After a string of albums where their sound had developed greatly, I knew that there was no point of me expecting anything definite from Opeth’s new album, other than the fact that I was expecting it to be one of the best albums that 2008 has to offer. Well I wasn’t wrong about that one expectation that I allowed myself.
Musically Opeth has gradually moved from being a band heavily influences by death metal over their eight previous albums to date. Their Damnation album was the proof that they can pull off an album’s worth of mellow material, and Ghost Reveries was like them confirming that they can still kick out some very heavy songs. While Watershed is musically closer to Ghost Reveries, it has its similarities to Damnation in the fact that many of its songs don’t feature Mikeal Akerfeldt’s growled vocals. Only Heir Apparent, Watershed’s second song is completely devoid of clean vocals. Akerfeldt himself said that Opeth’s credibility as an extreme metal band went down the drain years ago. Well I only half agree, because although there are many mellotrons and acoustics on Watershed, in the parts where the vocals are growled they are actually far more extreme than they were on Ghost Reveries. This is an album that I can tell is going to divide opinions but I must say, I think this is a masterpiece. And now I’m going to tell you why.
Watershed opens with Coil, an acoustic track. With just seven songs on the album opening with the acoustic track is the right move because it would just slow the albums pace if it were anywhere else. The music is the most simple that you’re going to hear on this album, and the vocals are a duet between Akerfeldt and a guest female singer. Coil is the only song that isn’t really anything to do with progressive music, as the other six tracks are some the most progressive that Opeth have ever recorded, none more so than Burden, which after Coil is the most ballad-like track, just a bit heavier and over twice as long. Both Coil and Burden would have just about fit into the whole Damnation theme, but at the same type manage to stand on their own (figurative) feet as not being ideas made over again. Burden even features a solo from keyboardist Per Wiberg that Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess would be proud of. The acoustic guitar playing in both is pure brilliance.
On a heavier side we get Heir Apparent and The Lotus Eater. As already mentioned Heir Apparent is the only song on Watershed not to feature any clean vocals, so with the exception of acoustic interludes that are just as good as those heard in the lighter songs it is the definitive extreme metal song of Watershed. But it is the Lotus Eater that takes the crown for best song of the album. Excellent clean vocals mixed with the harshest growls on the album, heavy guitar riffs, a blast beat drum pattern and even a jazz section, and you get a mini masterpiece. Both of these are easily the most accessible for the extreme metal crowd, but like any Opeth album you need a wider taste to truly appreciate everything the album has to offer. Reinforcing this point is the song Porcelain Heart, which is quite heavy, once again mixed with acoustics but only uses clean vocals. It also sounds much more like a traditional song that many of Opeth’s others. Next up is Hessian Peel which is the longest song on the album, and is broken into a light half and a heavier half. It features growls but only in moderation, meaning that the main album only has growls in two and a half out of seven songs. I especially like Hessian Peel because in my opinion it’s where Akerfeldt’s clean vocals make their peak, and the sense of anticipation the band gives just before the growls come in is excellent. You know when you hear it something is about to happen to propel the song forward and by doing so Opeth have something that justifies its length. It’s never boring.
Overall I think that Opeth made the right choice to mostly only use clean vocals on this album because on a musical front there is much that wouldn’t have suited a growl. There is a real emphasis on the progressive term with this album, more so than ever before, even Damnation, which was supposed to be all about the progressive music in the band’s sound.
Now it’s time to talk about the special edition of the album. I must admit this is the only part of the album that I’m a bit miffed about, because instead on the advertised three bonus tracks on the CD (at least from the website that I pre-ordered it from), they are only on the DVD, which means that for one, I can’t enjoy them in any CD player, and for two, I can’t transfer them to my mp3 player, I have to use either my computer or my television and DVD setup, and when I want to listen to music, I want to do it with a method that I consider to be standard. I wouldn’t mind so much is we were treated to perhaps some photo galleries to watch while the songs play, but all we get is the album cover, the song name, what number bonus track it is and a couple of options for moving elsewhere on the DVD. It’s a technically fault so the score doesn’t suffer, but it’s very annoying.
That said, the songs themselves are rather good, although I wish they’d included their cover of Alice in Chains Would? As I’d been looking forward to hearing that. The extra original song, Derelict Herds isn’t very heavy but it does feature some growls which some listens may find more to their taste after the main album, but both of the cover songs are sung cleanly all the way through. Bridge of Sighs is the best on offer here because although a cover it is typical Opeth. The only problem is at rare times Akerfeldt’s voice doesn’t always suit what the song demands. The final bonus track is Den Standiga Resan, which will give listeners their first chance to hear Akerfeldt sing in a language that isn’t English. It is the weakest of the extras though.
Elsewhere on the DVD is the misleadingly titled Rehearsal Tapes feature. While it does feature some rehearsal footage it has sections devoted to the band members talking about each other, with much attention being given to drummer Martin Axenrot. Then after they’ve talked about him we do get some rehearsal but just with Akerfeldt and new guitar partner Frederik Akkeson with just two guitars and a keyboard between them, while they talk about random things about the album. Very rarely do we actually see footage of the whole band practicing Watershed’s songs. We hardly see bassist Martin Mendez at all except when he’s talking to the camera. This feature is very random and overall a disappointment. I’ve watched it once and I don’t really feel the need to do so again. I’m not going to make the score suffer for this though, the score should be about the music, not the extra features. Is it worth buying this edition of the album? I’d recommend it to the most dedicated of fans only, all the must have work is found on the regular edition.
And so in summery let me tell you this; 2008 is shaping up to be a good year for metal music in my opinion. Already I’ve reviewed four albums from this year with scores of 95% of over, and credited two of them as a possible album of the year for me. Watershed is no exception to this despite it’s annoying faults and is easily one of the hotter contenders to be my favourite 2008 album. It is very much up to the high standard that Opeth themselves have set with their previous masterworks of progressive metal but it is so much more than that. Words cannot begin to really describe how I feel about this album, you just have to listen. If you thought Ghost Reveries and even the common fan favourite Blackwater Park were good, you haven’t heard anything yet.
Top 3 tracks: Hessian Peel, The Lotus Eater and Heir Apparent.
(Originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)