Arguably no modern metal band is more simultaneously cherished and contentious than Opeth. Led by the incomparable Mikael Åkerfeldt, the Swedish troupe’s first 15 years or so found them endlessly alternating and perfecting their idiosyncratic progressive death metal persona. Vocally, Åkerfeldt served as one of the strongest frontmen around—in terms of both clean singing and growls—and their arrangements and concepts continuously exemplified a total mastery of the style. It’s no wonder, then, why their post-Watershed output—which saw them abandoning the harshest parts of their DNA in favor of a more approachable and retro 1970s progressive/jazz/cinematic rock aesthetic—proved so divisive for diehard fans. Yes, many followers—myself included—still revered the fanciful yet hardened direction they adopted; but, just as many seemed to write-off Opeth once the 2010s began.
Naturally, the fourth LP of this current incarnation, In Cauda Venenum, will garner the same reactions, as it’s very much a continuation of that contemporary aesthetic. In fact—and at the risk of sounding clichéd— it feels like the culmination of its immediate predecessors’ specialties. The album combines the investigational bizarreness of 2011’s Heritage, the mesmerizing consistency of 2014’s Pale Communion, and the coarse poise of 2016’s Sorceress into a surprisingly sinister and gratifyingly thematic sequence. It doesn’t surpass that 2014 masterpiece, but it does outdo the other two efforts and further cement how singular Opeth remains.
In Cauda Venenum translates to “Poison in the Tail”. Åkerfeldt chose the phrase both because he’d always wanted to use a Latin album title and because it fits well with the imagery that longtime collaborator Travis Smith created. Åkerfeldt felt more freedom and ease in writing it compared to Sorceress, which saw a stronger influence from the rest of the band, the label, and the overarching pressures of the industry. Possibly the greatest example of that trajectory is his decision to finally record an Opeth album entirely in Swedish, with an English version offered as an alternative option. While the quality is virtually identical between them, Åkerfeldt’s singing sounds slightly more organic and pristine on the Swedish version. Either way, though, In Cauda Venenum is an exquisite exercise in perpetual contrasts that, while familiar, demonstrates how much Opeth can still intrigue and impress after so many years.
Although a bit too prolonged, opener “Garden of Earthly Delights” is an ingeniously atmospheric prelude that sets up one of the LP’s greatest through-lines. A commitment to gothic overtones and malevolent voiceovers/sound clips that somewhat makes In Cauda Venenum feel like a single cohesive piece. A combination of sequenced beats, choral chants, and ascending notes provide the backdrop for a chilling sound collage that includes whistles, church bells, and children playing. In a way, it’s like the theme to a Dario Argento film, and it sets the stage for the enthralling evil to come.
Cleverly, it also segues seamlessly into the hypnotic “Dignity”, whose block harmonies—another recurring feature of the record—kick off a tirade of tasty trademark riffs, percussion, and melodies. It’s simpler than, say, “Eternal Rains Will Come“, yet it accomplishes a similar sort of awesome, multifaceted build-up toward entrancing verses and choruses. Åkerfeldt sings as divinely as ever, too, making it a fine way to get going properly. Afterward, “Heart in Hand” delivers a more direct juxtaposition of hectic drive and tranquil detours — such as a desolate acoustic nod to the Beatles’ “Help!” — before the relatively peculiar but enticing orchestral glory of “Next of Kin”. Although “Charlatan” is relentlessly gruff for the most part (which is great), it still manages some cathartic strings and Gregorian chants as it concludes. As for closer “All Things Will Pass”, it’s a tour-de-force climax of touching power that’ll surely leave you in awe.
Whereas those tracks contained dashes of softness in-between majorly heavy foundations, others veer more toward a lighter and more outwardly beautiful base. For instance, “Lovelorn Crime” evokes the angelic passion of Watershed‘s “Burden” to become one of Åkerfeldt’s most powerful ballads ever. Then, “Universal Truth” affords perhaps the best synthesis of classical and acoustic traits on the whole disc, causing a thoroughly intricate yet inviting and warm sonic blanket of emotion. The off-kilter piano work, shuffling syncopation, winding melodies, and generally startling jazziness of its follow-up, “The Garroter”, result in something simultaneously disturbing and delightful. Lastly, the penultimate “Continuum” employs great use of falsetto harmonies, acoustic guitar arpeggios, and saintly keyboard embellishments to yield a transfixing experience.
If not for the superior variety and scope of Pale Communion, In Cauda Venenum would absolutely be Opeth’s best album in a decade. Like most great records, it takes a few deep listens to appreciate fully, but the reward is easily worth the investment. Rather than stray from the systems of its immediate predecessors,In Cauda Venenum finely tunes them into an immensely concentrated and unswerving “observation” (as Åkerfeldt calls them) whose medieval core creates one of their most unified sequences thus far. It probably won’t win back anyone who departed after Watershed, but those who’ve stuck around will undoubtedly adore it. Best of all, its aforementioned conceptual/thematic links make it their most wicked record of the decade, signifying that their earlier evilness is still wonderfully intact.