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Unclassifiable Eclecticism: Opeth’s Sorceress

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You’re an indie rock fan, and somebody (no one you know) says, “Here, listen to this.” She hands you a vinyl LP – because she knows that you only listen to vinyl – whose cover features a brilliantly plumed, male peacock devouring the eye of a disembodied head atop a pile of bones. You take one look at the decidedly un-indie cover and are about to hand it back with and emphatic, “NO THANK YOU!”

BUT MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…you’re unfairly maligned for your appreciation of bands like FKA Twigs, Perfume Genius, and tUnE-yArDs, and you really don’t feel like spreading the “malignment,” so you’ll let this stranger foist her music upon you. After all, you are an indie fan and you’ve never heard of this band – Opeth? – so their album, Sorceress, is probably worth a spin.

The first track – “Persephone” – is an acoustic number with no vocals. It’s even named after a Greek Queen of Hades. A combination of acoustic music and ancient religion – this is almost like Sufjan, you think.

BUT MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…you missed the mark a little because the next track, “Sorceress,” starts off with this jazz-rock fusion (?) and then transitions to what you’re pretty sure qualifies as metal (?). To confirm your hypothesis, you do a test-drive headbang. And sure enough: metal. Because that’s how you tell, right?

BUT MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…this isn’t metal as you’ve understood it. “Sorceress” is captivating, melodic, genre-bending, and hard – all at the same time. You have a hard time imagining a violent mosh pit.

By the time the second acoustic number “Will O the Wisp,” spills out of the speakers, you’re actively Googling, trying to find an intelligent way to describe what you’re hearing. (Pitchfork and the NME are of no use.) Then you find that Opeth are from Sweden, and they play a kind of music called “progressive metal” and/or “progressive rock.” Their influences are Jethro Tull, Camel, King Crimson, ELP, Black Sabbath, Slayer, and Metallica. Once in a while, they work with a guy called Steven Wilson, who makes “progressive rock” albums himself and with his band Porcupine Tree.

Evidently, Opeth were into the underground, before you (and maybe even Persephone?) were into the underground. In fact, “Chrysalis” makes you realize that you’ve been wrapped up for too long in your indie cocoon. Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soaring vocals, the band’s playing and dynamics, and the sheer energy of the song instantly metamorphose you.

AND MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…you’ve discovered that innovation, experimentation, and artistic freedom also exist outside what’s classified as indie rock.

AND MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…you think that Opeth is a rare band, a band whose eclecticism makes them unclassifiable. The middle-Eastern rhythms of “The Seventh Sojourn” (didn’t your dad have an album by that name by The Moody Blues?); the space-rock atmospherics, heavy drumming of Martin Axenrot, and once-in-lifetime vocals of Åkerfeldt; the psychedelic guitars of “Strange Brew” (your mom had an album called Disraeli Gears with a song with the same title on it); and the band’s dexterous approach to harmonized vocals, time signature changes, complex drumming, and delicate keyboard sections of “Era” make the second half of Sorceress one of the most exciting and intense extended pieces of music you’ve heard in ages.

MAYBE…JUST MAYBE…Opeth (and some of their “progressive” brethren) make “unclassifiable” music. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the term “progressive music”: “unclassifiable.” It’s “unclassifiable” because no one has dared to dream or perform it yet.