Head back 24 years to Opeth’s 1995 debut LP Orchid and it’s hard to picture that budding death metal outfit moulding into the prog maestros they are today, and yet, the hints were there. Mikael Åkerfeldt‘s thrilling growls may have dominated, but his lustrous croons made an appearance too in an early demonstration of the band’s key talent – a deft blend of light and dark. Indeed, it was a series of mini-innovations spread over twelve albums, rather than a single tectonic shift, that have led the band to where they are today. Their thirteenth full-length, In Cauda Venenum, sees them move further from their heavy roots, and does so with such characteristic aplomb that it may in fact be worth confronting the notion that the band’s heavier inclinations have actually been holding them back. The Swedish veterans will always be judged in relation to their more metallic material, but the band they once were is now long gone, and that prevailing need to look back has long distracted us from what is rapidly becoming an undeniable fact – Opeth are one of the greatest names in modern prog, regardless of whether that comes with the “-rock” suffix or not. In Cauda Venenum goes a long way to cement this fact, proving itself perhaps their best since they dropped the death metal and widened their ambition.
Indeed, the band’s palette is now larger than it’s ever been, so large in fact that the group felt it apt to deliver on an out-of-the-box idea Åkerfeldt had on the school run – an album written entirely in Swedish, to be presented alongside the exact same album, recorded again in English. Whilst it is the English recording that will feel most familiar, both to native English speakers and long-term fans of the band, it is the Swedish version which feels most sincere. Not only is it hard to escape the nagging feeling that the English rendition is a mere copycat of the original, but the band’s native Swedish, often described as a musical language, lends these tracks a beguiling edge that’s entirely befitting the band’s enigmatic and irradiant music.
This time around, that music is more dynamic than ever. In Cauda Venenum shows no shame in shedding the comparatively heavier core that ran through preceding effort Sorceress, often sacrificing some heaviness in the name of innovation, and the result is an album that sounds epic, dramatic and downright majestic. The band do riff, of course, consistently picking their moments to break into metallic flavourings well – such as on the opening moments of ‘Charlatan’, which come after the sultry power-balladry of ‘Minnets Yta’/’Lovelorn Crime’ – but it is in the grand, operatic moments of these tracks where In Cauda Venenum truly excels. The solos are glorious, the heavy-handed organ unashamedly over-the-top and the choir-like vocals willfully embrace the cheese to dazzling effect.
It may not have the bruising riffs many will long for, but In Cauda Venenum remains a challenging album, heavy still in tone and thematically. Whilst there is tranquillity and serenity to be found here in abundance, ‘Svekets Prins’/’Dignity’ proves itself some of the band’s most dread-inducing work to date, whilst ‘Hjärtat Vet Vad Handen Gör’/’Heart In Hand’ is truly haunting in places and ‘De Närmast Sörjande’/’Next Of Kin’ ramps up the tension until it hits breaking point. Elsewhere, Åkerfeldt drops some of the most direct lyrics of his Opeth tenure, tackling “fascist lies” on ‘Bannemannen’/’The Garrator’ – fittingly the album’s most unnerving number – and utilising a sample of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was assassinated in 1986 (a murder which remains unsolved), on the aforementioned ‘Svekets Prins’/’Dignity’.
If you’re vehemently anti-prog, there’s little use in trying to fool yourself into thinking this is a metal album, but regardless it is a stunning collection of tracks from a band who seemingly care little what you think anyway. If you do still find yourself among those maintaining that Opeth were better as a heavier band, In Cauda Venenum may finally be the album to convince you that they actually fare better where they are – if not, it’s probably time to turn your attention elsewhere. Here, the band continue to skirt the edges of the heavy music scene from which they emerged, but they show no hesitation in leaving it behind entirely where they see fit, and the album is all the better for it. Opeth remain more interesting than most heavy bands, and more willing to truly push themselves than most prog bands.
In Cauda Venenum is out now on Nuclear Blast. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr