I think as reviewers we sometimes have the tendency to discount our initial gut reactions and instead go directly to dissection and study. Only a couple minutes into my first listen to advance single Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör I found myself saying aloud to my empty apartment, “Opeth sounds like Opeth again”. No matter how intensely I’ve examined this album in the ensuing weeks, I keep coming back to that first involuntary exclamation.
So, what is triggering that response? It has more to do with the mood and overall feel of the material on In Cauda Venenum than the sonic element. While you won’t hear the modern crunchy guitar sounds or the harsh vocals circa Deliverance or Ghost Reveries era, you will hear the underlying character of what made that material so special and so distinctly Opeth. The more analogue instrumental approach of the past three albums remains, but Mikael has recaptured that “dark beauty” element which has been mostly absent for a decade. Pick your favourite descriptive cliché; Gothic, romantic, ethereal, heavy (and “heavy”) and it aptly applies.
Primarily, what I hear is confidence, a band who has rediscovered how powerful they can be and they’re having a fucking blast with it. That assuredness is something that has been lacking of late as they’ve been a little trepidatious in their approach on recent albums. Heritage (2011), Pale Communion (2014) and Sorceress (2016) are all enjoyable in varying degrees and there are some fine tracks scattered amongst them, but taken as a whole they all sound like transitional releases. In Cauda Venenum sounds like the destination.
The audacity of the arrangements is immediately evident on the opening salvo of Sveket Prins and the aforementioned Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör. The former is a beautiful marriage of Queen-like bombast and Sabbath dirge and the latter is a galloping rocker with some fun twists, like a brief thrash-metal bridge, an avant-garde keyboard improvisation and a moody acoustic coda. Somehow all this meshes together seamlessly and makes for a powerful introductory segment.
Herein the journey gets darker and deeper. De Närmast Sörjande is the perfect example of the “dark beauty” element I was referring to earlier. It begins as a dirge, rendered simultaneously menacing and dreamlike, and after a tasteful acoustic guitar interlude it builds to a lyrical crescendo that’s one of Opeth’s most impressive moments. You can hear a condensed version of Opeth’s journey here, as wisps of the past float in and out and signposts of potential futures appear.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m reviewing the original Swedish language version of In Cauda Venenum. In my opinion it was more important to hear the original intent than delve into the lyrical content.
Minnets Yta is an unapologetically huge, lighters-in-the-air power ballad that walks the tightrope beautifully, never slipping into schmaltz. Like all respectable examples of this sub-genre it of course features an extended, emotive guitar solo. But before you commence rolling your eyes, take a listen to what Fredrik Åkesson lays down here, especially the commentary under Mikael’s vocal line in the final segment. Fredrick really comes into his own on this album and is the primary soloist throughout.
It’s at this juncture we enter the most impressive section of the album, a three-song cycle that’s as effective as any in Opeth’s catalogue.
Charlatan is raucous, joyous fun; a low-end ass-kicker driven by Martin Méndez’s impossibly-tuned bass guitar. This insane mash-up of prog, fusion and a pinch of funk is a new avenue for Opeth that I hope is explored further in the future. There’s a hint of the Sorceress sound in this track, but a superior outcome.
Ingen Sanning Ar Allas is a touchstone moment in Opeth’s progressive rock journey. A dynamically rich composition, impeccably arranged, it functions as the culmination of the experimental tangent they’ve been on since Heritage. But here, as elsewhere on the album, the emotional connection is much stronger, the experience more impactful. Mikael’s vocal performance on this album is easily his most impressive to date and the complexity and layering of the harmonies demonstrate he’s still adding to his skills and honing his arrangements a quarter-century into his recording career.
Next up is my personal favourite. Banemannen is a jaw-dropping concoction; a slinky jazz number overlaid with eastern tonalities that features the most impressive of several string arrangements on the album. I love the intro that begins with solo flamenco guitar that abruptly switches to solo jazz piano, it’s a nice touch that adds drama at the onset. One of the bonus cuts from the Sorceress album (and coincidentally my favourite song from those sessions) was a jazzy number called The Ward that sounds like the precursor to this song. What really makes it work is the playful approach, there’s just enough of a nod and a wink to sell it.
The strong final numbers, Kontinuerlig Drift and Alting Tar Slut (no giggling) function as one epic, melancholic concluding statement. You win bonus points if you can pick out the homage to Megadeth’s Hanger 18 in the latter track.
As is naturally the case with any band that has been around for 25 years, it’s safe to assume we’re in the latter phase, even Mikael Åkerfeldt admits he approaches each new Opeth record as being potentially the last. Yet based on the results, this album gives no indication of a band winding down in their career. In Cauda Venenum is a statement album, one of Opeth’s very best and that achievement is even more impressive considering it’s album #13 in their discography. Long may they reign.
01. Livets trädgård (Garden of Earthly Delights) (3:29)
02. Svekets Prins (Dignity) (6:35)
03. Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör (Heart In Hand) (8:30)
04. De Närmast Sörjande (Next of Kin) (7:08)
05. Minnets Yta (Lovelorn Crime) (6:34)
06. Charlatan (5:29)
07. Ingen Sanning Är Allas (Universal Truth) (7:21)
08. Banemannen (The Garrotter) (6:44)
09. Kontinuerlig Drift (Continuum) (7:23)
10. Allting Tar Slut (All Things Will Pass) (8:31)
Total Time – 67:53
Mikael Åkerfeldt – Guitars, Vocals
Fredrik Åkesson – Lead Guitar
Martin Méndez – Bass Guitar
Joakim Svalberg – Keyboards
Martin “Axe” Axenrot – Drums
Record Label: Moderbolaget Records / Nuclear Blast Records
Country of Origin: Sweden
Date of Release: 27th September 2019