The past is only as dead as we allow it to be. It may be behind us, but the present reveals echoes and traces that inform the whole of our experience. It’s been an easy hit to simply cry out that the old Opeth is dead; what remains now is a vague simulacrum, going through the motions in a pale imitation of vague and obscure heroes of yesteryear. But there’s another view, one where a band sheds its skin but the bones remain, framing a personal and vital change in direction that comes to full blossom with new album In Cauda Venenum. It’s not just another step in the band’s ongoing evolution, it’s a firm realization of where they want to be.
This state of flux has always been in play for Opeth: 1995’s debut Orchid was anything but a straight-ahead black metal album, as tracks like the massive “In Mist She Was Standing” deftly, if not exactly, subtly mixed elements of progressive death, classical guitar and baroque counterpoint against moments of atmospheric black metal and even doses of NWOBHM. This kitchen sink approach has always served the band well, feeling like a curated tour of leader Mikael Åkerfeldt’s musical history. That this curation has become more pronounced over the years has never felt less than perfectly organic, even if the road to the confidence and swagger of In Cauda Venenum was less than smooth (looking at you, Heritage).
Since the jump from 2008’s excellent and aptly named Watershed it’s been a steady progression in the band’s shift away from screaming metal into something darker. But that framework ensures that for all the obvious changes and distancing from the more obvious extreme metal tropes you can’t help but identify the songs as anything but Opeth. No one crafts a guitar line like Åkerfeldt, and whether it’s the sturm und drang of “Chrysalis” off of 2016’s Sorceress or the syncopated orchestral maneuvers of “Voice of Treason” from 2014’s Pale Communion there’s no mistaking the band making the sound. It’s hard to think of another band that have changed their sound so significantly yet still sound exactly like themselves.
The trick of In Cauda Venenum lies in the full confidence of a band fully embracing music that no longer owes anything to anyone but themselves. More than any other post-Watershed album it feels like a declaration: how else to describe the brooding synth-pulse introduction “Garden of Earthly Delights” that segues into “Dignity” – sporting that unmistakable Opeth riffing and destined to open their shows from now until the end of time? Leading with an exquisite Fredrik Åkesson solo, the song rises to a rousing crescendo before falling into a gorgeous opening verse that momentarily freezes you with its fragility before that signature pounding riff enters, bass and keyboards insistent in their push on your bones.
In between the sudden starts and stops, the changes from light to dark, two things become immediately noticeable. This is exactly what Opeth have always done – the color may have shifted but what made them one of the greatest metal bands in the world is still most certainly there. The other thing is that after more than a decade together in its current configuration, the band is simply astounding on a technical level. Leaving the guitars alone for moment, it’s time to give proper oblations at the altar of Martin Axenrot on drums. There are few drummers that can move around a riff with the lightness of touch that he can, and on a dime shift into a thunderous brutality that threatens to overwhelm at any moment. The way he locks in with Martin Lopez on bass provides the surest footing for the melody to ride, whether it’s with Åkesson and Åkerfeldt or in the sinuous keyboards of Joakim Svalberg, who here displays an incredible range of styles to reinforce, support, and lead the twists and turns of the songs.
And what songs…whether you’re listening to the English language version (provided for this review) or the “preferred” Swedish version, Åkerfeldt’s songwriting has reached another level. There’s an eagerness to explore different moods and lighter touches on tracks like “Lovelorn Crime” and “Universal Truth” which, sandwiched in between the gnarled and wicked “Charlatan” and the psychedelic ominous shuffle of “The Garroter” is hands down my favorite sequence of songs they’ve released in this phase of their career. The moments of pure heaviness from a classic metal sense are gone, but in their place are moments that are just as if not even more dark and heavy, and achieve the desired effect without the use of screaming, massive amounts of gain or blast beasts. By the time closer “All Things Will Pass” comes to its fade out, it feels like the final, beautiful exhalation of a narrative spoken in notes and rests, a language felt rather than read.
I say again: the past is only as dead as we allow it to be. Despite the cries to contrary, Opeth have not closed off or abandoned their past: In Cauda Venenum proves they’ve taken everything and pushed it in a new direction, one they welcome you to follow. Whether you do or not is your choice; they’re long past caring and that is precisely what emboldens them to move into new and dark avenues.
It’s safe to say I’ll be following for the foreseeable future.