Progressive music, whether it’s prog rock or prog metal, is an oddity. The genre (if it can even be called that) is definitely an acquired taste. Songs tend to be on longer side (some might say longer than absolutely necessary) and they usually incorporate a wide variety of musical sources. Call it what it is: a mish-mash of music. Weird time signatures and crazy instruments from 15th century Asia are the status quo. Why play that solo on a guitar when you can play it on a lute? But for all of the excesses that prog has given us over the years, it can frequently be a satisfying style of music. The bands in the genre tend to be both intellectual and musically talented. And they have produced some stunning works of art over the years (see Rush).
Prog metal is sadly associated with Dream Theater, whose soulless wank-fests collect all of the worst aspects of the progressive genre. Opeth’s Watershed is a glimpse at what prog metal can and should actually be: a base of metal music to which a wide variety of musical influences have been successfully attached. The keyboard solo in Burden is pure jazz. Bridge of Sighs sounds like one of Sabbath’s more laid back blues tracks. And at the 5:48 mark of Lotus Eater, anyone who’s heard Mr. Bungle will immediately think of them. Opeth does a great job of combining metal, blues, jazz, psychedelia, even classical music (see the John Williams-esque moment 3:38 into Heir Apparent) into their songs. This album has a little bit of everything but the complexity here always feels like a necessary byproduct and never an end unto itself. And for all of the musical ground that gets covered even in individual songs, Watershed feels like an album and not just a collection of songs. That may be the single greatest thing you can say about a prog album.
The musicianship on Watershed is top notch for the most part. Mikael Akerfeldt’s clean vocals are a bit underwhelming on the first two tracks but excellent for the remainder of the album. The harsh vocals are understandable for the most part and complement the music. Harsh vocals aren’t easy to pull off properly and rookie acts often let them degrade into screaming for the hell of it. Opeth shows a veteran band’s touch by successfully applying clean and harsh vocals when the music calls for it and not putting either where they don’t belong. The other instruments are played with equal proficiency. The guitar solos are well done. They tend to be on the short side but I think that really reflects their use as organic bridges in the songs rather than showcases for the guitarist’s skills. The big exception here is Heir Apparent, which features some great shredding. The fills provided by the bass also benefit several tracks, although I wish the bass track was mixed louder to give the fills more weight (note: that may have just been the setup on my computer speakers).
The final verdict: A-. This album is what Rush would have produced if they had strayed further into metal territory (also if Geddy Lee was physically able to do harsh vocals instead of exactly the opposite). Definitely worth a listen, especially if prog is your thing and/or you like your metal impossible to categorize.