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Opeth’s Prog Imagination Adopts Full-Spectrum Colors on “In Cauda Venenum”

In Cauda Venenum

There is no honest way to discuss Opeth‘s In Cauda Venenum without discussing the few records that came out prior. While some bands undergo major stylistic shifts and, within a few releases, stabilize for continued critical approach as per usual, there has been a lingering atmosphere around Opeth ever since their turn to exclusively producing progressive rock. Perhaps it is because — despite the charms of the past three studio albums the band has produced — there remains the lingering sense that Opeth are not performing at the heights we know they are capable of, maybe because some other non-death metal component remained missing. Because it wasn’t just the heavy riffs and growling which have disappeared; there are certain chord voicings and progressions that immediately call to mind Opeth even when other bands deploy them, choices that Opeth themselves had been wary to use from Heritage forward.

So it is with great intrigue that In Cauda Venenum feels comfortable deploying these deeply Opethian chords once more. Further, while the usage of acoustic guitar-driven prog folk is once more prevalent on this record, there is a familiar sense to it, skewing toward the approach to progressive folk the group had wielded on those first ten magical records rather than the much more Jethro Tull-indebted methods of the past three. There are, of course, still no growls in sight and death metal feels even further on the rearview window on In Cauda Venenum than on Heritage where main composer Mikael Åkerfeldt’s language regarding death metal was so much more severe than it is these days.

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But the return of traditional Opethian compositional characteristics outside of their particular approach to death metal (which, if we are critically honest with ourselves, was always a much smaller part of their sound than we make it out to be) has been an arc developing since Pale Communion, the second record in this style for Opeth. It seems that as the group’s confidence in this approach grows, so too does their adventurousness in exploring different corners of their very earthy, warm, and Scandinavian approach to progressive rock.

Heritage‘s greatest weakness, for instance, was not the fact that it was prog rock and not metal but the relative singularity of its approach to the normally wide-winged genre, a formal singularity that ironically makes it hold up much better these days than it did on the first days of its release. It becomes tempting then to say that In Cauda Venenum, the best record of their progressive rock period, is better precisely because it sounds more Opethian. And while this is true in some ways, it casts the previous three records as being faulty not for compositional or pacing issues or moments of homage that feel closer to pastiche but merely by not sounding Opethian enough, and this just is not true.

The major issue with that tack is that the new ideas on those three records are, plainly speaking, some of the rare instances of Opeth incorporating a new concept into their sound. The period from Orchid all the way through Deliverance was more one of gradual tiny adjustments than quantum leap, and music from a record on one end of that span still feels sonically at home with songs on the other precisely because the band never grew all that much between albums. The biggest change before their prog rock period was the addition of more prominent keys on Ghost Reveries. Comparatively, the period from Heritage forward has been their most creatively adventurous, covering wild impressionistic freeform prog folk, symphonic prog, rustic Nordic jazz, and the knotted depths of sonic space somewhere between off-the-beaten-path proggers Renaissance and fellow Swedes Anglagard. The duo of “River” and “Voice of Treason” on Pale Communion was a highlight that wouldn’t have been possible on previous records, the same of which can be said of “The Seventh Sojourn” and “Strange Brew” from Sorceress. It was challenging material only because it didn’t sound like typical Opeth; to a lifelong prog fan, it was familiar and warm.

What makes In Cauda Venenum a success is not that it abandons these ideas but that it alloys them with classic Opethian motifs and song structures and chord movements more seamlessly than ever. It is highly likely that to those who sincerely believe the last good Opeth album was Watershed or prior, In Cauda Venenum will still render them cold. But to people who have been willing to embark on this second phase of Opeth’s career, this is the best album of that later style yet, giving a feeling that Åkerfeldt is coming to slow peace with the idea of these records living together with those others of his past. Lead single “Heart In Hand” could have been plucked from any of the golden period records, save for its conspicuous lack of extreme vocals, as could album closer “All Things Must Pass” which would have found especially keen home on Blackwater Park. But certain other tracks such as the noirish symphonic jazz of “The Garroter” or the Deep Purple-does-djent (yes you read that correctly) of “Charlatan” simply wouldn’t have been possible without their seachange metamorphosis and the lessons that came after.

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Ultimately, it still feels a bit critically shallow to compare works of this period to the one preceding. If forced, then this record easily surpasses spottier efforts like Deliverance, which aside from its utterly perfect masterpiece of a title track is a frustrating effort, and Morningrise, in which every song is very nearly good but not quite there. In Cauda Venenum lives comfortably with records like Orchid and My Arms, Your Hearse, albums themselves which married more than their fair share of rather by-the-books classic progressive rock with only the lightest tinges of death metal. The same could be said of this material’s ability to live with long stretches of Blackwater Park, itself an album torn apart by more traditionalist underground metal magazines at the time for bearing Steven Wilson’s influence a bit too bluntly, and of Ghost Reveries, an album whose nearly full middle stretch is progressive rock with only mild presence of metal. And while this would situate this material more firmly within an understanding of Opeth’s body of work as a whole, the critics of this period are not entirely wrong when they say that perhaps it should have been embarked upon under a new name. But not because it is of lower quality; in this instance, it is because the sonic adventurousness shown here admittedly does have little to do with some of the things Opeth were doing two decades ago.

In Cauda Venenum reaffirms why it is that Opeth is so beloved and why, after their years and work and bevy of all-time great songs and albums, they are no longer critically approached with the same needling, persnickety, and useless metrics like album scores or pocket-money minded comparisons to peers in terms of what album you should pick up any given month. That is because even on previous records, ones admittedly weaker than this one, they were inventive and singular, with their weakest moments being ironically the ones where they sounded most keenly like someone else rather than exploring the wilds of Åkerfeldt’s lush imagination. This album is their best in a long time, certainly, but like Pale Communion and Sorceress before it, its highest successes affirm this direction for the group rather than discourage it, showing the ripening fruit of the ideas and avenues pursued in this phase of the group’s career just as they dovetail more seamlessly with the rich and beloved musical lineage of the group’s past. They’ve made records with faults but never, ever a boring one, and here with In Cauda Venenum there is at last a record of this period that can unequivocally stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatnesses of Opeth’s past.

Perhaps this ties to Åkerfeldt’s statements in recent interviews that this was the first record in a long while that was made purely out of passion and not a frustrating combination of inspiration and the fact that Opeth is now his day job, not to mention the primary income source for the rest of the members and the business end of things to boot. An impassioned Åkerfeldt has given us some of the greatest records of heavy metal history. In Cauda Venenum may not be another Still Life or Blackwater Park, but if the arc holds, we are one strong step closer to those golden fields again.

In Cauda Venenum released today via Nuclear Blast.

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