Album: In Cauda Venenum
Label: Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast
After a nearly 30-year-career, Opeth is no stranger to fans of progressive metal and rock, and each new album release by them is an event in the prog community. However, Opeth’s 13th opus, In Cauda Venenum – released on September 27th, 2019, through the band’s own Moderbolaget imprint and Nuclear Blast – is particularly significant, as it marks the first time the band has recorded an album in Swedish. While there’s also an English version of the album, I’ve chosen to review the Swedish one, as according to mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt, it represents his original vision and he recorded the vocals for it first.
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Sorceress (2016) was a perfectly enjoyable Opeth album – apart from its overly bass-heavy mix, which started bugging me once I received the album on CD – but I started to wish the band would change things up a little for the sake of avoiding stagnation. In the chorus of “Era,” the last vocal track on Sorceress, Åkerfeldt sang “The end of an era / One starts anew,” and in 2018 the band put out a live release, Garden of Titans, so after three albums with a similar formula it seemed like the band had reached a watershed moment (no pun intended), and In Cauda Venenum confirms my prediction to be true.
The intro track, “Livets trädgård,” throws you off immediately with its choir and pulsating electronics and leads straight into “Svekets prins.” While Mikael Åkerfeldt’s clean vocals have become more diverse on Opeth’s later albums, singing in his mother tongue seems to bring out another level of passion in him, as this song features his raspy rock voice at its fiercest. Towards the end he even throws a bone (albeit a tiny one) to the death metal fans with what sounds like a half-growl. On the other hand, the gorgeous power ballad “Minnets yta,” which is surprisingly poppy for Opeth, has some very gentle vocals, but Åkerfeldt goes all out again in the powerful chorus. Fredrik Åkesson is also on fire, delivering one of his best guitar solos ever at the end, which makes me think of this song as Opeth’s equivalent of its former producer Steven Wilson’s “Drive Home.”
“Charlatan” sounds like Opeth’s take on djent, as Åkerfeldt and Åkesson play distorted 6-string basses instead of guitars on it, and this mix of vintage and modern sounds cool, although I think the title-track of Sorceress pulled off the heaviness a little better. “Banemannen” is possibly the jazziest Opeth song ever, so it’s probably going to divide opinions to some extent, but at the same time it’s quite moody and not fusion-heavy like most of Opeth’s recent forays into jazz. At first I wasn’t sure whether Åkerfeldt singing along with the guitar at the end was annoying or catchy, but after multiple listens I’m leaning towards the latter.
Speaking of catchiness, “Ingen sanning är allas” has some of the most infectious melodies in the band’s history, and I also found myself humming along to the verses of “Hjärtat vet vad handen gör” after just a couple of listens, so the album is not lacking in the melody department by any means. A lot of classic Opeth darkness is present as well, and “De närmast sörjande” in particular sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place on Watershed (2008), while the last few minutes of “Kontinuerlig drift” remind me of the melancholy of Damnation (2003), and the strings elevate the beauty of the song even further. “Allting tar slut” ends the album on an epic note with big keyboards and guitars and soaring vocals, making it the most climactic Opeth closer since “Hex Omega” by far, although the fact that it fades out is slightly frustrating.
While In Cauda Venenum is made up of similar ingredients – prog, metal, folk, jazz – to its three predecessors, the Swedish lyrics and the various new nuances and details in the music give it a fresh feel, and for that reason I would call it the Ghost Reveries (2005) of modern Opeth, as that album perfected the traditional Opeth sound while adding keyboards as a full-time instrument into the mix as a new element. This record, while diverse, feels more cohesive than the previous “Newpeth” albums, which were a little all-over-the-map musically, and the recurring use of spoken word samples throughout the album gives it a sense of continuity and a slightly conceptual feel. The production also feels like a step up, and you can actually make out the double bass drumming this time around, which was not the case with Heritage (2011), for example. Time will show where In Cauda Venenum stands in comparison with the rest of the Opeth discography after the new car smell has worn off, but I would confidently say that it’s one of the best albums released this year and the Swedes’ best post-Watershed effort, even though I enjoyed the previous three albums as well.
Rating: 9/10, 4½ stars
1. Livets trädgård
2. Svekets prins
3. Hjärtat vet vad handen gör
4. De närmaste sörjande
5. Minnets yta
7. Ingen sanning är allas
9. Kontinuerlig drift
10. Allting tar slut