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Opeth was more or less my gateway into extreme music, so this isn't a first timer here - I'm a long time fan. Granted, I've faded away from their music, but I still consider Damnation and Ghost Reveries to be fantastic albums, with BWP having its moments. And this album sounds like a mix of Ghost Reveries and Damnation! So why am I so iffy on it?
Let's start with the good. Mikael Akerfeldt sounds fantastic as usual - his voice has developed very well since Opeth's beginnings, his clean vocals in particular. Axe, the new drummer does an equally fantastic job. He's lacking the jazzy, almost lazy touch that made Martin Lopez so fantastic, but otherwise he lays down a near flawless performance. I'd only point to some pretty lame fills at the end of Hex Omega and his reliance on the RLBBRLBB styled fills for heavier parts. The performances all around are great - the band sounds tight on all fronts. One last note on performances, some of the solos are fantastic and really fit, but Opeth has always had some great solos.
One thing I did appreciate on album was the slight orchestral experimentation, used very well, for example, in the opener, Coil, and the middle of Porcelain Heart ('I see blood spilled...'). Overall, the keyboards are used very well on the album and really add to the vibes.
Now the bad. The songwriting borderline sucks. Opeth is a band of great ideas with no structure, flow or logic to them. There are few good transitions in the album, giving the album a chaotic, incoherent feel that just doesn't sound good. Examples are numerous: 2:05 - 2:24 of The Lotus Eater, are you kidding? That was retarded with the chord clusters. 2:52 - 2:56 is pretty bad too, but luckily the riffs are similar enough to not sound totally stupid. And around 5:40 - 5:50 in Lotus Eater? Now that's fucking stupid. We go from ominous acoustic passages with a dark bluesy solo to stupid sounding chicken funk? Transitioned by a drum groove that comes out of nowhere? Was that necessary? Then to the next part, we go from chicken funk to a typical dark Opeth riff like magic!
Porcelain Heart is pretty bad with transitions and structure too. It abuses sudden silences, fade ins and outs and floaty solos to transition from random unconnected idea to random unconnected idea. The ideas are loosely connected by tempo, but that's it. And Hessian Peel? We have a pretty good transition in the beginning, but that all fades out around the five minute mark with an acoustic lick and some piano. Then we get an organ note being hammered on with a simple rhythm in the background, and suddenly we're in death metal. That's right, Opeth goes from shuffle blues to death metal with the use of an organ lick. Brilliant my ass. Hey wait, 7:27 in Hessian Peel - not bad! Could do without the silence, but it was a good transition! Logical and good-sounding.
As for the songs, as mentioned, Porcelain Heart and Lotus Eater both have terrible songwriting. Porcelain Heart goes up somewhat for having that amazing orchestral part in the middle, the 'I see blood spilled' that sounds like a moody passage from The Secret Garden. Absolutely lovely melody. Coil is a nice opener, one of the stronger offerings of the album. Heir Apparent flows pretty nicely and has some genuinely heavy riffs. One problem - the song should have ended at 7:20. Instead, Opeth tacks some lame repetitive riff for another 1:20 until it finally ends. This song would quite good if it weren't for that...I just skip it.
Burden pisses me off because it's Opeth trying to Nightingale and barely pulling it off. Swano is a better singer than you Akerfeldt, but nice try. Also, they have a Porcupine Tree-esque piano intro (think 'Sentimental') and a ridiculous Boston/Kansas styled keyboard solo. Good solo, just so ripped off it's not even funny. And from 5:10 to 6:15 is again one crappy riff repeated again and again, then we get a decent acoustic solo, then the guitar being detuned. Cute, but annoying after subsequent listens. This song should have ended at 5:30. Hessian Peel, lots of good ideas and lots of really bad ones. The beginning parts are good, but the heavy parts suck (typical for Opeth). And that damn organ. Finally, Hex Omega is a chill song. Besides the riff at the beginning which has nothing to do with the rest of the song (why?! stupid!), this song meanders along comfortably and gains some good momentum near the end. Probably the tightest, best-written song on here if you take out the beginning riff.
So there you go. Lots of good ideas, great performances with some really average songwriting and transitions. Mostly the conflict and problems come with the differences between black and white. Opeth used to do it better, like on BWP, but as the soft stuff got proggier, the heavier stuff keeps sounding stupider. Opeth, please please please become a prog rock band. Your heavy stuff mostly sucks, but your lighter prog stuff is really really good. And mixing the two has gotten ugly with age.
-30 for some retarded song writing, -10 for typically bad heavy riffs, -5 for some boring, repetitive riffs.