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I admit that I am guilty. I am guilty of jumping to conclusions about Opeth’s music, not giving them a chance and penciling in my distaste for their brand quicker than Bruno Tattaglia offed Luca Brasi. However, do forgive me, for after I bought Watershed, I realized how wrong I was, and have started to right the ship. Don’t mistake my words for being those of unbounded praise – Deliverance still sounds worthless after many listens – but every Opeth album is an entirely different animal, a trend that allows for excellence alongside mediocrity.
This is why Watershed succeeds; because it changes up the Opeth formula enough to attract an entirely new fanbase while still retaining many of their trademarks. The songs are still long and there are still random soft sections in the middle of most of them (“They’re pointless!” some say), but strangely there’s almost no growling to be found and there’s a strong progressive rock leaning that harkens back to Damnation. The difference between this record and that one, however, is that this one is very much a heavy metal album, whereas that one was more of an alternative rock experiment.
I can’t help but think that while he was writing the album, Mikael Åkerfeldt made sure to keep in mind the problems some fans had with Ghost Reveries. Looking past the idiotic complaints of that record being weak because it ‘had keyboards man!’, I think a greater problem was that it had an identity crisis. Suddenly, Opeth didn’t sound as heavy as they did on Still Life but they’d lost the hooks they executed so well on Damnation. They needed to find a way to achieve these paradigms without sacrificing the other.
Certainly, they’ve done it here. When Åkerfeldt wants the songs to be heavier, he goes all out, as in “Heir Apparent”. When he wants the songs to have heavier parts, he also does so, as in the beginning of “The Lotus Eater”, which he accurately described as being all over the place, having few hooks, but being immensely interesting regardless. And then you’ve got your clear-cut soft songs in “Coil” and “Burden”, which are hands down the two best songs on the album. The latter, in particular, is long but structured beautifully, and showcases a side of Åkerfeldt’s voice we’ve yet seen.
The record is also notable for being the debut of guitarist Fredrik Åkesson and drummer Martin Axenrot. Åkesson does an admirable job, but Axenrot is spectacular. He’s an entirely different beast than Martin Lopez, who was more reliant on understated death metal drumming (paradox?), bringing a more conventional style to the table that works remarkably well. There were also guest instrumentalists who were brought on board to add violin, cello, flute, and oboe parts, amongst others. These little touches take the songs to another level as far as I’m concerned, especially during the middle of “Porcelain Heart”, which is otherwise one of the weaker songs on the disc.
On a personal note, the album will always hold a special place in my heart for being the record that converted me into an Opeth fan. Why do I mention this, you ask? Because I think it’s worth it to stress the fact that there is value in their craft, because for some reason, they’ve got a target on their backs the size of a skyscraper, never to be removed. But, as Watershed taught me, there is infinite benefit to be gained from studious evaluation of their music, and there is no doubt better days lie ahead. The record sounds as if it is a niche the band has discovered and decided to settle in. And, despite its splendor, I think it might come to be known as more of a blueprint for where they go onwards than anything else. Listening to it, one feels as if it is simply a starting point, the band trying to find a suitable place to propel from, and finding it slowly, but surely.