If there was one 2019 album that kinda lurked in the back of my mind, it is Opeth‘s In Cauda Venenum. The piece generated a constant and considerable background chatter, one that we found difficult to ignore. To the point that the crew here finally decided to give it a go.
The band graced the fan crowd with their 13th installment late last year. If this will be their lucky number remains to be seen. But they sure tried their best with an English and a Swedish version on that very same ticket. So, this review solely takes into account only da lyrics provided in good ‘ol English. We don’t do Swedish, much as I like the country.
Some will argue that In Cauda Venenum should have found its place on the top 10 that released at the very beginning of the year. And after the first notes ring out, one is tempted to agree.
But not so fast. The sting of the piece probably is in the tail, as the album title so aptly indicates. So, patience and due process must prevail, not undue haste.
RockmusicRaider sometimes has an insane penchant towards these records from the ’70s and ’80s. An era, where Progressive Rock was still young and seriously in search of itself. And in truth, the reviewer community over here did not quite open this particular pandora’s box very widely yet and kept to slim pickings for now. Far too great is the danger to over-saturate the review pipe with ‘old’ stuff.
Yet, In Cauda Venenum projects exactly that dusty feeling of wobbly turntables and scratched vinyl. Progressive Rock with – sometimes – a certain alternative tinge, but in full retro mode. Coupled with the prog accouterments the modern band likes to adorn itself with. So, I don’t quite know what box of dusty plastic goodies Opeth ransacked. But by Loki, this record truly checks out at the complex counter.
They heave that heavy mix of Jethro Tull, Yes and a weird, rosy version of Uriah Heep at you. Coupled with modern influences of the likes of Steven Wilson and Haken. And eerie similarities in texture and intonation that the latest piece of The Reticent so aptly depicted. Heart in Hand will lend itself to that comparison pretty well. Yet again, Opeth fails to add that portion of compelling emotion into the mix. Something the former truly excelled in.
It is as if Opeth went ahead, collected whatever worked with other bands, and threw that helter-skelter into an album. All of that mixed into a sometimes almost kaleidoscopic mélange of sounds and flavors that we already heard somewhere. Like the tasty Lovelorn Crime, where we get Reticent-esque elements all over again. Or Charlatan that strikes out pretty hard and almost metal, just to mix its sound-juice into something that somehow seems to emerge straight from Lucassen’s Guilt Machine.
In a way, Venenum tries to gain legitimacy by improving on stuff that somehow already found itself on our fabled turntable at some point. And the RMR deck crew took some exception to that. That said, the similarities are white-washed enough to pass for Opeth‘s own concoction. And they truly are masterfully strung together to form a very own brew of sounds that we did not quite find in our jukebox before.
Of course, none of that geekery would have been possible without Mikael Åkerfeldt. Truly tasty riffs and sometimes tremendous solos try to keep pace with pretty awesome vocals that never disappoint. Sometimes retro, sometimes more modern, but always right on cue and just what the doctor ordered. And those seconded by the keys that never gripe, a mix of traditional keyboard and mellotron sounds by Joakim Svalberg.
Yet in the end, In Cauda Venenum becomes the victim of its own complexity. And that’s a pity because the dense theme chosen could spawn a fantastically tremendous storyline. The late Wilderun record just demonstrated what happens when that principle is applied, by the way.
Instead, we found a record that tries hard to go down the latter’s road to fame in terms of storyline. And by doing that, it loses consistency by projecting a somewhat ill-fated, knotty, and overly intricate sophistication onto the note sheet. A bit like those scientifically tainted records from Ayeron that often lose themselves somewhere in space and – by doing that – lose the fan crowd at the same time.
But that doesn’t mean we have a bad record on our hands.
Musicianship and songwriting are pretty outstanding and up there with the best. Venenum delivers prog like any other prog band out there. In contrast, however, Opeth‘s proficiency truly shines, coupled with a pretty flawless execution for vocals and technique.
Yet sadly, these black and white facets of this piece turn this record into one of those love/hate affairs. This particular poisoned tail fascinates me with its prowess and its juicy soundscapes. Yet, with this aforementioned muddy confusion throughout its drawn-out length, it just does not captivate enough to generate the attention and respect it surely deserves.