Review: Opeth’s “Watershed” (Roadrunner)

When the indie Music For the Nations record label folded and Sweden’s Opeth jumped to much larger Roadrunner Records, many fans complained the band had “sold out” to pursue mainstream fame.

But the fears that the label switch would cause band visionary Mikael Akerfeldt and the rest of the Opeth gang to undergo a Metallica “Black Album” transformation or suddenly morph into Nickelback were completely unfounded. Instead of writing 12 five-minute, ready-for-radio songs, Opeth responded with “Ghost Reveries,” an album brimming with serpentine epics (“Ghost of Perdition,” “Harlequin Forest”) haunting menace and some of Akerfeldt’s darkest lyrics and rawest death metal growls. At its best moments, “Ghost Reveries” blended brutality and beauty, often almost within the same breath.

But “Ghost Reveries” was an imperfect album. “Atonement” was pleasant but not terribly memorable, and “Beneath the Mire” suffered from keyboard overload, as if Akerfeldt — unsure how to incorporate new keyboardist Per Wiberg into the sound — wrote the main riff and then tried to wedge keys into the song by hook or crook. While still better than many of the other releases of 2006, “Ghost Reveries” was the first Opeth album that did not surpass its predecessors.

In retrospect, that lack of progression makes sense. The band had gone as far as it could with its lineup and changes were imminent. Guitarist and band co-founder Peter Lindgren left the band after tiring of the long stints on the road, and longtime drummer Martin Lopez called it quits for health reasons that prevented him from touring. Decibel Magazine later quoted Akerfeldt as saying Lindgren’s departure was expected, and that Lindgren had not contributed song ideas in years.

Folding the band was not an option, so Akerfeldt recruited Witchery/Bloodbath drummer Martin Axenrot and former Arch Enemy guitarist Fredrik Akesson to record “Watershed,” an album that lives up to its name by simultaneously pushing the boundaries of aggression and beauty far beyond anything the band has achieved previously.

From left: Fredrik Akesson, Martin Axenrot, Mikael Akerfeldt, Per Wiberg and Martin Mendez

From the opening moments of “Coil,” it’s obvious “Watershed” is entirely new territory. A brief burst of classically laced acoustic beauty, Akerfeldt and guest vocalist Nathalie Lorichs trade melancholy lyrics before the song trails off into a few moments of whistling wind … immediately followed by the ton-of-bricks opening of “Heir Apparent,” a song as dark as anything the band released on “My Arms, Your Hearseor “Blackwater Park.” I don’t throw those comparisons around lightly (“Demon of the Fall” and “The Leper Affinity” from MAYH and BWP still singe my ears off every time), but Akerfeldt sounds absolutely possessed on “Heir Apparent.” The song is a monster, and anyone still lamenting Lindgren’s departure should be silenced by Akesson’s feverish solos. As good as the band was with Lindgren, Akesson pushes the musicianship to even greater heights.

The album takes a less demonic turn with the frantic “The Lotus Eater,” with Akerfeldt switching between clean vocals and death growls at the blink of an eye. “Burden” is a great sweeping ballad with stunning vocals, beautiful solos and lovely bass runs from Martin Mendez. While I was critical of the use of keyboards on “Ghost Reveries,” Wiberg shut me up on “Burden” with a mind-blowing organ solo … before the song intentionally collapses like a dying music box.

“Porcelain Heart” kicks off with another gargantuanly evil riff, followed shortly by a maniac burst of drumming, with Axenrot increasing in speed as the band plays the main riff. The dark clouds suddenly part at the midpoint, for an acoustic interlude that contains … wait, is that an oboe? “Porcelain Heart” is eight minutes of gloomy brilliance.

“Hessian Peel” starts with another acoustic riff and clean vocals. The song seems like another “Burden” style ballad … until the violence kicks in near the six-minute mark and Akerfeldt flies spews forth another burst of devastating death metal roars. The juxtaposition of beauty and aggression has been a hallmark of Opeth’s oeuvre since “Orchid,the band’s first album. Some people might find that combination predictable, but I never cease to be stunned.

“Hex Omega,” while not as intricate as “Heir Apparent” or “Hessian Peel,” is an emotional epic, with Akerfeldt’s clean vocals matching anything he did on “Damnation” or even the glorious “Face of Melinda” from “Still Life.” I complained that the keyboards on “Ghost Reveries” were out of place, but the keys drive “Hex Omega and show Akerfeldt knew what he was doing when he invited Wiberg to join the band.

It’s possible some fans — those who were there from the beginning — are never going to forgive Opeth for signing on to such a large label as Roadrunner. All I can tell those guys is they’re only hurting themselves, because instead of “selling out,” Opeth is creating the best music of its career. “Watershed” is a masterpiece and is the best album released this year, at least so far. I can’t imagine any other band topping this kind of achievement.

www.myspace.com/opeth

Here’s an (abridged) video for “Porcelain Heart,” from Roadrunner’s myspace page. The video itself is a little dumb, but the song’s great. So there.

Also, read an interview with Mikael Akerfeldt, here. The interview was conducted last fall, at the beginning of the “Watershed” tour.

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