Opeth’s thirteenth album, In Cauda Venenum, translated to poison in the tail, continues the musical direction begun in earnest on 2011’s Heritage. Now four albums into their 70s-inspired progressive odyssey and those yearning for Opeth to return to their Death Metal roots are again going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, In Cauda Venenum feels like the continuation of the journey begun in 2011, following in the wake of the excellent Pale Communion and Sorceress, there is a wealth of ideas flowing from main man Mikael Akerfeldt that always makes for an exhilarating trip.
As this is Opeth album number thirteen it goes without saying the level of musicianship is exemplary. The constant juxtaposition of styles and textures at play create an atmosphere of uncertainty; one moment the band are creating huge crashing soundscapes that would rival anything off Watershed or Ghost Reveries, and the next you’re being coddled by exquisite acoustic guitar and lilting vocals. On the tracks Next of Kin and Universal Truth, two of the more old-school Opeth tracks on In Cauda Venenum, the play of weight and light is most evident. The former using a massive musical barrage played off against soulfully acoustic moments, before a savage guitar solo. The latter being perhaps, at times, the most musically aggressive track on the album.
As a musical unit Opeth are battle-hardened and never shy away from the hard yards. Not content with comparing their origins with their influences, on In Cauda Venenum the band gather a myriad of other styles: ambient intro, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a Vangelis-inspired piece, with, in it’s background, an urgent heart-beat reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s On the Run. The opening of The Garroter is a Spanish guitar playing flamenco chords which is joined by a mournful piano and jazz drums.
It is hardly a surprise that Opeth have produced a musical experience of the highest quality, but listening to In Cauda Venenum I was stuck that this was an album about voices. I cannot think of a record in the back catalogue which showcases Mikael Akerfeldt’s voice this well, with him ranging from pseudo-Death Metal to mournful lament, and In Cauda Venenum is, for the most part, a melancholic (but never miserable) record; Lovelorn Crime begins with Mikael pouring his heart out over intersecting piano chords.
Across the album there are the voices of others, not part of the music or backing singers, but as though the studio microphones have somehow picked up their conversation. Dignity, Heart in Hand and Charlatan all have disembodied voices haunting them, adding to In Cauda Venenum’s ethereal atmosphere. Some versions of this album include a second disc on which all of the tracks are sung in Swedish which, to a non-Swedish speaker, adds another dimension to the music.
As ever with a new Opeth record, repeated plays revel more of its secrets, with something new being uncovered every time. And In Cauda Venenum is so compelling an album that you will be drawn back to it for many months to come.