Since 2008, the most iconic progressive death metal band of all time haven’t been a progressive death metal band. This has done two things for them: provided a much more accessible sound which has gained them a new audience, and alienated the long-time fans who are craving their trademark acoustic guitar/brutal death metal trade-offs. Disappointingly, In Cauda Venenum continues to avoid death metal.
However! This is the best and most consistent thing Opeth have dropped since the guttural screeches at the end of Watershed’s ‘Hessian Peel’ provided us with Mikael Akerfeldt’s final studio growls.
A welcome return to Opeth’s trademark dynamic shifts is present from the start, with the quiet introduction ‘Garden Of Earthy Delights’ bursting into the opening shout of second single ‘Dignity’.
What we get isn’t a venomous squeal a la Morningrise, but a harmonised chant that has more in common with 70s prog rock bands like Yes, who Opeth are certainly channelling more than Bloodbath and Mayhem these days. There are bits of spoken word scattered all around the album, and we hear a speech from an ex-Swedish Prime Minister before we can even find out if we’re listening to the English or Swedish edition of the album.
‘Dignity’ is surprisingly catchy, with guitar solos and mellow acoustic sections bursting from the seams, before one of the heaviest riffs Opeth have come up with in 11 years plays us out.
The albums lead single, ‘Heart In Hand’, is time signature bending demonstration that Opeth can still do what they once did. This is the first Opeth song in a long time that truly sounds like Opeth. Even though I knew for a fact there was no death metal on this album, for a few seconds I could have convinced myself that we might get just one, tiny little grunt. But no. Instead we get one of the catchiest vocal lines Akerfeldt has ever come up with, some genuinely heavy, almost thrashy riffs, and a beautiful outro that you’d be forgiven for thinking was a totally separate song.
‘Next Of Kin’ opens with a few more sound effects and chants, and its heavy riffs and vocal melodies live up to the impressive start that the singles provided. ‘Lovelorn Crime’ sounds just like it could come from Damnation, building through a mellow piano ballad into an impressive outro solo.
‘Charlatan’, however, is the albums centrepiece. If I’d said ‘Heart In Hand’ sounds like Opeth writing an Opeth song, then this sounds like Opeth writing a bloody masterpiece of an Opeth song. While missing a bit of bass rumble, the opening riff could be lifted straight from Ghost Reveries, while the soaring, chromatic keyboard melody that appears about 40 seconds in sounds like Chick Corea improvising over Meshuggah. I’m slightly weary of saying it but… I don’t think it even needs death metal.
‘Universal Truth’ is another one full of swirling riffs and harmonised vocal chanting, while ‘The Garrotter’ is a unique gem amongst the Opeth catalogue. With a swinging drum pattern and clean extended guitar chords providing a jazzy accompaniment, the string arrangements, staccato vocal melodies and even more sound effects turn this into a slightly unnerving, creepy track.
‘Continuum’ brings us straight out of this strange moment with a rustling drum pattern and folky acoustic guitar which eventually turns into the best guitar solo of the album: a Slash-like, wah-heavy shred-a-thon that shows off Fredrik Akesson’s ability to wield his instrument.
The longest track on the album, ‘All Things Must Pass’ closes In Cauda Venenum. Its opening is built on another confusingly chromatic riff, before a wall of sound is created by dense snare reverb and crushing chords that ring out from every instrument Opeth have available to them. After moving through various acoustic verses, the track fades out with another of the most catchy sections of music Opeth have ever composed.
With In Cauda Venenum, Opeth have proven that they are absolutely still able to write consistent albums full of innovative and exciting tracks. On the whole, my mind hasn’t been changed, though. I still think this album would have been teleported into another dimension should they have decided to weave a bit of extreme metal into it, but the brutal heaviness and winding riffs that appear every now and again make me hopeful that one day we’ll see a welcome return.
Having said that, this is still the best Opeth release in 11 years and by far one of the most impressive albums of 2019.