Opeth – ‘In Cauda Venenum’

By Fiachra Johnston

Delicate isn’t often a word you get to use when talking about metal or prog – but, then again, Opeth have never been ones to stick to the norm. After thirty years and many, many lineup changes, the Swedish legends continue on relatively strong form, compared to how some of their contemporaries have fared in the modern age of metal. This, primarily, comes from their seemingly eternal quest to challenge their own style. The Opeth of today is not the same Opeth of ten years ago, and that’s alright.

In this regard, ‘In Cauda Venenum’ (or, “Poison In The Tail”) is modern Opeth perfected. Not just that, in fact, but with three decades under the belt, this may just be a perfect blend of their band’s signature sound throughout the years, blurring the lines between metal and prog rock to create something not quite either – undeniably heavy, yet soft and mysterious at the same time, and utterly enthralling throughout.

When it comes to crafting albums, Mikael Åkerfeldt – currently the longest serving member – certainly enjoys a pick ‘n’ mix style of songwriting. Songs like ‘Charlatan’ and ‘All Things Will Pass’ dip into the heavier side of the troupe’s repertoire, while singles ‘Heart In Hand’ and ‘Dignity’ play to their more modern, lighter feel. Of course, there are tracks in which Opeth just decide to throw the playbook out of the window and get weird in a way only they can – such as on ‘The Garroter’, a smooth-yet-sinister jazz fusion number. It’s a wonderful piece of brevity that, like the jazz/lounge inspired experiments on 2014’s ‘Pale Communion’, demonstrates a love for performance and experimentation more than anything else. It may not contribute much to the album as a whole, but it shows that the passion is still there for the band.

The low points in ‘In Cauda Venenum’, when the band play it safe and stick with elements more familiar to old school fans, are few and far between. They still make for good listening, but the highs are staggering when Opeth are able to deliver a serious heaviness without resorting to growling or walls of sound. ‘Next Of Kin’ is intense and violent but somehow remains ethereal and mysterious. ‘Continuum’ is methodical and weighty yet fuses woodwind instrumentation like oboes with some killer guitar work by Fredrik Åkesson. With high strings and choral accompaniment, there are moments in nearly every track that give the album an operatic feeling, but despite circumventing traditional metal tropes, nothing feels weak or light. It’s all still metal, just not what we may classify as ‘traditional’, as it borrows from so many other styles and genres. That may turn some people off this album, but expecting Opeth to stick to a formula is a fool’s game no matter what stage of their career they’re at.

As a cherry on top, and for even more of a time sink, ‘In Cauda Venenum’ has been released in both English and Swedish. For accessibility, the focus of this review has been the English version, but the Swedish version arguably wins out in terms of authenticity. Like watching a subtitled foreign language film rather than a dubbed version, it just feels right listening to Åkerfeldt wax lyrical in his mother tongue. You won’t miss out on something hugely important if you have a preferred version to stick to, but it speaks to the level of craftsmanship that the album holds up in two different languages.

If you’ve never listened to an Opeth song, this is a great album to start with. If you fell off the bandwagon and are looking to jump back into their discography to see how the band has evolved, it’s a fantastic  starting point. If you’ve been a die hard fan since the beginning and are simply hoping for a good record, it will not disappoint. Something for everyone and then some, ‘In Cauda Venenum’ will satisfy everyone sonically – except those who hope Opeth pick a lane and stay in it. The sun will most likely burn out before that ever happens.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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