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What would we do if not for Opeth? Their presence in a metal world starved for integrity and intelligence and beauty is akin to that of a beacon shining through the dark clouds, a gem amidst the rough, and a songbird sitting with the crows. These artistic visionaries have finally come back to the forefront with their newest album, aptly titled Watershed. What does it mean? I don't know. I am just a barbaric metal fan who probably can't comprehend such highly sophisticated artistic expressions. It is very much aptly titled though. The title - combined with the cover that doesn't quite go with it - signifies every pseudo-intellectual's wet dream. "Ooh, Watershed," they muse. "Since I don't know what it means, there must be some great, philosophical truth behind it. IT MUST BE GENIUS! Now I feel better about myself again."
Some people will tell you never to judge a book by its cover, but in a lot of cases you can anyway, and this is one of those cases. I never indulged myself in Opeth's vast repertoire of sophistication myself, finding the little bits I had heard too boring and pretentious to warrant more than one listen, but I couldn't escape this one, not with all the hype surrounding it. The basic formula for the music is like nothing I've ever heard before, although if you're one of those people who will mistake that for a statement of praise, then you'd be wrong. I'm having fits even trying to describe this, as the band never stays in one mode long enough. They have some heavy riffs, some melodeath-y growling, some emotive clean vocals, a lot of acoustic passages, and lots and lots of drum fills. You could definitely get away with calling this progressive, as from what I understand, the band has progressed from their older efforts on this one, but this is the kind of Prog I really dislike.
The main problem here is the songwriting, which is just bad, bad, bad on all accounts. Opeth, like such aberrations as UneXpect, seem to be under the impression that having a million different parts and instrumental bits strung together with all the subtlety of a drunken sailor equals a good song. However intriguing their intentions, and however good their musicianship, though, that isn't the case, and it never will be. In fact, I don't think there is one real song on here at all, aside from the acoustic opener, just six long, drawn out jam sessions with lyrics sung over them. Asking me to differentiate between these would be like asking a blind man to find Waldo: it is out of my hands. I mean, if you were to listen to this whole album completely devoid of bias or knowledge of the band that made it, you'd hear the opening track "Coil," which is a three minute acoustic number with soft, clean vocals and no aggression at all. Then it segues into "Heir Apparent," which despite being the name of an 80s Speed Metal band, has a load of doomy, aggressive riffs that resonate in your ears as if you're right up next to them while they're playing it. If that isn't enough of a jarring change, the fact that this same song deteriorates into a mess of jazzy time changes and progressively-tinged guitar licks will definitely scare off the uninitiated listener. "The Lotus Eater" starts off slow, and then jumps into a frenzy of blastbeating madness, except for a change, there are clean vocals layered over this section, rather than the harsh growling one would expect. An interesting idea, but it takes more than things like this to make a good album. There are a lot of select good ideas here, but none of them are stretched out into good songs, and so Watershed is mostly just tedious to listen to.
Afterwards, the rest of the album falls into a pattern of inane musical shifts like this, so much that the randomness and unexpectedness of it all becomes very expected and tiresome, thus ruining the intended effect. I must also single out "The Porcelain Heart" as the most annoying song here, simply for the fact that it made me turn off this album the first time I tried to listen to it.
The other problem here is that this band tries so hard to be emotional and heartfelt that they go completely overboard and their ship sinks. Mikael Akerfeldt is a very technically proficient vocalist, with a nice growl and clean vocals that are as crystal-clear and shiny as they come, except he shouldn't be trying to sing such ambitious material. Just listen to the opener "Coil" for a perfect summation of what I'm talking about: he does sing very cleanly and melodically, but he's trying so damn hard to sound emotional and sad that I'm almost embarrassed for him. This whole thing is so overdone and weepy that it crosses the fatal brink of bathos and goes completely off the edge. Pretty much every spot on this album where the clean vocals pop up suffers from this problem, and the rest of the album is as sterile and dry as a newly cleaned hospital ward. Anyone who seriously thinks Watershed is some sort of emotional pinnacle of modern rock music needs to go listen to the latest works by Kamelot or Novembers Doom, two bands with an infinitely better grasp of this sort of thing.
And last, but not least, this album is simply boring and lame and I don't want to listen to it again.
I don't see any reason to like this album. It isn't catchy, it isn't cohesive, it isn't even that beautiful. It's just...there. Taking up space in the world. The resources used to make this album could've surely been used for something more helpful, like...something for helping homeless children. Something like that. In fact, Opeth could very well be doing much better and more helpful things than making music like this themselves. I can't really recommend this to anyone unless you happen to be one of those people who feels more artistic and sophisticated due to listening to stuff you don't understand. Trust me, there's nothing to understand here.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com