The release of In Cauda Venenum (‘Poison in the Tail’) was always going to be a big event, coming as it does in Opeth’s 30th anniversary year, especially for a band renowned for setting itself a high bar. It’s been quite a journey since the band’s early days, not least for Mikael Åkerfeldt who was just sixteen when he was recruited by founder David Isberg, triggering the rest of the original line up to walk out – but that’s another story. Åkerfeldt took over as lead vocalist on Isberg’s departure in 1992 and has steered Opeth’s evolution ever since, shifting away from the death metal growls and incorporating folk, jazz and blues elements to develop a more progressive sound.
In Cauda Venenum opens with ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, starting with a monastic chant that hints at some of the darkness to come, before expanding into a Pink Floydian intro that would be entirely at home on Dark Side of the Moon. For the first time, Opeth have incorporated samples into their work, including church bells, children’s chatter and birdsong, which lead smoothly into ‘Dignity’, beginning as it does with a sample from a speech by Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister assassinated in 1986. This is the where Opeth’s death metal heritage starts to break through the prog rock veneer, and the album comes up to speed.
The rock becomes heavier still with ‘Heart in Hand’, a fast-paced number with a jarring but engaging time signature. During the recording bassist Martín Méndez was having problems with his Hofner guitar – it kept humming – but the band decided they liked the sound and opted to keep it in. The track shifts in tone and mood from metal to prog and back, in a style that Opeth have made their own.
‘Next of Kin’ is the first of the album’s highlights, where Åkerfeldt’s lyrics blend with the riffs to deliver a track worthy of rock opera. Whilst this is the proggiest offering in the album, Opeth have enough discipline to avoid straying into self-indulgent excess.
‘Lovelorn Crime’ provides a well-timed slowing of the pace, with Åkerfeldt delivering a heartrending ballad on unrequited love (‘Ghost of memories, heavy on my brow/But changing over time/New ambitions corrupting every vow/Unfolding lovelorn crime’). Joakim Svalberg opens the track with a melancholy piano backing for Åkerfeldt’s sorrowful vocals, which builds to a stunning guitar solo from Fredrik Åkesson.
The mood then takes an upswing with ‘Charlatan’, which hits the ground running with a fast-paced tenor bass intro. Throughout the track Åkerfeldt, Méndez and Åkesson all play (highly distorted) bass, with no lead or rhythm guitar. Their willingness to experiment pays off, giving us the ‘heaviest’ Opeth track post-Heritage.
This leads on to ‘Universal Truth’, which vies with ‘Next of Kin’ for best track of the album. Unpredictable switches in pace and tone make for a gloriously disorientating effect, full of surprises at every turn. Combined with thoughtful lyrics, compelling vocals and sweeping orchestration, the overall effect makes for sublime listening.
The pace then slows a little for ‘The Garroter’, an intentionally jazzy number reminiscent of some of Neil Hannon’s quirkier work with The Divine Comedy, while Åkerfeldt’s dark lyrics explore the nature of dictatorship (‘Ulterior motive, the grinning face of leadership/A selfish wish to control a nation in his grip’).
‘Continuum’ builds slowly but purposefully to a mid-track crescendo, where the folk music style is suddenly overtaken by another stirring but all-too-brief guitar solo from Åkesson. Finally, ‘All Things Will Pass’ brings the album to a fitting close, with the delicate opening bars creating a feeling of suspense before giving way to giving way to a slower and more subdued riff than we have heard on the rest of the album.
In Cauda Venenum has been released in two versions – the original featuring Swedish vocals, and the alternative having English vocals – and both are worth sampling to compare their distinctive moods. Whichever version you prefer, this is arguably Opeth’s best album in years, and quite possibly ever. Whilst In Cauda Venenum doesn’t mark the same stylistic shift as 2011’s Heritage, it does showcase an ongoing maturation in their ability to blend the genres of progressive rock and metal in a uniquely coherent, intelligent and exciting way. In Cauda Venenum is an album from a band on top of their game, and it will be fascinating to see where Opeth’s journey leads to from here.
In Cauda Venenum is out now via Moderbolget and Nuclear Blast.