Swedish progressive death and black metal turned progressive rock outfit, Opeth, are back in full swing with their thirteenth album In Causa Venenum, a retro progressive rock project with long building tracks filled with clean, tight production and plenty of chants to make anyone want to join a Swedish cult. While this is most definitely one of the best progressive rock albums of this year, a work that can scratch Tool fan’s itch after the less than perfect Fear Inoculum, this will be a divisive project for long time die hard Opeth fans, but that is nothing new.
Opeth began in 1989 in Stockholm, Sweden as a progressive death metal group, and through multiple line up changes and album releases have cemented their place as a significant part of the Swedish metal scene. The gradual change in sound, from heavier and harsher death metal to calmer and layered progressive rock, has both brought in a new passionate fan base and pushed away long-time death metal followers. With that in mind this will not be the album that will bring back Opeth separatists. In Causa Venenum is a cultish, slow building, sinister, and retro progressive rock album through and through. And it is long, 67 minutes and change in fact. In Causa Venenum isn’t too much of a chore to sit through, though, it never feels like it is unnecessary, and by that there is no singular song that feels like a filler track. Instead, the 10-song track list, with an average song length of around 6:45, feels lengthy but together, nothing pops out of place as an unnecessary addition or sharp curve outside the overall sound of the album.
It should be noted that this album comes in two forms, an original recording with the vocals in Swedish and a second recording in English. This second English recording came from the worry that the lead singer, Mikeal Äkerfeldt, had on whether his mother language would be praised by audiences as much as his English would. Because the Swedish version is technically the original version of the album that is what this review will revolve around.
The vocals by Äkerfeldt are clean and sweeping, they soar high with proud anthemic bursts of Swedish passion while still being pointed and meticulous. Like many progressive rock bands, the vocals are used as a supplementary instrument and a clear example of this can be found at the beginning of “Hjärtat vet vad handen gör” where Äkerfeldt follows the scale sounding instrumentals with precision, shifting his tone to follow the rhythmic rise and fall of the drums and guitar riffs behind him. Other points along the album the vocals are anthemic and grandiose like on “Ingen sanning är allas” where the lead and backup vocals layer to create a very textured and complex sound. Backup vocal instrumentals consist of monk like chants and odd assorted Swedish samplings that elicit a very uneasy feeling at times. These vocal stylings create a stellar gothic and macabre environment that compliments the albums instrumentals amazingly, engulfing the listener into a captivating experience. The 3-minute opening prelude to the album, “Livets trädgård”, perfectly previews this unearthly realm, enticing the listener to explore the dark grim world of In Causa Venenum. This opening track also helps create one of the most epic moments on the album which I’d hate to spoil but falls within the transition of the first two songs that help to demonstrate the grand nature of the record overall.
The album isn’t always grand, however, there are more folk and classical inspired tracks that work as great prog ballads, “Minnets yta” comes to mind as the most successful of these. The opening piano notes and the slow reflective vocals remind me of early Sigur Rós, yet as the song develops it turns into a Mötley Crüe ballad towards the end with the transition in the middle of these two sounds being very much Opeth prog rock. This isn’t the only part of the album that slows down, making it clear that In Causa Venenum is not entirely a metal work but an amalgamation of cherished ideas to form a modern prog rock sound.
Speaking on the instrumentals they have such a rich and authentic retro sound to them that they feel like they should be accompanying an Italian Giallo film from the 1980s. A few songs on the album remind me of the prog rock band Goblin and that is soaring praise. This vintage sound pulls from Swedish folk, jazz, prog rock, and metal influences to create an undoubtably modern sound that revels in its beloved genres. I am someone who believes that nostalgia can be a very cheap ploy to gain attention or praise when it is used vapidly, and this has been something that Opeth has been criticized on in past albums, however, In Causa Venenum’s passioned efforts push away any “cheap” labels that could be placed upon it. Every note, time signature, and lyric were clearly chosen and ordered with a deep conscious effort.
In Causa Venenum does have a compelling pay off, however, it is a journey to get through. Criticisms of the new Opeth album consist of its length and how it reaches the 67-minute mark. I did write earlier that the album doesn’t feel blatantly “unnecessary” with any track and I agree with this statement, there is no song I would instantaneously point out as being an entire filler track. However, the longer tracks do have fat to them, a sometimes-repetitive feel that could be trimmed to give a more compact project. The building instrumentals are consistently used to build tension, atmosphere, or to build to a climax and at times it does feel a tad dragged out and redundant. Some patterned sounds throughout the albums can get tiring at times, but this comes with the length of the project. Perhaps the musical themes could have been used and developed better as the album carries on, but this is a very minimal critique and the harm that this has on the overall experience can be almost nonexistent to those who become engrossed in the atmosphere and world of the music.
Overall, Opeth has created a fantastic meditative prog rock album with In Causa Venenum. It is worth the listen if one has the time, it is an atmospheric macabre album that has a passioned polished sound filled with textured layers that offer a decent amount to explore.
Recommended if you like: Goblin, Katatonia
Recommended Tracks: 2 (Svekets prins), 3 (Hjärtat vet vad handen gör), 5 (Minnets yta) 6 (Charlatan)
Do not play: N/A
Written by Matthew Stratton on 10/17/2019