Opeth - _Watershed_
(Roadrunner, 2008)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (8.5 out of 10)
Man, if anyone has been on an upward trajectory in the eyes of fans and critics alike the past few years it's been Opeth. Despite enough diversity in the catalog to mandate that nearly every individual has their particular fave, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believes the band have ever made a clear misstep. "Until now", you probably expect me to say. No, I'm not going down that lame "Rock Crit 101" path, but I do want to lay my cards on the table in advance in that regard, because honestly I'm not feeling "Coil", the lead off track on _Watershed_, AT ALL. I'm going so far as to call this the hands down lamest thing in the Opeth catalog. The reasons for this more or less center around the vocals, and yes, by now the clean vox and acoustic guitars are a permanently embedded function of the Opeth archetype, but "Coil" marks the first instance where I find myself second guessing the prudence of it being utilized at all. In terms of songwriting, Mikael Akerfeldt really, seriously underperforms here, offering up a half baked melange of remedial prog metal balladry and trite, faux-sincere lyrics such as "When I get out of here / When I leave you behind / I'll find that the years passed us by". The combination of overblown sentimentality and been there, done that inarticulateness reminds me of why it took me so long to get into a band like Dream Theater, but considering Akerfeldt has been buddying up to Mike Portnoy as of late, it's not surprising that a bit of DT's cry baby emoishness has rubbed off. A piss poor bit of poetry, nonetheless, and Akerfeldt is so inexplicably proud of it that he has a bland but pretty female voice echo him on the second verse, merely changing the point of view.

Rotten verbiage aside, the most grating thing is the cadence itself and the first-time, bush league grace notes that Akerfeldt inflicts on it (the way he sings "behind" as "behi-eend" being particularly egregious). He makes a good case here for the detractors who wish he'd just dispense with the acoustic passages altogether. I don't agree, but above anything else I've heard "Coil" proves that he is much better at crafting the heavier and more complex passages than he is working in a more stripped down milieu. His intonation is much better on the special edition's cover of Robin Trower's "Bridge of Sighs", where Akerfeldt has a preexisting vocal pattern to copy. This would seem to indicate that the problem is not with his serviceable yet generic clean singing style, but with his ability to craft meaningful melodies around those limited skills.

Fortunately the greatest mistake here was putting "Coil" up front (as opposed to, say, omitting it altogether). "Heir Apparent" rectifies the previous tune's wrongs, bringing us the catchy, schizophrenic progginess we've come to expect from Opeth. It does lapse into a lullaby at one point, but this segment acts as a useful bridge and does not leave our attention lagging "behi-eend". "Porcelain Heart" begins as an acoustic ballad with much more aplomb, but a close look at the lyrics once again reveals Akerfeldt's penchant for plumbing the more juvenile depths of his seemingly reflexive sorrow in direct proportion to how melancholy the instrumental passage is (although, stopping to really examine the lyrics as a whole, _Watershed_ proves to be pretty touchy feely throughout, the only difference being that during the heavier passages you really need that lyric sheet to make it evident).

"Hessian Peel" takes a stab at the folk metal bandwagon, actually one upping just about everyone who does this kind of thing full time. The strings are especially effective and lend the whole thing an ethereal soundtrack quality. Usually the segue from soft to heavy is fairly well telegraphed to anyone who's heard this band before, but on "Hessian Peel" the sudden explosion roughly five minutes in not only catches you off guard but is also thoughtfully crafted, and by the time the tempest dies down again later in the song we're further treated to some jazzy acoustic jamming. "The Lotus Eater" ups the funk quotient in an organ break 2/3 of the way through, and in summing this all up it's evident that Opeth are at their most experimental (and, thus, interesting) during the solos and breaks, although -- "Coil" aside -- Akerfeldt and cohorts are also difficult to dismiss with their memorable riffs and clever instrumentation as well.

The special edition of _Watershed_ has a trio of bonus tracks worth a look, including the aforementioned "Bridge of Sighs", which ideally would have been programmed immediately after the album's proper finale, "Hex Omega", as it furthers and expands on that song's hazy dream quality. Instead we get "Derelict Herds", which is a more rocking -- and often extremely Dream Theater-like -- take on the fairly obligatory yet well performed side of the group's repertoire. The finale is a more or less unnecessary "romp" through one of the old Roxette singer's Swedish folk efforts. Again we find Akerfeldt faring better with a pre-established vocal melody to feed off of, but nonetheless falling quite a bit short of the almost operatic subtleties the song demands. Add anywhere from a half- to a full-point to the above rating if you program it to begin with track two instead of (shudder) "Coil", the latter being more or less what it would sound like if James Hetfield did a solo album for Napalm Records ("when I leave you behi-eendAH!"). On the other hand, subtract a similar sum if you're willing to keep in mind that this is Opeth we're judging here and not just some average bunch of crackers.

Contact: http://www.opeth.com

(article published 9/8/2008)

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