Nine albums in, and Opeth has still shown no signs of running out of ideas.
There's a reason why whenever Opeth releases a new album, the metal world stops whatever it's doing and pauses with bated breath. For the last decade, the Swedish band has been the standard-bearer for modern metal, and as they've proven over the course of eight studio albums, they have shown no signs whatsoever of giving way to the next generation of young hotshots. And not only does the Swedish band excel like no other at combining harsh, towering blasts of blackened death metal with the intricacy of 1970s prog rock and the more subtle, gentle beauty of folk, but Opeth evolves at such a rate, and have become so unpredictable while craftily retaining their core sound, that the only thing for bands to do is to simply follow their lead, because they sure as hell don't have any chance of overtaking them.
In addition, expectations surrounding the band's ninth studio album are all the more lofty thanks to the departure of two crucial members. Guitarist Peter Lindgren, who had been a part of Opeth with singer/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt since 1991, shocked fans when he announced his amicable departure from the band a year ago. The perfect, understated foil for Åkerfeldt's flamboyant style, Lindgren's presence on record and in concert was something fans had always thought could be counted on. Also, Martin Lopez, whose fluid drumming had endeared him to many since 1998's My Arms, Your Hearse album, was forced to step down for medical reasons in 2006. The consternation among die-hard fans, especially online, bordered on ridiculous, with many complaining that Lopez and Lindgren were irreplaceable. So with a pair of new members in guitarist Fredrik Åkesson (ex-Arch Enemy) and Martin Axenrot (formerly of Bloodbath) making their debuts on record, even some fans were questioning the direction the band was headed in, wondering if their best days were now behind them.
Twelve minutes into Watershed, any shred of doubt surrounding the band's ability to maintain its remarkable momentum is erased. Obliterated. They haven't simply proven they hadn't lost a step; they've found an entirely new gear, sounding rejuvenated, and more audacious than ever. So adept Opeth has become at integrating both mellow and aggressive sounds, the shifts between the disparate styles so gracefully executed, that it's easy for the listener to take their skill for granted. However, one cannot underestimate how remarkable it is how Åkerfeldt, Åkesson, Axenrot, bassist Martin Mendoza, and keyboardist Per Wiberg make these labyrinthine arrangements flow so naturally, opening tracks "Coil" and "Heir Apparent" being a prime example, starting out with a straightforward Fairport Convention homage (featuring a duet with Nathalie Lorichs), then segueing into some of the heaviest blastbeats since 2002's Deliverance, shift into a passage of acoustic guitar and mellotron, and eventually into an organ-driven jam straight out of Deep Purple. On paper, such stylistic changes seem completely arbitrary and pointless, but on record, especially this one, it's a completely different story.
More than any other past Opeth album, though, Watershed places unprecedented emphasis on the kind of grim, mournful ambience alluded to so well on the band's album covers. With Scott Walker's 2006 masterpiece The Drift a major inspiration during the songwriting process, and the Zombies' landmark Odyssey and Oracle during recording, the album is dominated by many small mood pieces that appear either in between songs or in the songs themselves. We hear someone quietly humming a sorrowful melody before the song in question kicks in for real. Doom metal chords vanish in an instant, only to be replaced by a lone, forlorn piano, keys pressed gently. There's a minute of enigmatic conversation at the end of one track that's reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon, another song reprises a verse, this time played backward, while another concludes as the acoustic guitar strings are slowly, eerily turned out of tune while it plays.
Studio tricks aside, the real draw, of course, are the songs themselves. "The Lotus Eater" is a tour de force exercise in extreme metal dynamics, the song rarely maintaining the same groove for more than a minute, the quintet alternating from maelstrom-like black metal to expressive Floyd-esque solos, to a quiet bass solo/mellotron interlude, to the kicker, a jaw-dropping 30-second funk jam straight out of early '70s Miles Davis. Grounding the entire track is the vocal range of Akerfeldt. A more confident singer than ever, his strong "clean" vocals are utilized beautifully, his rougher death growl never overdone, only brought out to accentuate the harder passages.
The 11-minute "Hessian Peel" is as impeccable a combination of Deliverance's aggression with the more somber style of 2003's Damnation, while "Burden" is flat-out gorgeous, an epic ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on either King Crimson's Red or with Uli Jon Roth-era Scorpions. Of Watershed's seven tracks, only does "Porcelain Heart" come closest to sounding like Opeth-by-numbers, but the increased dependence on Wiberg's keyboard work, which is so integral to this album's success, adds a great deal more depth than his first record with the band, 2005's Ghost Reveries.
Unlike Ghost Reveries, which comfortably, and impeccably, amalgamated the various sounds and textures Opeth had been toying with for a decade into a spellbinding realization of the band's signature sound, Watershed is a major turning point for the band, as they've now made a significant shift towards the progressive rock sounds of 35 years ago, their extreme metal, which they used to be so firmly rooted in, now cleverly used more as a starting-off point than merely the groundwork of the music. It's their most crucial album since 1999's stunning Still Life, and its title could not be more appropriate.