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When Opeth in 2008 announced the upcoming release of their new album, Watershed, the emotions that it evoked were mixed, especially with two of my favourite members of the band, Martin Lopez leaving the band in 2005 and a year before the release of the album, Peter Lindgren left the band as well, being replaced by Bloodbath's Martin Axenrot and ex-Arch Enemy live guitarist Fredrik Åkesson respectively. Furthermore, 2005's Ghost Reveries marked the transition of the band's songwriting from a heavier edge to more progressive territories, leaving one to wonder what Watershed was going to sound like.
Album opener Coil brings listeners back to the band's Damnation album, with the acoustic guitars and Mikael Åkerfeldt's trademark clean vocals. The guest female vocals present on the song also helps in making this track an extremely soothing and beautiful one, and just from this intro track, one can almost be sure that there will be a markedly increased presence of such moments on the album. Imagine the surprise then, as Heir Apparent assaults the listener with a heavy, crushing riff, and one is brought back to the darker moments that were present on the band's previous effort, Ghost Reveries, and as sudden as these heavy riffs come in, they fade out and instead, the keys of Per Wiberg takes over, giving the music a chilling and haunting atmosphere before going back into their heavier mode. Mikhael's growls are stellar here, with a somewhat spacey sound to them, compared to the more aggressive and sharp style that he utilises on Bloodbath. Fans of Deliverance and Blackwater Park era Opeth, be prepared to be slightly disappointed as Heir Apparent could possibly be the heaviest song that is present on this ninth release of the band.
The reduction of heaviness on the album though, is fortunately made up for by the brilliant songwriting on Watershed, and this is evident throughout the album, with tracks that run for as long as 11 and a half minutes (Hessian Peel), yet containing not a single boring moment. The progression of the tracks are also typically Opeth, with the constant switching between heavy and soothing moments, though compared to prior releases, the death metal moments are notably fewer throughout the album. The Lotus Eater also progresses like a more updated and progressive version of The Baying of the Hounds, with the melodic and catchy yet heavy riffs on the guitar, and the usage of clean vocals on top of the heavy riffs. Burden would have easily fit on the Damnation album as well, with the song being filled with mostly instruments played in cleans, yet this manages to stand as one of my favourite tracks on the album with the calming yet somewhat desolate mood that it rouses in the listener.
Throughout the album, Fredrik also proves his abilities as a guitarist, and his ability to fit in the band, with the numerous face-ripping solos that he unleashes effortlessly, yet staying within the style that Opeth has crafted over the years through the capable playing of the acoustic guitars as well. Mikael's characteristic soaring guitar solos are also present alongside those of Fredrik, like on Burden. One of the main highlights on the album as well is the duel between Fredrik and Mikael on Burden, giving listeners a glimpse to the prowess of each of the musicians. The detuning of the guitar at the end of the track also provides a quirky moment, ending with a sinister laugh by Mikael. The Lotus Eater also shows Per Wiberg's ability on his instruments with the extremely complex solo slightly after the halfway mark. On top of that, Axenrot also shows that he is not only the blast-beats machine (like in Bloodbath), but is also capable of providing some jazzy moments like his predecessor, Martin Lopez, helping to address any displeasures from long time die-hard fans of the band. Martin Mendex also uses his bass like a third lead instrument, providing a constant soothing background melody underneath all the other instruments.
Watershed also stands as one of the shortest albums of the band's career, with all tracks having a combined runtime of under 1 hour, and this, combined with the large change of musical style could make this album the band's first divisive albums before their final transition into a full-on prog band with 2011's Heritage. While fans of what was on Deliverance and Blackwater Part could probably hate this, Watershed has over time become one of my favourite albums of Opeth, with the perfect balance between and fusion of heaviness and melody.