Opeth – Watershed

Opeth
Watershed

First, let me just state that death metal has never appealed to me. The growling is ridiculous and the music is pure noise. I was as biased as anyone against the genre…until I heard Opeth. The group’s work was so brilliant, so beautiful and so brutal that it changed how I judged and appreciated music forever. Throughout its catalogue, Opeth has proven to be the rose in a field of dead, bland flowers. The band expertly intertwines progressive metal riffing with soft acoustic interludes, effortlessly shifting from demonic growling to angelic sorrow. With Watershed, two members have been replaced, and fans were very skeptical about the direction the band would take. Fortunately, founder Mikael Åkerfeldt is clearly still the mastermind of the band, and as such, this release fits in perfectly with the genius that came before it.

Åkerfeldt and bassist Martin Mendez (who joined during their third release) are the only two “original” members. Touring keyboardist Per Wiberg became an official member during the making of their last release, 2005’s Ghost Reveries. Sadly, drummer Martin Lopez bailed out due to heath issues in 2007, and shortly after, guitarist Peter Lindgren left due to a lack of interest and creativity (he felt he couldn’t contribute anything worthwhile anymore). This resulted in Åkerfeldt hiring ex-Arch Enemy guitarist Fredrik Åkesson and drummer Martin Axenrot. Clearly, as Åkerfeldt has stated, Watershed is “…a transitional album…,” showing both a new direction while stating, without a doubt, that Opeth is still the phenomenal act fans adore.

Instead of jolting listeners with another grand opus like “Ghost of Perdition” (which opened Ghost Reveries), “Coil” lasts just over three minutes. It is an acoustic folk ballad that, combined with the lyrics, is almost mythical. Immediately we hear how Åkerfeldt wanted to try some new things, as guest vocalist Nathalie Lorichs sings the second verse and chorus (the first female vocals in their discography). Åkerfeldt’s signature guitar arpeggios and warm clean vocals provide a warm welcome before the piece segues into the blistering “Heir Apparent.”

If there is one thing remarkable about Opeth, it’s the members’ dynamics; their ability to shift between thundering heaviness and quiet simplicity. This is displayed well during the first minutes of “Heir Apparent” (one of their only tracks featuring pure death vocals). Åkerfeldt sounds possessed as the drums blast away and the guitars rumble. What makes this side of Opeth so fantastic is that while their peers are happy to never change rhythms, Åkerfeldt always places complexity underneath the warfare. The tempo constantly changes. Eventually the music shifts to a progressive rock tone in between tricky guitar playing. Oddly, the song ends as if another one is beginning, but it is merely a final reflection before the band’s most experimental song begins.

“The Lotus Eater” opens with Åkerfeldt humming (another mythical folk aspect). Then the vocals shift between clean and death with his usual level of perfection. Musically, this is pure schizophrenic genius, and melodically, it demands to be sung along with. Already, Opeth prove once again why it is far beyond its contemporaries, providing interesting sounds with the members’ technical proficiency. Suddenly, around minute four, things quiet down before the surprising jazz improvisation. This is Åkerfeldt wearing his love for 70’s prog on his sleeve, and this style hasn’t been heard since the band’s second release, Morningrise. No metal band in history shifts genres and intensity like Opeth, and after such an audible exercise, a momentary breather comes in the form of “Burden.”

Simply put, “Burden” is one of Åkerfeldt’s best songs. It showcases the same beautiful intensity and style as “Benighted” from Still Life, the entire Damnation album and even “Still Day Beneath the Sun” from the special edition of Blackwater Park. At the same time, the previous collaborations between Åkerfeldt and Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (my favorite band) are still felt here. Åkerfeldt may be an amazing growler when the time comes, but he is just as skilled at clean singing. He has a beautiful voice filled with pain, and it comes through in spades during “Burden.” The closing harmonies are haunting and rival the middle section of “Master’s Apprentices” from Deliverance, before the album’s single, “Porcelain Heart,” begins.

“Porceleain Heart” is another ballad, albeit with progressive metal in between the softly sung verses. About halfway through, the music really kicks off while Åkerfeldt chants “Ahhhhh.” Then, after a short guitar line, he sings his most tragic and catchy melody of the album. We imagine him in isolated depression as he sings “Rest your head now don’t you cry. Don’t ever ask the reasons why.” It lasts mere moments before the reprisal of the segment that preceded it, but it is one of the best moments on Watershed.

Opening with lyrics about children, “Hessian Peel” is another ballad with an unexpectedly Canterbury scene melody. Åkerfeldt sings “Will the children cry when their mother dies?” Then, after some backwards vocals, he sings another melody, this time about being left by someone he trusted (perhaps inspired by the sudden departure of members). The death vocals, accompanied with more brutal riffs, come unexpectedly, and shift back to a mellowness just as fast, resulting in swelling keyboards over an odd time signature. Soon, the gruesome, guttural Åkerfeldt returns, and it sounds like we’re actually in hell. Finally, we have reached the subtle conclusion of Watershed, and it’s called “Hex Omega”.

Following the Opeth formula, “Hex Omega” begins heavy and leads into another quiet melody. It is undeniable that Åkerfeldt wrote this about losing Lopez and Lindgren, as he sings “Two years. In your heart. One moment of doubt. Two lives. Torn apart.” Honestly, this track is a little boring because it’s too spacey (and credit must go to Wiberg since he also gave Ghost Reveries it’s Pink Floyd moments…though they weren’t bad at all). For such a fantastic build up, “Hex Omega” ends this, their ninth “observation,” on a whimper instead of a bang.

As for how the two new members fair, they are virtually indistinguishable; either they fit in perfectly or they don’t contribute much in terms of writing or arranging. It’s believable that Lopez and Lindgren never left as the drumming is as tight as ever and the guitar work is in the typical Opeth style. If they had stayed, who knows what Watershed would’ve sounded like, but as it stands, these new additions certainly didn’t detract or drastically change anything.

If there are any negatives about Watershed (besides the lackluster closer), it’s that it’s a bit more commercial than we’ve come to expect. The melodies of “Burden” and “Porcelain Heart,” as great as they are, almost scream for radio airplay in a way no previous work has. Also, the lyrics are simpler overall and don’t carry the poetic mystery of, say, My Arms, Your Hearse. Opeth has always been about pleasing itself first and being a unique force so it’s doubtful that Åkerfeldt wanted to reach a wider audience, but these aspects are still there.

All in all, Watershed is simply another amazing album by Opeth. It’s not as perfect as Damnation or Still Life (my two favorites, obviously), but it pleases nonetheless. At the end of the day, fans should have never doubted that this would be great. Åkerfeldt is still the mastermind, serving as singer, songwriter, arranger and chief guitarist to the greatest metal band of all time, and easily one of the best bands around today. This album continues to showcase what makes Opeth such a special gem in the genre, and fans shouldn’t hesitate to pick this up. Watershed, like the eight works that came before it, is a work of art, plain and simple.