Many years ago, I worked in retail with a woman who wanted to be a professional baker. She was great at it, and one year, during “Black Friday” shopping weekend (where, typically, retail staff members saw their lunch breaks reduced to fifteen minutes versus the regular half-hour), she brought in a terrific chocolate cake. It probably only lived about an hour.
A week later, she brought another cake in – same recipe, same frosting and everything – and it too was devoured in a flash.
By the seventh or eighth week, people had grown indifferent to the cake. It was still expertly baked, still (probably) delicious, but “familiarity breeds contempt” is an overused cliche for a reason.
You see where this is going, right?
In Cauda Venenum is the thirteenth studio album from the Swedish band Opeth, and the fourth in their shift to full-on progressive rock from their death metal/prog/folk origins. It is my duty to preface this by saying the album is really good, and if you are brand new to this band, you will be extremely impressed. You might even add this to your personal “Best Of” list for 2019. Mikael Akerfeldt and company have never phoned one in and still do not.
And yet, there is something unsettling about this effort, not in Opeth’s typical mist-and-dread-soaked way, but unsettling in its familiarity for those who have known the band well. It is in the way you can anticipate what that next note’s going to be, and the descent into another minor chord, and the generally spooky, Hammer Horrors demeanor of it all. No one is expecting Opeth to suddenly go all sunshine-and-lollypops just to shake up the stiffs. They are doing their thing here, and it is a thing that has held them in good stead since 1994.
In other words, this is their chocolate cake, and they have all the reason in the world to keep making it. But you ought to tweak the formula now and again to keep the presentation fresh.
That might be why the record is being presented in two versions: in their native Swedish and in an English modification. This is definitely something they haven’t attempted before, but this doesn’t really change the inherent sameness a listener might experience, having taken this next leg of their journey starting with 2011’s Heritage.
While I certainly enjoyed several of their earlier records with the thunderous metal sections with death-growl vocals, I cannot say that my feelings toward the new album are because it lacks those doomy portions. I know a lot of people who have and will continue to feel negatively that Opeth have left that aspect behind, but honestly, I’m not one of them. By 2005’s Ghost Reveries, that angle seemed to have run its course anyway. I think my feelings toward In Cauda Venenum reflects that sense of overfamiliarity, just in a different form.
Yet, one cannot say the new record is bad. Indeed, “Lovelorn Crime” is a great track, as is “Heart in Hand” and “Continuum.” I only wish that the band felt a bit more free to mess with the mixture. This is an expertly made concoction performed by very talented musicians, yet the sense that we’ve tasted this taste one time too often hinders my ability to offer Opeth’s In Cauda Venenum my wholehearted approval.
Incidentally, the album’s title, translated from Latin, means “poisonous tail” or, roughly translated, “unwanted surprise at the end.” It could be that, in this case, the surprise is not all that surprising.