The death metal outfit Opeth, as first formed in 1989, is a band now long gone.
A curious detail of the group’s biography is that no member present at the Swedish group first rehearsal now plays with the band. Current singer, principal songwriter and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt – who originally joined as bass-player, aged just 16 – is the group’s longest serving member, having come onboard in 1992.
Under Åkerfeldt’s stewardship, Opeth have spent two decades reconfiguring themselves as a band that skirts the fringes of the heavy rock scene from which they emerged, rather than dig deep into it. Recent years have birthed a succession of albums that have dared to do more. 2016’s ‘Sorceress’ contained Middle Eastern rhythms and a distressing number of acoustic guitars. 2014’s ‘Pale Communion’ was closer to jazz fusion than it was heavy metal. 2011’s ‘Heritage’ didn’t have a single death growl on it. And yet that’s not to say that the group are no longer heavy.
That’s because the remit of what constitutes ‘heavy music’ really deserves some consideration. Perhaps it was always so. Doesn’t the aural filth dished out by My Bloody Valentine circa 1991 eviscerate at least 80 per cent of Metallica’s catalogue? Doesn’t the druggy barrage of the Velvet Underground make the poodle-haired shredders who dominated the ’80s sound very anaemic indeed? Aren’t New York electronic duo Suicide the heaviest band of all time?
By this logic, heaviness is a state of mind, and not a setting on your amplifier. Fittingly, the emotional alchemy that Opeth muster on album number 13 is a sonic brew that could sedate a herd of buffalo. Despite featuring several flourishes of tranquility throughout, ‘Dignity’ is seven minutes of caustic dread. You’d never accuse the song ‘Heart In Hand’ of being crushingly heavy, yet its latter half sounds like a haunted house waking up. Then there’s ‘Next Of Kin’, which sounds like the sort of tune a wandering balladeer in Medieval times might have performed in your hamlet… days before the outbreak of plague. This is music that deserves to be viewed as heavy music, despite it more likely being filed under the ‘progressive’ section of your record store.
Because Opeth are Opeth and things must be done differently, it should be noted that ‘In Cauda Venenum’ comes in two forms – one with lyrics in English, the other with them in Swedish. Take your pick. They’re both a fucking trip.