No band created more of a stir in 2011 than Opeth. That year’s release, Heritage, had the Swedish veterans turning their backs on their extreme metal roots and delving hard into ’70s progressive rock. This was not to be a mere dalliance either, as band mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt continued to push the band’s style away from metal.
So any review of 2016’s Sorceress needs to take this into account. It would be irresponsible to write this album off by saying “It needs to sound more like Blackwater Park.” What we are looking for from Opeth now is a continuance of the evolution displayed on Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion, and we get that, but the results are a mixed bag.
Heritage could be viewed essentially as a tribute album, a celebration of all things ’70s prog stood for. It was a self indulgent romp that had no real Opeth personality – or at least, personality we could recognize based on their past discography. Pale Communion corrected that to a degree, and we could hear Åkerfeldt and company’s style coming through in the songwriting and performances. Even in their more extreme days, Opeth favored certain chord progressions and melodies, and those were represented in a more mellow fashion on Pale Communion.
Sorceress sees the band’s progressive rock style fully matured. The album sounds like an Opeth album: the dynamics, the arrangements, and the vocals. The album opens with “Persephone,” a quiet acoustic number with spoken female words buried in the mix, vaguely reminiscent of Watershed’s opening track “Coil,” although more folksy rather than menacing.
The album proper begins with the title track, which starts off with an almost freeform jazz feel before (thankfully) moving into harder territory, rendering the jazz noodling irrelevant. The ponderous hard rock riff of “Sorceress” is accompanied by in-step vocals, giving it a militant feel. It is the heaviest track on the record, and maintains our interest throughout. “The Wilde Flowers” follows a similar theme but with a quiet interlude in the middle, prefacing a short, frantic burst of an ending.
“Will O the Wisp” lightens things up, a mid-paced, beautifully rendered acoustic piece, before “Chrysalis” hits us hard again. Halfway into Sorceress, it seems Opeth are embracing a heavier direction than on Pale Communion, but a number of tracks beyond this are very mellow. “Sorceress 2” is light and airy, “The Seventh Sojourn” is a drawn out instrumental with a Middle Eastern flair, and “A Fleeting Glance” is a folksy, jazzy affair. Aside from stellar displays of musicianship, none of these songs really stand out at all. As with any prog rock album, patience and multiple listens are essential, but even so these tracks are at best near misses, at worst throwaway.
As we have come to expect from Opeth records, the musicianship is top notch and the production is stellar. The drums sound a bit over-compressed, but that is a minor nitpick. Sorceress is an incremental step up from Pale Communion, and solidifies Opeth’s place as a good-but-not-great progressive rock band.
The chops are there, but the songwriting is still a little uneven, with the subdued songs not holding our attention enough. Thankfully, the higher-paced, more intricate songs make up for these missteps. This is a worthy prog rock album, but not in the running for the best of 2016. A grudging 4 out of 5.
(released September 30, 2016 on Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast Records)