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Opeth sparked a fair amount of controversy last year with the release of their tenth album, Heritage. Ignoring the why's and how justified the controversy is, one of the things that sets Heritage apart from most of Opeth's other albums is the fact that nearly all metal elements were abandoned.
Well, considering Watershed was the album released prior to Heritage, that should've come to a surprise to no one. Indeed, Watershed is the first Opeth album I don't feel comfortable categorizing as death metal at all (besides Damnation, of course), and even the metal elements here are scattered abroad. Since Damnation came out, Mikael realized how much he really loves his prog rock odes, and the '70s prog worship became increasingly dominant. Ghost Reveries had far more soft, acoustic sections than any metal album Opeth released prior, and Watershed is a natural progress in that direction. So was Heritage from Watershed, to be honest.
Nonetheless, does that mean Watershed is bad? Not inherently, no. Mikael's songwriting is still top notch for much of the album. "Burden" is, perhaps, the best song Opeth has done and shows a side to Opeth that's rarely been explored: progressive catchiness. This might be another progressive rock ode, but "Burden" nails with the kind of hooks heard only on Damnation, and it succeeds tremendously. The atmosphere to the song is what makes it so successful; the music is deep and passionate, and caries a mysteriously somber quality to it in a fashion unique to Opeth.
"Coil" is further proof that Opeth can succeed with catchy music, and Mikael writes great hooks. What sets these songs apart from Opeth's other soft songs (songs like "Benighted" or "Hours of Wealth") is that these songs are soft, but they're not slow. They feature a more upbeat tempo with a faster rhythm, and they do not have a reliance on the mellotron or keyboards.
These two songs are a realization of one of Opeth's greatest traits, in my opinion: Mikael's vocals. Every time Mikael starts singing, it's like my body is taken over and I am possessed by some insatiable need to sing along with his perfectly crafted vocal melodies - these songs conjure that feeling as well as (if not better than) they've ever done. I must say, Mikael really knew how to craft perfect hooks. His singing clearly dominates both songs, rather than letting the moody music drive them. Simply put: it's a demonstration that he has one of the best clean voices in the business.
These two highlights are further enhanced in other ways, as well: aside from its awesome acoustic and bass rhythm, "Coil" also features prominent use of female vocals for, perhaps, the first time in Opeth's history, and it fits the mood of the song very well. "Burden," on the other hand, releases an electric lead between verses - between that and a well executed keyboard solo, the song is subject to repeated climax. A long, tremendous solo follows the last verse, sealing the passionate performance of the rest of the song.
One of my only real complaints with Opeth is their tendency to believe all clean vocal sections need comparatively soft instrumental performances, when such is not the case. Watershed shows in many sections that Opeth can play true progressive metal without the death elements, and this comes alive in "The Lotus Eater" and "Porcelain Heart." These two feature heavy, progressive rhythms and are not far away from past Opeth songs; however, the prior has constant singing with few slow segments, and the latter has no growling whatsoever.
The album's last two tracks are not overly heavy either. "Hessian Peel" and "Hex Omega" are both clear with their progressive rock moodiness. Though "Hex Omega" transitions to heavy passages periodically, and "Hessian Peel" bursts through in a fit of death metal fury about half way through, it is their mellow atmosphere which dominates them the most. With this realization, one will notice "Heir Apparent" is the only song on the album with dominant use of growling. In this, I can make my claim that Mikael clearly lost interest in playing death metal before recording this album. Now, notice this: "Coil" and "Burden" are both soft rock songs that would've fit on Damnation. "Hessian Peel" and "Hex Omega" are right up in the same progressive rock territory, even if they do feature prominent heavy sections. In this, it's clear to me Mikael was already getting bored with playing metal at all.
That said, unlike Heritage, which is mostly ruined by bad songwriting, Watershed's songwriting is actually good. Though the soft sections are galore, they're generally enjoyable. I've already made clear how much I adore "Coil" and "Burden," but the jazzy acoustic lead that opens up "Hessian Peel," the acoustic lead during the third verse of "Coil," and the keyboard melody that transitions off the guitar solo at 3:15 in "Hex Omega" are major specific highlights for me.
The album's major, glaring flaw is its inconsistency. Again, I really adore "Coil" and "Burden." Though I do enjoy all the other songs, none of them are up to the same quality. "Heir Apparent" is an unnecessary inclusion for the sake of adding brutality to an album that doesn't need it. Its riffs are subpar compared to other Opeth metal songs, though the last minute and a half is one of the best moments on the album. It's shameful the one vicious song on the album is equally weak, because Mikael's growl is on the same level of excellence as his clean voice.
"Hex Omega," on the other hand, is too long for what it does. The metal segments are fun enough (though rather overdone), but the acoustic segments are drawn out and become boring because of it. It took a long time before I began to like it or "Heir Apparent." Finally, "The Lotus Eater," "Porcelain Heart," and "Hessian Peel" all have at least a small dip in quality compared to the ridiculously high standards set by songs on past Opeth albums, as well.
Another complaint is that none of the songs traverse multiple moods and rhythms in one long song the same way Opeth is known for doing constantly in almost every other album of theirs. "The Lotus Eater" is the only track which really does this, and it doesn't quite reach the quality of songs like Blackwater Park's "The Leper Affinity" or Ghost Reveries's "Ghost of Perdition."
This is basically Opeth's transitional album. Like so many Opeth songs have transitions from savage death metal passages to calming acoustics, piano, or mellotron ambiance, so is Watershed a transition from the Opeth's death metal past to their progressive rock present. I believe this was also the beginning of many flaws that reared their ugly heads in Heritage; like a birth to a vicious Cerberus of soundscapes, Watershed began awkward transitions and boring interludes that would plague its follow-up. That said, Watershed is mostly a success in all these levels, and it is - despite its inconsistency - embraced and well welcomed into Opeth's history. If only every song succeeded in its elements the way "Burden" does.... it might've been Opeth's best.