Opeth exist in a genre of one.
The forward-thinking Swedes who seamlessly and fluidly combine metal, classic rock, prog, folk and free-form jazz, continue the time-honoured Opeth tradition on Watershed, their second album for Roadrunner Records. With this, their ninth opus, Opeth continue to shake things up, turn the corner and push the limits of their sound. And the results are breathtaking. Watershed sounds at once, completely like and absolutely nothing like previous Opeth records. Watershed takes all that is Opeth, and goes where Opeth have never gone before.
Vocalist/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt says, “This record doesn’t sound like a tired band grasping to the last straw. It sounds like a band that is eager to experiment and one that still finds writing music interesting. We’re not just putting out a record to put out a record. This is very much an artistic statement.”
Watershed picks up where 2005’s flawless Ghost Reveries left off, beginning contemplatively before erupting into full-bore chaos. It’s an album that combines brute, blunt force with whimsical, melodic beauty. This is something that wasn’t done intentionally, Åkerfeldt insists. “I try not to be too hung up on having an equal share of screams and singing. I choose the vocal style according to what best fits the song. Some parts have longer instrumental passages as well. Others have quieter vocals. I want what is good for the song, and if that means less death metal vocals or less regular vocals, so be it.” Instead, there are several well-placed screams, which only serve to hammer the points home further. “I’m not wasting time or space,” finishes Åkerfeldt. “The screams on the album matter, because there are less of them. Instead of using long screams to cover up something, I want to deliver lyrics with full passion, which I never spent time doing before.”
An avid obscure rock fan and record collector who buys records daily, Åkerfeldt was inspired and influenced by surprising sources on Watershed. “I’ve been listening to ‘60s music and psychedelic music,” he reveals. “Like The Zombies’ Oddessey & Oracle. When I heard it, I knew it was one of the best [albums] I have ever heard in my life and I only heard it last year! I listen to other psychedelic music with sound effects. I also listen to Bill Withers and lots of AC/DC and Scott Walker, who is an American crooner. He’s not as slick as Frank Sinatra. He makes very mellow music that is also very dark. His album The Drift is the darkest record I have ever heard in my life, where he is crooning over layers of disharmonic noise that comes from an orchestra. He was beating on a piece of flesh or meat in the studio and it gave the song this very avant-garde effect. I wanted to do a metal version of that for our record, a record that was impossible to penetrate.”
With Watershed, Opeth aren’t afraid to think outside of the box, but the album isn’t too much of a departure for Opeth. The signature Opeth sound – Åkerfeldt's haunting vocals and distinct riffing - is intact. It’s just tighter. “I think it was Leonard Cohen who said, ‘The longer you are a musician, the more you learn and the better you write.’ I believe that. I am not one of those guys who can relate to a spontaneous recording by young people full of hormones. I want a delicate, carefully crafted piece of art.”
Åkerfeldt continues, saying that Watershed represents the “natural evolution of Opeth. Every now and then, we do make a record that is different, but still us. We did it with My Arms, Your Hearse, Blackwater Park and Damnation. Now we are moving forward and it’s exciting.”
Opeth continue to stay fresh and to make relevant music deep into their career. The band is bolstered by the addition of new membership. Drummer Martin Axenrot plays like a battering ram on Watershed, which also introduces new guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, formerly of Arch Enemy, to the fold. Åkerfeldt is rejuvenated, rather than stressed by the lineup shift, saying, “I want the band to be bigger than its lineup. I used to be devastated with line up changes. But people change and that just happens, and I refuse to let Opeth be a victim of line up changes. I’ve always been a nostalgic person and I’ve always believed in a stable line-up, but it’s impossible to foresee what’s going to happen. My dreams of a stable line-up died when our first drummer Anders Nordin left in 1997. I think we moved on to better things since his departure and with that, I learned that as long as all members are pulling towards the same goal and are dedicated people who love to play music, we’re set.”
One listen to Watershed proves the band is positively affected by the internal changes. Åkerfeldt claims that Åkesson’s level of skill helps makes Åkerfeldt himself a better player, saying, “I once saw him playing Judas Priest, AC/DC, King Diamond and Metallica covers in a pub and I was blown away. When he was in Arch Enemy, we did tours together and became friends.”
Musically, Watershed is about having good songs and reaching beyond the obvious influences. Atypical form and structure are the norm in Opeth’s universe, but at the end of the day, the band understands that everything comes down to having good songs and ideas. “I like adventurous songs with lots of stuff going on. To be a good metal band, it’s important, if not absolutely necessary, to look beyond metal for influences. If you don’t, you will be a boring, second rate copy of the song you listen to by Iron Maiden,” Åkerfeldt says.
Watershed was recorded in the band’s native Sweden and was produced by Åkerfeldt and Jens Bogren. It was the first time Åkerfeldt actually enjoyed the recording process, admitting, “We’re used to the studio environment, so the recording process is not new or thrilling anymore. The biggest change was letting go of my control need. We were recording in two studios and I couldn’t be at two places at once, so it was stressful, not knowing what was happening at the other studio. But I had to trust the other guys in the band.”
Watershed opens with the quiet, yet powerful “Coil,” which features the bewitching vocals of local folk singer Nathalie Lorichs. “Heir Apparent” is a metallic blockbuster and the only song with death metal vocals throughout. “The Lotus Eater” features what feels like a first: cleanly sung vocals placed over blast beats! Åkerfeldt is particularly proud of the song saying, “It perfectly represents where my musical head is at the moment. It’s the most fucked up song on the record, which says a lot about me, but that is what I want Opeth to sound like today. It’s twisted, complex and plays through smoothly without interference, despite having a ton of parts.” Smack bang in the middle of the chaos is the gorgeous ballad “Burden” which will remind listeners of bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. “I wanted to do a big ass mid 70s sounding ballad,” says Åkerfeldt. “I was influenced by The Scorpions. I was listening to In Trance, and the song, “Living and Dying.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I should do a song like this.’ It has those mid-70s professional, big solos.” The song “Porcelain Heart” is quite epic, due to the quiet-loud dynamic structure of the song.
Watershed is the album that will satiate the appetites of Opeth diehards, those who have followed the band on their musical journey. It’s also the album that will turn new heads, of those who appreciate both the band’s and the record’s musicality and musicianship.
Watershed proves that Opeth are peerless, and truly exist in a genre of one.