Watershed is the ninth Opeth album; and in some ways it signifies a new start for them. This is not totally surprising, given the band has a new guitarist and a new drummer now. Also, they they seem to be in a transition phase musically because Watershed, while encompassing lots of their past hallmarks, also delves into new musical territory.
The differences are mainly demonstrated in their impenetrable song structures, as Mikael Akerfeldt has constructed the album in a more evocative way this time time around. Unlike any other Opeth album, Watershed begins with the short acoustic track “Coil”, where strummed acoustic guitars and beautifully arranged string work form the leeway for Akerfeldt and female guest singer Nathalie Lorichs to deliver the verses in an addictively melodic tone. Lorichs’ vocals are amazing, and while the song clocks in at only three minutes, that’s its charm.
Overall, Watershed is no where near as heavy as the previous Opeth discs, as it boasts a more experimental aesthetic throughout. However, the second track “Heir Apparent” is arguably the heaviest, most brutal Opeth song to date. Not only is it crushingly heavy, it is also the first Opeth tune with no clean vocals whatsoever. Sure, they have other tracks like “Blackwater Park”, “Wreath”, “The Amen Corner”, and “April Ethereal” among others, but all of them contain some clean backing vocals, whispers, humming, et cetera whilst “Heir Apparent” is delivered with Akerfeldt’s unmistakable growls from start to finish. Occupied by an assault of guitar fury in its chaotic intro, the piece contains laser-precise drumming and Akerfeldt’s suffocating vocals that are contrasted by deft string work and clean, psychedelic-like guitar harmonies soaring over Axenrot’s percussion. The ending to the song is equally baffling: smooth layers of guitar melodies overlapping each other.
New drummer Martin Axenrot will pleasantly surprise many an Opeth fan with his performance here. Not only does he play with admirable restraint on most of the album, but he also proves how capable a drummer is on “The Lotus Eater”, which is another sound experiment for the band. The drumming on this dissonant tune is stupifyingly good, perhaps among Opeth’s finest. Certainly the most technical song on the disc, it features blast beats over which Akerfeldt sings with clean vocals and then growls atop rapid-fire guitar riffery. Very interesting. The rhythm exercise of the song brims with energy, particularly during the instrumental break where guitars, drums and bass clash with each other without taking away from the composition.
Akerfeldt’s love for the 70’s is exemplified by the gorgeous ballad “Burden”, whose main melody is very similar to the stuff Dan Swano does on Unicorn’s Emotional Wasteland album. A bit like the material on Damnation, this one sees Opeth branching off into pure balladry mode, with moving guitar solos and vocals. The ending is especially confusing, as Akerfeldt’s guitar is manually detuned in the finale. They obviously did it to escape the mellow ballad mood of the tune, and it definitely sets it apart. Despite that weird ending, Opeth proves they can write the best songs in any genre.
This album contains some of Akerfeldt’s most enigmatic and personal lyrics, hence the reason why they have been excluded from the booklet. “Hessian Peel”, the only ten-plus-minute song on the album, is a total embodiment of Opeth’s current musical and lyrical vision. From the sombre acoustic intro to the mournful clean vocals, it evokes a funereal atmosphere where Martin Mendez’ bass stands out in the mix. Too bad the bass in Opeth has been almost inaudible since the band’s Dan Swano-produced albums, but this track has a healthy dose of his bass throbbing beneath Axenrot’s calculated drum battery and the guitar duo’s smashing rhythm parts. The song also contains some backward lyrics, most notable between 2:03-2:22. Obviously a reference to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, the lyrics read: “Out of the courtyard | Come back tonight | My sweet Satan| I see you”. It’s a dark tune with ghostly bursts of atmosphere, and Per Wiberg’s Mellotron sounds as well as the string arrangement further enhance the tune’s power.
Great shifting of dynamics permeats “Porcelain Heart”, the only track Akerfeldt co-wrote with Fredrik Akesson. This is perhaps the only song where polar opposites are merged in a single composition: hammering guitar riffs are side by side with oboes (speaking of which, there is plenty of flutes, oboes, cellos on this album — all live, not keyboard generated) and Akerfeldt’s shift from hellish growls to lullaby-like singing in the middle part attests to his diversity. This is perhaps his most haunting moment — very emotive and heartfelt.
The album ends on a creepy note with “Hex Omega”, a curious mix of waves of guitar dissonance, strings floating across the whole track, and a forlorn piano motif. The droney ending of the song lends it a very creepy feel as well.
Watershed to me is a transition from Ghost Reveries much the same way Still Life was from My Arms, Your Hearse. It was only with Blackwater Park when they fully achieved the sound they were aiming for, so I feel their next album may present a larger picture as to where they want to go musically. At any rate, this album is another worthy addition to Opeth’s back catalog.