In Cauda Venenum is Latin for “Poison of the Tail,” and is the title of Opeth’s fourth album as a prog rock band, and thirteenth overall. Hopefully by now, fans yearning for the band to release the death metal album they were purportedly writing prior to the release of Heritage will have given up, and we can examine the band’s new output with a neutral mind – or at least, compare it only against its last few predecessors.
The ten songs on In Cauda Venenum are lengthy compositions, totaling 68 minutes. Aside from the now seemingly mandatory intro track, only one song is less than six and a half minutes long. One might think that this would make the album tough to absorb, but it’s really not. That’s because Opeth have created an album that is both complex and simple at the same time.
“Garden of Earthly Delights,” the intro track, is a perfect example of this contrast. On casual listen, the slow build of a variety of synth patches is esoterically catchy, but on close listen it is very simple: several different sounds layer in unison, with a pulsing rhythm coming and going. The song’s components could be assembled by anybody, but in Opeth’s hands the sense of mystery is palpable.
“Dignity” is the first true song, and one of the album’s best. It is loaded with loud/soft dynamics, the ever-present (and a tad too loud) bass guitar underpinning the main rhythm while acoustic guitar delicately draws us down into quiet moments. The song is a great example of bombastic prog, but again, a closer listen reveals rhythmic simplicity. On this album at least, Opeth seem to be masters of making the listener think there is more to a song than meets the ear, but in reality the songs are cleverly arranged.
Other highlights include lead single “Heart in Hand,” with its grinding rhythm and hard rock aggression, and “The Garroter,” with its exquisite jazz lines. “Charlatan” impresses with rhythmic complexity (as opposed to the simplicity demonstrated in other songs) and keyboard noodling, and album closer “All Things Will Pass” could almost be a massive Deep Purple track at times. It’s a true standout.
Throughout all of In Cauda Venenum, the band displays a tangible improvement in chemistry, especially when looking back to Heritage. This lineup has been together for all four prog rock albums, and they’ve all bought into the style and feel leader Mikael Akerfeldt espouses. Akerfeldt himself has never sounded better. His clean vocals continue to improve, to the point where they now outshine his old death growls.
At the same time, some of the vocal arrangements are what actually drag the album down a bit. On nearly every song, Akerfeldt displays the annoying habit of playing music in unison note for note with the vocal melodies. This can occasionally be dramatic, but when it happens continuously it comes off as lazy songwriting. And there’s no need to augment his voice with identical backing music; as mentioned, the man has turned into a fantastic clean singer. Musical counterpoints would have been far more effective in almost all of these songs. This may seem like a minor nitpick to dwell on, but when it happens with such frequency over a long album it needs to be called out.
Opeth may not have delivered a prog rock masterpiece here, but In Cauda Venenum is a solid record, and in many ways showcases the band in their least derivative state since abandoning harsh vocals and blastbeats. Akerfeldt and company have their own identity, and fans of prog rock will likely find In Cauda Venenum an engrossing and entertaining listen.
(released September 27, 2019 on Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast)
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Listen To Opeth – “Dignity”