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Bitterly disappointing - 74%

duncang, June 16th, 2008

Perhaps it’s in the water, perhaps it’s Roadrunner’s relentless promotion, but whatever the reason may be, the hive mind of the metal legions has been solely dedicated to the release (or, for the more impatient of us, leak) of this, the newest ‘observation’ from Opeth. They’ve got a new drummer, a new guitarist and as always, they have quite a name to live up to. Of course, it is not just the Opeth name that sets expectations for this album, but the unbelievable hype that’s been generated by people as the disc eventually leaked to the internet. Business as usual, perhaps, for a band this big but this album is an entirely different beast to what you might expect. The immediacy of opening track ‘Coil’ is one that left me quite taken aback, as if I had skipped to the middle of a song rather than just put on a CD. After what is quite a tranquil and pretty opening number, what appears to be normal service resumes, However even though the familiar sound of flattened-5th badassery is present, there is most definitely a wholly different atmosphere to that of ‘Ghost Reveries’ or indeed any other album.

Even though this album is soft to the point of it being a prog rock album with death metal playing second fiddle, the feel of these songs is entirely different. The easy way out would be to attribute this to the two new members, Fredrik Åkesson on guitars and more specifically Martin Axenrot on drums. It must be said that the Latin subtleties of previous drummer Martin Lopez is missing, but what Axenrot lacks in exotic influence, he brings forward in the form of a domineering and über-confident attitude. His ominous presence on the music can be felt as soon as he is heard on the fervent dirge introducing ‘Heir Apparent’, and is felt for a fair while after the more doom-laden passage closing ‘Hex Omega’. Now, my own personal yearning for the reunion of the Lopez-Mendez groove machine aside, Axenrot performs absolutely astonishingly. Actually, it would be unfair to say that any one of Opeth has not hit the level of excellence displayed by Axenrot as far as their own personal performance goes. Åkesson’s moments comes mostly in the form of his guitar solos, which put an interesting technical spin on some of the music and bring in a melodic style not found in Opeth before.

Despite the noticeable and significant impact that both of these new members have had on the sound, it is I feel in the keyboards and piano of Per Wiberg that the most important atmospheric change occurs. Wiberg has truly broken in as an established and vital piece of Opeth’s puzzle. On ‘Ghost Reveries’ he would lurk in the background, adding some stuff here and there to enhance the mood, whereas on ‘Watershed’ he very much is the mood. There are a surprising number of occasions where the rest of the band sits back while Per takes centre-stage with a lead melody or a solo, or surprisingly enough when miscellaneous instruments such as oboes and violins will get a moment. Opeth have always been ones to experiment, but the amount of different textures to be found on this album is quite impressive. They have branched out excessively and found themselves in some weird territory, which results in quite a few of the songs reaching a point where there is no apparent direction. As is displayed perfectly on ‘Hessian Peel’ (funnily enough, the only song to break the 10 minute mark), a brief acoustic interlude followed by a piano solo reaches a horrible anti-climax, at which point Opeth decide to bring out the metal which, as quality as it is, appears to be purposeful only as a means to continue the song. This tendency to drift around aimlessly (and I swear, ‘Porcelain Heart’ is the most rigidly structured meandering song I have ever heard) plagues a few songs on this album. When you look at the Opeth of old, the songs were drawn out but always had a definite direction to head in, and while parts of ‘Watershed’ do not have that, it is far from lost in songs like ‘Burden’ and ‘The Lotus Eater’.

Quite a shock, indeed. While the album is undeniably Opeth’s most progressive album, the way in which some of the songs progress (if they do at all) is not as convincingly professional as we have come to expect from Opeth. Every song has its moments; in fact almost all of the music found here is vastly enjoyable. Whether it’s ‘Hessian Peel’s diverse playground for bassist Martin Mendez to shine through, or the highly energetic blastbeat/clean vocal combination of ‘The Lotus Eater’, this album does have all of the makings of a quality progressive metal album, and it is simply the bands position in an experimental phase that prevents it from reaching their usual level of excellence and instead falling into a confused mess.

When talking extensively about Opeth, it is incredibly unusual to get so far without even mentioning the name of Mikael Åkerfeldt, but it is always a safe bet that his vocal performance will always blow you away. ‘Watershed’ is no exception. His death growls, while heavily underutilised, are better than they have ever been, with an astoundingly low tone reached, further extending his impressive range. Taking up a more prominent role here are his clean vocals, which are as great as ever. However, the way they are produced in quieter sections can be quite undefined, and sink further into the middle of the mix than lead vocals really should be. It is no big problem, although a little more power in some of the longer and more repetitive sections would have done wonders.

Now, one department where this album meets and even exceeds expectations is in the lyrics. The booklet that comes in the bizarrely packaged special edition does not contain any lyrics, instead opting for suggestive imagery and some mysterious code. However, fans transcriptions have been accepted fairly quickly as what is being said by Mikael, and the lyrics are absolutely fantastic. They take the familiar Opeth imagery and poetic feel and mould it around one very large and incredibly intriguing concept. While I’m sure definitive meanings for all of the lyrics will be discovered over time, ‘Watershed’ seems to be a concept album concerned with a family plagued by bad luck and the death of a mother figure. Throughout the album there appear to be different perspectives used and events referenced (most notably the ‘conversation’ between Akerfeldt and guest vocalist Natalie Lorichs) which all add up to quite an involving and moving experience.

Well, what can I say? ‘Watershed’ has been receiving universal acclaim, and ratings as a career highlight from many fans, however there is a certain coldness about it and a slightly unfocused feel particularly on the latter half of the album that puts me off. There are leads and vocal parts all over this album that are typical Opeth, however there is just a mystery X factor that is holding back the full emotional rollercoaster that albums like ‘Blackwater Park’ displayed so well. Even on that oh-so-exciting first listen, after 3 years of waiting, after the frankly exhilarating album highlight ‘Heir Apparent’, the album as a whole does not feel quite right. I have faith that this road Opeth are one will lead them to more great heights, however ‘Watershed’ is not one of them.