This third entry in Opeth's newest phase doesn't quite match Pale Communion, but it's still a wonderfully multifaceted journey.
With 2011’s Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion, Swedish prog darling Opeth made the drastic -- and incredibly divisive -- decision to abandon its beloved death metal roots in favor of a more retro and colorful ‘70s rock/jazz/folk aesthetic. Sure, creative mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt and company had toyed with such styles before (most consistently on 2005’s Ghost Reveries), but this newfound commitment evoked shades of pioneers like Goblin, Jethro Tull, and Camel like never before. As a result, these last two LPs were almost equally embraced and rejected by devotees (to his credit, though, Åkerfeldt never seems to let fan reactions alter his artistic vision), and unsurprisingly, the group’s 12th studio offering, Sorceress, will likely elicit the same polarized feedback. Although it ventures into darker territory overall (primarily by conjuring the sinister shades of legends like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple), Sorceress is very much the third entry in Opeth’s newest phase. In fact, it ranks in-between its closest predecessors, as it’s a much more interesting and dynamic journey than Heritage, yet it doesn’t quite equal the magnum opus that is Pale Communion. Even so, Sorceress is another outstanding outing that further solidifies Opeth’s nearly unrivaled legacy.
In the full-length’s official press release, Åkerfeldt explains that he delved further into classic jazz icons like Coltrane, Brubeck, and Davis as he was developing Sorceress, which helped him “write... songs that didn’t musically connect”. He continues, “I made sure [that] if I had a song that was new sounding for this record, I’d make the next song completely different." As for its lyrical content, he notes that some of its dreariest sentiments come from his own life, adding that they’re “misanthropic. It’s not a concept record, so there’s no theme running through [it]. Most of [it] deals with... the negative aspects of love. So, it’s a love record... love can be like a disease or a spell."
“Persephone” opens the sequence with some Spanish-style acoustic guitar instrumentation that’s mournful yet romantic, which makes sense given its namesake. (In a track-by-track breakdown for teamrock.com, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson says that it has “a definite Ennio Morricone vibe”.) Eventually female narration plays in the background, and the entwining arpeggios are complemented by wavering synths near the end. It’s relatively humble and brief, yet it provides a fitting mood for the rest of the album; in particular, it serves as a strong contrast to the title track, whose hellish riffs and odd rhythms burst in next and immediately channel the aforementioned ‘70s icons. Honestly, it’s a bit too bassy and muddy at times, but there’s no denying its menacing allure once its initial familiarity gives way to endearing specialities with subsequent listens. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s an enjoyable, if somewhat simplistic, trip.
While “The Wilde Flowers” walks a similar path, it’s ultimately more varied and engaging than “Sorceress”, with a much catchier chorus and a better usage of Joakim Svalberg’s keyboard eccentricities. Åkerfeldt also adds more vocal elegance by reaching into his falsetto range, as well as channeling the angelic harmonies of Deliverance’s “Master's Apprentices”. In typical Opeth fashion, a mellow section near the end effectively builds tension for the final moments of thick anarchy. Next comes “Will O the Wisp”, an acoustic ballad in the vein of “Still Day Beneath the Sun” or “River” (although it’s not quite as strong as either of those) that was directly inspired by Jethro Tull’s “Dun Ringill”. Its melodies, words, and chord progressions are modest yet undeniably touching and gripping, and it cleverly adds more layers -- such as harmonies, percussion, and woodwinds -- as it develops. Really, it’s as close as Opeth has ever come to releasing a radio-friendly single, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and its final melodic deviation, coupled with the ensuing guitar solo, is one of the band’s most sublime sections of all time.
“Chrysalis” packs quite a punch as it piles on swirling keyboard patterns, thunderous syncopation, and antagonistic riffs and vocals. It’s quite intricate rhythmically, and it recalls Ghost Reveries’s near perfect balance of heavy and light vintage prog rock elements (honestly, its closing segment, during which Åkerfeldt sings, “Leave it all behind you” over a sorrowful and tranquil foundation, is Sorceress’ standout passage). Despite its name, “Sorceress 2” -- another acoustic guitar showpiece -- doesn’t connect to the title track in any overtly discernable way; still, it’s pristine tenderness helps it shine, with more organ croons accompanying Åkerfeldt as he sings higher than ever before. There are also some extremely subtle but impactful sound effects in the background that give the selection a gently ominous nature.
Likely the most atypical composition here is the instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn”. Its organic percussion, slithering patterns, and warm, symphonic instrumentation all harken back to the Middle Eastern edge of Led Zeppelin’s revered “Kashmir” (albeit in a more calming way). Like a fair amount of Sorceress, it’s also a multi-section endeavor, with its ultimate segment abandoning the previous arrangement in favor of ghostly utterances of “hallelujah” and other phrases over soft piano and guitar notes. More than any other piece here, “The Seventh Sojourn” demonstrates how strongly Opeth continues to experiment while also maintaining what makes it special (well, aside from the death metal brutality).
“Strange Brew” burrows even further into Sorceress’ overarching occult vibe, as its initial blend of delicate piano and bass notes, paired with unassuming singing, soon transition (via a trademark Opeth guitar passage) into a purely devilish excursion. It’s easily the most intricate song on the record, rivaling both “Eternal Rains Will Come” and “The Devil’s Orchard” in terms of tricky transitions and shifting temperaments. In addition, its recurring central motif is especially enthralling and evil (it would fit perfectly as the soundtrack for a pagan sacrifice in the woods). In contrast, “A Fleeting Glance” is brighter and more inviting, with a jazzier edge and delightfully dense and regal choruses and verses that find Åkerfeldt providing some of his best singing to date. In fact, its predominantly luscious vibe makes it a beautiful showpiece from beginning to end.
The proper final track is “Era”. Following a delicate, tragedy-filled piano ode, Opeth returns to the in-your-face aggression that started the record, bringing the journey full circle in a way. It’s a fast and relentless ride whose melodies are appealing enough but don’t really stand out. To be fair, its best aspect is the falsetto support Åkerfeldt gives his dominant lead performance, as well as the general way its leading heaviness juxtaposes the serenity of its opening, which is brought back at the end -- with a loud drum crash -- as “Persephone (Slight Return)”, whose title is an obvious nod to Hendrix. Appropriately, the female narrator from “Persephone” comes back as well, giving the LP an even greater sense of conceptual continuity.
Perhaps more than any of its predecessors, Sorceress takes several in-depth listens to reveal all of its nuances and ambitions. At first, it may seem a bit too safe and stagnant, simply resting in the foundation that Heritage and Pale Communion established instead of pushing it further. Fortunately, though, it eventually stands on its own by offering enough distinctive and cherishable moments to prove how vibrant, striving, and creative the members still are. Beyond being a remarkable achievement that easily earns its place in the band’s canon, Sorceress cements the fact that no matter what styles the band explores or abandons -- and regardless of how much naysayers complain as a result -- as long as Åkerfeldt is at the helm, Opeth will continue to conjure some truly singular music.