Music

Opeth Achieve Gothic Greatness with the Gorgeously Multifaceted 'In Cauda Venenum'

Photo courtesy of the artist

In Cauda Venenum is Opeth's most wicked record of the decade, signifying that their earlier evilness is still wonderfully intact.

In Cauda Venenum
Opeth

Nuclear Blast

27 September 2019

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.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.