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For quite a while now, there haven't been many bands as surrounded by controversy and heated arguments as Opeth. Headlines read: Brilliant innovators or monotonous bores? Which album was their finest hour? Where did they jump the shark? Which lineup kicked your ass the hardest? The debate rages on, and that isn't about to change for Watershed.
There was already a buzz when the album was underway, mostly thanks to the departure of two longtime members who had formed a pretty integral part of the band during its most distinctive period (Still Life to Ghost Reveries, that is). Peter Lindgren parted ways, apparently after a long period of dissatisfaction with his creative contribution to the band and Martin Lopez opted out due to health reasons. When you take a band this big and replace nearly half the lineup, you're obviously creating more than a few ripples. They had already rocked the boat with Ghost Reveries, churning out a more concise, catchy style than before, so the clueless crowd had no idea what to expect this time around.
That feeling of uncertainty is maintained with the album opener Coil, an uncharacteristically serene start to an Opeth album, featuring plenty of lush arpeggiated acoustic guitar patterns and a folksy vocal duet between Mikael Akerfeldt and Nathalie Lorichs. You could be forgiven for wondering whether they were making a follow up to Damnation but then you notice the bubbling malevolence in the background as the song trails off and suddenly, Heir Apparent bludgeons its way into your head like a ton of bricks. Monstrous doomy riffs walk the earth and then explode into action, slashing and pummelling with some of that familiar 'love it or hate it' stop-start attack and a couple of characteristic short acoustic breaks. Mike's distinctive roar penetrates the mix effortlessly, and your fears are allayed – they haven't lost it at all.
In fact, Martin Axenrot's full-throttle mauling of the skins is a noticeable contrast from Lopez's almost jazzy style, but they suit the newfound aggression that the band has embraced. And make no mistake, the guy is a versatile beast. As for the other new guy, Fredrik Akesson – he's no slouch either, brandishing a cool solo style where he slickly switches between muted picking and fluid legato runs. Makes a great complement for Mike's smooth jazz leads.
The Lotus Eaters kicks up the versatility a notch, blast beating over clean harmonised vocals (sounds like something only bands like Carnival in CoalOpeth swagger, hopping back and forth between dissonance and melody, and throwing a curve ball with some crazy organ groove-jamming that kicks you back over 3 decades or so. In case you were wondering whether the oldschool prog rock angle was a one-off thing, the melancholy Burden comes on and puts all doubts to rest, playing like one of the tail-enders from the King Crimson debut. In fact, when he starts crooning the “Aaahhh..” refrain near the 4 minute break, you could practically fool yourself into thinking you were listening to In the Court of the Crimson King. As the soulful guitar leads trade off with some cool keyboard noodling and mellotron backing, it's hard not to think that all is well, even as things spiral down to detuned cacophony at the end. could pull off, but it works), flaunting some of that typical
We're then handed some juxtaposition treatment with Porcelain Heart, alternating between heavy doom and eerie acoustic parts. There's even the X-files theme thrown into the mix around the middle. It's Spooky Mulder! Or just plain spooky, maybe. That sets up the scene for Hessian Peel, which clocks in at 11 and a half minutes, effectively claiming the title as leviathan of the album. This song is a perfect condensation of the album's essence, starting off with gentle acoustic tinkering which eventually tapers off into a series of prog passages that start picking up in intensity and then mushroom cloud into full fledged extreme metal around the halfway mark before kicking in some more proggy groove to mix it up. They manage to capture and meld the gloomy essence of doom with the whimsical nature of prog pretty admirably in a nutshell. That leaves Hex Omega on curtain call duty, and it takes its sweet time closing. Not that it's much of a complaint – after experiencing the ever-mutating Hessian Peel, it's almost comforting to hear this one uncoil at its own pace.
No two ways about it, this is a significantly different Opeth, and not in a bad way. For starters, out of the 7 songs here, Mike uses growled vocals only on 3, and out of these, Heir Apparent is the only one where they dominate the playtime. He seems to have recognised that not all heavy parts need harsh vocals to complement them and is obviously experimenting with different arrangements. Regardless of what critics say, Opeth don't appear to have been victims of trendhopping – the shock acoustic treatment with Damnation and now the embracing of 70s prog stand as evidence to this. Being the creative force behind the band, Mike obviously has some ideas about where he wants to take the band from here and so it's quite possible that the album title isn't an empty promise, after all. There will still be naysayers, but this effort hits all the right points for those who've got love for doom and prog alike.