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Wow, this album really got me by surprise! After the masterpiece “Ghost Reveries” (and releasing lots of albums with long, long songs), I thought that Opeth was losing inspiration and creativity. After all, it's hard to top a piece like “Ghost Reveries”, but “Watershed” turned out to be an amazing record, a record that still sounds like typical Opeth but that also introduces new things to the band's sound (remember, innovation is good!).
First of all, there are two things that made me feel very anxious about “Watershed”. The departure of the excellent Martin Lopez and of the essential Peter Lindgren, the latter the only musician, together with Mikael Akerfeldt, that already played with the band when the first album, “Orchid”, was released, twelve years ago. The biggest consequence of these departures is the excessive control of the band by Mikael Akerfeldt. In the past, Mikael Akerfeldt wrote all the lyrics, but the music was composed by the [i]band[/i]; Martin Lopez was responsible of creating the drum beats, Mendez the bass lines and Lindgren some solos and riffs.
Now, Opeth isn't a [i]band[/i] anymore, it's more like a solo project of Akerfeldt. The music is no more composed by the whole group, now it's just him who is allowed to compose. The new members of the band don't have any writing credits on the record (okay, the new guitar player co-wrote “Porcelain Heart”, but that's just ONE track) and the lyrics are, obviously, all penned by Mikael. I was expecting this thing to turn the record into an authentic disaster. Fortunately, I was wrong.
But wait – first, let's talk a bit about the two new members: Fredrik Akesson and Martin Axenrot. About the latter, I was extremely upset about him; after all, Lopez is a terrific drummer that was absolutely essential to the band's sound on the other records. After listening to “The Roundhouse Tapes”, I concluded that Axenrot was a good drummer, which was obvious, but he lacked something, maybe that killer tone that Lopez has. On “Watershed”, he proves that he is not a Lopez-clone, that's for sure, but he's great nevertheless, his performance is very technical at times and there are beats and patterns that are amazingly great. “Hessian Peel” is where he shows his skills the most, with soft beats on the intro and some very effective double-bass parts here and there. “Burden” shows him adopting a more simple, straight-forward, but still good approach and he even tries some blast-beats on “Lotus Eater” and poli-rhythmic fills on “Porcelain Heart”. I heard many people criticizing the blast beats and poli-rhythms, saying that they didn't fit with the band's sound, though. I strongly disagree with that, the band surely never tried something like that, but some originality is a good thing, don't you think so?
About Akesson, the guitar playing is very similar to the other Opeth records, maybe more solo-focused this time, but that's a good thing. Akerfeldt and Akesson solo more this time, some bluesy solos on the calmer parts and aggressive ones on the heavier parts, that's what you can expect. Another important thing about “Watershed” is the fantastic use of keyboards; on “Ghost Reveries” they were one of the most important instruments, because they were very audible, too audible at times, but it turned out to be great, because the keyboards gave to that album a warmer atmosphere that isn't very common on the other Opeth records. This time, the keyboards are more laid back, complementing the other performances very well, especially on the softer parts, where they play an important role (the softer part of “Porcelain Heart” or “Hessian Pell” are both dominated by the excellent keyboard lines that perfectly complement the acoustic guitars). The bass guitar is audible this time, especially during “Hessian Peel”, which is great, since some good bass licks always add something new to the songs.
Another important thing is that, like I have already mentioned in my “Ghost Reveries” review, Opeth is now slowly becoming a true, 100%, progressive metal band, instead of a “progressive death metal” or “extreme progressive metal” band. The death metal elements are still here, but the double-bass attacks, that made albums like “Still Life” or “Orchid” what they are, are less used, and so are the growls. Here, Akerfeldt uses his clean voice more often and seems to avoid growls, a thing that can be clearly recognized during the heavy parts of “The Lotus Eater”, when he uses his clean voice while Axe is playing blast-beats.
Anyways, the heavy side of Opeth is present here with basically three songs: “Heir Apparent”, “The Lotus Eater” and “Hex Omega”. “Heir Apparent” is one of my favourite songs of the album, being very, very heavy and containing a lot of nice double-bass parts. The riffs are powerful and the growls are ferocious; probably the fastest song of the record. “The Lotus Eater” is another favourite and it's hard for me to pick the best aggressive song of the album, since those two tunes are both amazing. The highlight of this song is the beautiful breakdown, which contains a funky/jazzy part that is just AWESOME. You have got to listen to that breakdown, folks, top notch stuff. About the closer, “Hex Omega”, it sounds like a pretty standard Opeth song to me and it's the only one that I don't like. It isn't horrible, though.
The soft side is present with “Coil”, “Burden” and “Porcelain Heart. “Coil” works as the intro of the record, featuring a duet between Akerfeldt and a female singer, which sounds better than what I expected. Not a masterpiece, but a beautiful song to begin the album. “Burden” sounds like some progressive rock ballad out of the 70's; the keyboards absolutely dominate this song, with some nice solos and catchy riffs. The vocal performance of Mikael is also ASTOUNDING, it's incredible how he improved his singing over the years. “Porcelain Heart” is a song that I consider somewhat calm, despite it contains some bone crushing riffage. Again, the vocals are the best part of it. Anyways, if you are looking for a detailed description of this track, you can read my review of it, as a single.
And now, the best track... HESSIAN PEEL! The title is somewhat stupid (I don't know what it means, in fact), but the song is just amazing. It is the longest tune and has a very epic feeling throughout it, comprising lots of different sections, ranging from aggressive to beautiful, from raw to soft. The keyboards play again an important role, especially on the acoustic parts. Because of the existence of all those sections within this tune, i don't consider it calm nor heavy, it's like an hybrid of both.
The production is simply great, almost everything is audible, even the bass guitar, my only complaint is about the bass drums of Axenrot, since they are barely audible. Otherwise, excellent work.
So, all in all, Opeth does it again. This piece is just amazing and despite containing some moments that are reminiscent of Opeth's past works (the main riff of “Porcelain Heart” reminds me of “A Fair Judgement” and there is a section of it that reminds me of “A Grand Conjuration”), but the album still contains fresh aspects and elements, like the duet on “Coil” and the funky parts on “The Lotus Eater”. Akerfeldt is a terrific vocalist and here he proves it again, the guitar playing is great, pretty much in the vein of “Ghost Reveries”, the drum work is nothing short of amazing and the bass is always present and audible. The record is also very varied, with all the breakdwons, calm and heavy parts within the songs and the whole listening experience is also better because of that. This album is more accessible than the other Opeth works too, since the songs aren't so long and calm songs like “Coil” and “Burden” can be appreciated for people who aren't into metal or extreme metal at all, that's for sure.
Anyways, I don't give away ratings above 90% easily, so this record is absolutely essential and recommended to anyone into progressive metal. If you love the death metal side of Opeth, I'm not sure you'll like this, since the calm parts absolutely dominate “Watershed”; it's a great record, nevertheless. A bit different than the traditional Opeth record, but good... VERY, VERY GOOD.
Best MOMENT of the CD:
-the jazzy/funky part on “The Lotus Eater”. But there are also lots of other nice moments, they are almost countless.
Great work, Opeth, brilliant!