OPETH – Watershed (2008)

Opeth - Watershed To say that Opeth had it all, and then abandoned it would be a tad melodramatic, but realistically, it’s impossible to deny that the band’s glory days are now behind them. This saddens me, as no one in the metal world did what Opeth did and continued to do up until 2001’s Blackwater Park. Their sound was indescribably elegant: intricate and fierce passages were entwined together with quiet, baroque motifs. Everything about the band’s sound progressed in this manner, right down to lead singer Mikael Åkerfeldt’s transformation from Angel of Death to choir boy at the appropriate time. The result of all of this was intoxicating. Here was a band that made music that was (at times) maddeningly aggressive, while at the same time being sophisticated and graceful.

The band began to falter a bit with Deliverance and Damnation, an experiment in which the band separated the two vastly different facets of their sound into albums of their own (with mixed results). They faltered some more with 2005’s Ghost Reveries (the band’s first album for Roadrunner Records, the premiere leader of U.S. playground metal). Ghost Reveries was an extremely disappointing release, wherein the band cheapened their rich sound by stripping it of all its baroque richness, standardizing their unorthodox brand of death metal and over-indulging 70’s prog oddities (weird keyboard lines, empty interludes, etc.).

Watershed is most definitely an improvement of Ghost Reveries; at least here, the band don’t sound like they’re imitating themselves anymore. They’ve made some changes to their sound (a lot of which I could do without), but it’s not all bad. Their sound is a mix of modern Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree and heavily diluted, Deliverance-era Opeth. The biggest problem with it all is that I’m not sure what benefit is served by Opeth sounding so deliberately little like themselves. Coil, the first song on the album, is a prime example. It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s that it’s, essentially, a Porcupine Tree one. Everything about the track screams Porcupine Tree, from the instrumentation, to the production techniques, to the structure. The issue I take with this is somewhat metaphysical: while listening to it, I’m aware that I have access to a slew of Porcupine Tree albums, and I’m puzzled as to why I’m listening to Coil.

While the album opener might cry “Porcupine Tree!”, the album’s first single, Porcelain Heart, cries “Dream Theater!”. This is especially apparent in the guitar work of the song – the main riff (which is embellished with the often-ostentatious work of new drummer Martin Axenrot) and the galloping middle section in particular seem as though they would be right at home on Octavarium. But while the parts of the song may have their obvious influences, Porcelain Heart does indeed feel like an Opeth track (which is more than could be said for The Grand Conjuration, the first single off of Ghost Reveries).

My two biggest complaints with album lie in the vocal delivery of Åkerfeldt, and the structure of the songs. As mentioned previously, the fierce dual-nature of Åkerfeldt’s voice is unparalleled in the metal realm. On previous albums, he would spend most of the time growling, terrorizing your nightmares, while every so often transforming into a wayward lost soul to haunt your waking moments. On Watershed, that balance has been reversed, and Åkerfeldt spends most of his time singing clean. Every once in a while he’ll growl (most notably on Hessian Peel and Heir Apparent), but Watershed is an album with primarily clean vocals.

This is probably a direct consequence of my second (and biggest) complaint with the album. The structure of the songs have been simplified enormously, with the amount of acoustic or semi-acoustic material  greatly increased. While the band have always established, revisited and expanded upon motifs in their earlier works, you always got the sense when listening to these songs that they were always going somewhere new. But the songs on Watershed all have a more “verse-chorus” feel to them, even if they don’t all fall precisely within that framework. This is somewhat of a counter-intuitive thing to come to terms with, as the band have a broadened instrumentation on Watershed, (mostly due to the addition of keyboards provided by Per Wiberg, a full-time member of the band since Ghost Reveries). So while songs like Heir Apparent and Hex Omega are more diverse musically than the band’s past work, these songs actually wind up covering less ground (proving that the Opeth of old really did do less with more).

Watershed has the distinction of being Opeth’s most experimental release. The band expand upon a lot of their different influences here (and occasionally unveil new ones): prog (both new and old), jazz, even modern rock at times. The fact that it’s as hit-or-miss as it is was, perhaps, inevitable. But my outlook on the band now is far more hopeful than it was after hearing Ghost Reveries. Who knows, perhaps Opeth will hit upon some new magic as a result of this experimentation. Maybe then the band will recapture the power that the once had, the power that they’ve willingly forsaken in choosing to pursue this new path.

HD RATING: 5.5/10

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