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Different, dark, stunning. - 94%

Ghost_of_Ktulu, June 24th, 2008

Opeth's Watershed is like a surprise knock-out blow straight to the face. If there's anything that can be said about this Swedish group is that they're a band of evolution, progression, extremity and change, something that's very noticeable throughout the band's chronological discography. However, this latest release, very aptly named Watershed, takes Opeth's music to new extremes. It's a true strength of a musician when, even nine releases down the road, he still manages to make an impact, and make an impact Mikael Akerfeldt surely does – Watershed will stretch your imagination, feelings and fears, and will leave you jittery and confused, reaching for the play button just to listen to it all over again.

In every way possible, Watershed is different. No other Opeth release is similar to this record. Watershed is like a Star Wars movie set in Jerusalem – it's juts an unexpected, completely surprising record. Gone is the "formula" (calling Opeth's music formulaic is a disgrace) of growls, clean vocals, acoustic bit, more growls and the likes – in Watershed, each song is an experience in and of itself, with none of the songs sharing any structural resemblance. When Akerfeldt utilizes his clean voice – he does so for a reason, and the same applies for when he uses his guttural, brutal growl.

Speaking of growls, Watershed is Opeth's heavy record to contain the smallest amount of growls. Most of the album is sung by Akerfeldt using his clean, soothing, relaxing voice, and his clean vocals are the best they've ever been. This is, ladies and gentleman, an amazing singer. Technically proficient and about tenfold as emotive as Vincent Cavanagh, Akerfeldt puts forth here some of his best vocal lines, both in terms of execution and melody. The first half of Hessian Peel (certainly one of Opeth's best songs to date) is completely stunning, as well as the entirety of Burden, Opeth's surprising entry into the power ballad section of hard rock and heavy metal. Heavily inspired by the Scorpions' Still Loving you, this ultra-melodic ballad is a true guilty pleasure of mine. Per Wiberg plays an amazing 70's Hammond solo here and new kid Akesson and Akerfeldt switch rules playing beautiful guitar solos.

There are many first-time elements on Watershed. On the opening track, the short, sweet, naive Coil, drummer Martin Axernot's girlfriend folk singer Nathalie Lorichs performs some female vocals that are surprisingly effective in an Opeth song. Not only does another example, The Lotus Eater, contain Opeth's first-ever blast beats, it layers clean vocals over them, evoking an Anaal Nathrakh vibe that's totally fucked up. This same song contains what Opeth band members call "grind", a keyboard segment that wouldn't feel out of place in a Super Mario game. Sound weird? You bet your sorry ass it is!

However, the most striking difference in terms of sound is the use of strings, oboes, a church organ and flutes. Wiberg's mellotron is only used when needed, and the symphonic parts of Ghost Reveries are now replaced by real instruments. They appear throughout the entire album at key moments, with the most noticeable joining Mike's amazing voice in the aforementioned Hessian Peel.

Time to talk about metal. As much as I adore Akerfeldt's melodic performance throughout the album, there's something to be said about this album – it's unbelievably extreme. When the album isn't very metal, it's really, really not metal. Jazzy, bluesy influences, even some folk and Scott Walker influences have brought Akerfeldt to write some of his most amazing, darkest melodies to date, and these, as mellow as they are, are contrasted greatly by the sheer heaviness of the more metal-oriented parts. Porcelain Heart, for example, doesn't feature any growls, yet its main riff is very dark, doomy and even a bit Sabbath-like. It also bears a certain similarity to Opeth's own The Grand Conjuration in one of the song's riffs. When Akerfeldt does use his growls… Well, these are some of Opeth's most metal moments to date. The Lotus Eater keeps throwing the ball between clean vocals and guttural ones, and the MAYH-ish riffs in the background are excellent. The second half of the discussed Hessian Peel contains some of Opeth's heaviest riff, most notably a nearly-entirely-palm-muted bit that sounds a bit classical in a way.

As if to completely negate the more relaxed nature of the album, right after the "wimpy" Coil is finished the band goes into Heir Apparent, a song sure to be looked at as the band's heaviest to date. Constantly switching between slower, Wreath-like riffs and fast, double-bass powered bursts of energy, there's a dark energy and heaviness to this song that's almost scary at times. It also features Akersson's first solo with the band, and a slide solo by Akerfeldt. None of the moments in this song feels particularly melodic and there's always a disturbing note to it. Furthermore, the song features absolutely no clean vocals, a first since 2001's titular Blackwater Park.

This paragraph mentions Fredrik Akesson. The man in the shoes of the now-gone Peter Lindgren does a splendid job throughout this record. Something that's surprisingly in place for Opeth is Akesson's fast, sometimes shreddy solos. These are all but pure metal solos – Fred here has learned a lot from Akerfeldt about the mood needed for an Opeth song. Disturbing at times, and at times melodic - all of his solos are very well-crafted. Overall, an excellent welcome for the new guitarist.

Martin Axernot, new drummer for the band, also excels in Watershed. Opeth's drumming is still very much fill-based and the beats are solid, interesting and unique. There's a bit more energy this time to the faster metal parts, often resembling their 1997 album, My Arms Your Hearse. However, the drumming in Watershed is all but metal-oriented. In Porcelain Heart, he even incorporates some off-throwing avant-garde style playing that's bound to arouse a controversy. Anyone who had any doubt of Axernot's ability to fit Opeth should be silenced by his performance on Watershed.

Another important thing that often gets overlooked is basswork. Martin Mendez, the longest-lasting band member right there with Mikael, does an amazing job here and records great-sounding, appropriate bass lines that are audible and don't always follow the guitar work. The bass, just like anything else in Watershed, serves a purpose and does so very well.

As good as it may be, Watershed does have its share of problems. While it is very creative and varied, I sometimes find myself itching for more growls. There's about a 80-20 balance between growls and clean vocals, and some songs, particularly Porcelain Heart, just cry out for them. This To Rid the Disease-inspired first single, in particular, can be considered a weak point in this album. Mikael Akerfeldt has stated before that this song has been scrapped twice before being recorded as it is – and it shows. It feels very disjointed, even though each of its individual parts is excellent. A bit more work, a bit more cohesion – and it could have been a real classic. Another shortcoming is that the album feels very short, but that's only because it flows so well. Opeth has managed to make a 65-minute long album feel like half an hour, so an Opeth album that's less than an hour long seems, and feels, like a tease. There's more material to find on the DVD that comes with the special edition, mainly a great cover of a blues song called Bridge of Sighs and a mellotron-oriented version of Porcelain Heart (which, surprisingly, sounds better than the original version and would sound more appropriate replacing the album version), but it's still a shame that the album itself is short. On a final note, some may find album close Hex Omega a bad song, though myself thinks otherwise. It is a very disturbing song with a powerful ending that ends the album on a perfect note.

Mr. A keeps proving he's still got what it takes to completely grab the attention of the listener, as he ruins a perfectly melodic song by playing an increasingly out-of-tune acoustic guitar. He records the band members having dinner and puts it in the end of the third track, and all this works surprisingly well. It keeps you entertained and interested in such seemingly stupid ways, the mind boggles. It's important to note that the lyrics aren't included as they are in the booklet (once again an amazing job by Travis Smith) – there's a code that you must decipher to see the lyrics, and even when you do, you won't see all of them. What has been deciphered of them is very impressive. Mikael Akerfeldt has always been a very gifted lyricist and the lyrics to Watershed are no excepton.

Watershed is, overall, a very creative addition to Opeth's repertoire. It's an album of contrast, very thought-provoking and impressive in every way possible. Opeth steps in an exciting new direction, and this is most certainly a Watershed moment in their history. I wish them the best of luck in any of their future endeavors, and can't wait to see what else Mikael Akerfeldt and co might put out in the future.