolling Stone Magazine
1290 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10104 - 0298
(212) 484-1616

seriously

Their writing could use a boost.

Dean Wormer said...

What okjimm said.

Makes me want to listen to music I normally don't listen to.

THAT is some good wordsmanship.

Randal Graves said...

FOT, believe me, I know that reaction all too well, as if once you have a spouse and a job and kids you're supposed to trade in your musical tastes for bland AOR crooners. Bach and Behemoth, Ravel and the Rolling Stones, Dvorak and Danzig, Mahler and Morbid Angel, I need 'em all.

It's comical that us supposedly closed-minded fans of things that are heavy are the ones who aren't willing to try new stuff out. I've generally found the opposite.

b, the biggest stumbling block is, admittedly, the cookie monster death vocals. You're either going to like them or you're not, and it's understandable that not everyone will.

It's hard as hell to try and describe the actual notes so it's more of "how does this particular passage make me feel, what does it convey?" That's why I love these guys, they have the beauty and brutality that life contains, it's not just a one trick pony. Not that an AC/DC or Motorhead album is a bad thing. ;-)

LBR, so, not gonna buy a metal album huh? Just think, it'll be very cathartic when you're suffering from that Austin heat. Embrace the hate. ;-)

okjimm, you're my pal so I'm only going to tell you this once: lay off the hallucinogens!

dean, thanks, but I can just see it now; some of you guys will try out some samples only to come back disappointed and angry.

"They fucking sucked, you bastard!"

Christopher said...

I love Metal. But I also like 60's, 70's and 80's rock, Classic R&B, Jazz and Classical.

I think it was Duke Ellington who said "there are two kinds of music, good and bad." The only music I can't stand is Country with the exception of Willie.

Some of my favorite Metal bands are: Metallica, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Rage Against the Machine and Alice in Chains.

I always wanted to be in a band. Oh well.

dguzman said...

I've just never gotten into metal, but I do like good guitar playing. Does that count?

dguzman said...

I've just never gotten into metal, but I do like good guitar playing. Does that count?

Randal Graves said...

christopher, there are so many facets to the human condition, so it's nigh impossible to limit yourself to one genre. I'm with you on the country though, heh heh. As for Alice In Chains, I'm very happy I got to see them live a couple of times before Layne became an über-recluse.

And me too, until I realized I have no musical talent.

dguzman, of course it counts! Sort of. Maybe. I'll get back to you.

okjimm said...

ok. I'll stop eating the mushrooms. But would you, pretty please, agree to write my obituary?

I bet you would do a spifferino-neato-keen job! None of this

'he lived, he died..yadda, two kids, ex-wife'

bullshit. Something, stunning with a lotta umph!

(not that I am planning on checking out anytime soon....but what the fuck good is a great obituary if you don't get to read it, huh!

Unconventional Conventionist said...

Randal - talent! I'll be remiss and stupid if if I don't ask you to critique my Rhapsody when I push it out to the YouTubes...

I listened to this version of "Heir Apparent" :http://youtube.com/watch?v=75rXVhI0-hc

"Hardly anything would be bleaker." (Especially for me, being a pianist, that people just YELL over that nifty and indespensable quiet piano part, which is the fertile ground to totally TROMP over musically and later.) That ain't the band's fault.

I can maybe only add one thing; there's sort of a post-Soviet deal going on hear. It's just a tour-de-force tear-down-the-wall kind of sound that Phil Specter would pee his pants if he represented this band.

You know, big wall, pee, kind of thing.

susan said...

Alright, you convinced me to check them out. Then can I come back and tell you about my favorite J-Pop?

Randal Graves said...

okjimm, are you kidding? You'll be the internets version of Aetius.

"He was the last of the Romans...without a blog."

UC, to critique something requires talent on the part of the critiquer. I'm just a critic, and we all know THEY have no talent. ;-)

There is a studio version of that floating in the YouTube if you want to avoid shouting fans.

Wall? Pee? Where's my copy of Who's Next!

susan, oh shit. J-pop? Well, okay, all is fair in blogging and war.

Tom Harper said...

Eww, yuck, not another heavy metal post :)

I've never heard of that group; I'll have to check them out. For somebody who loves Metal as much as I do, there sure a lot of groups I've never heard of.

In addition to what FOT said: people who don't like heavy metal always assume that people who are into metal don't listen to anything else. "Oh, you wouldn't like that group; they aren't Led Zeppelin." "You wouldn't like it, all you like is that [gasp] heavy metal."

DCup said...

For goodness sake, Randal. I hope you wrote this post while wearing that apron.

These guys should put you on the payroll. Like your other readers, I'm not a metal fan, but I'll check them out on your say so.

Randal Graves said...

tom, I'll probably have more once I actually pick up some other new releases. The comments surprise me; you and FOT are the only others I know that actually listen to this stuff. :)

dcup, I think this one was in a stately purple robe, all royal and Byzantine, as befitting the stature afforded to metal reviews on the tubes.