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Following up a nearly ubiquitous critical smash such as 2000's Blackwater Park might seem like a daunting proposition for most bands, but Sweden's Opeth has made a career out of proving it is not just any other band, wowing observers with its boundless creativity and seemingly effortless brilliance. With producer (and Porcupine Tree leader) Steve Wilson once again on hand to assist in Opeth's quest to remain true to its origins while progressing ever forward, the band's sixth volume, Deliverance offers no great departure by established standards, but rather continues exploring the possibilities of this very fruitful relationship. And sure enough, for all of its continued aggression and overall compliance with death metal's key elements -- blastbeat drumming runs, Mikael Akerfeldt's frequently croaked vocals and eternally bleak lyrics -- Deliverance is altogether more subtle than any of its predecessors, approaching listeners with haunting nuances and masterful dynamics rather than overwhelming them with sheer mass and complexity. Dominated as always by imposing ten-plus minute musical movements, this is creative evolution driven to perfection. Both opener "Wreath" and the ensuing title track eschew traditionally crushing death metal riffs for no less pummeling, hammered staccatos delivered with near-industrial precision. Besides providing a magnificent showcase for drummer Martin Lopez, these performances are so astoundingly fluid that some listeners may find themselves crying for the wild mood swings and harsh time changes of works past -- never realizing that they are all still here, only the transitions are so well orchestrated, one does not initially recognize them. The culmination of this quest for fluidity, third movement "A Fair Judgement" is not only the album's most accessible number, it's arguably also the best. Clearly the evolutionary successor to previous dam-bursting experiments such as Still Life's "Face of Melinda" and Blackwater Park's "The Drapery Falls," its striking harmonies are borne out with a stately, elegant grace punctuated by what is sure to be one of the year's most beautiful guitar solos. A two-minute acoustic interlude called "For Absent Friends" allows for a short break prior to the album's two equally challenging but rewarding final epics, the incredibly multifaceted "Master's Apprentices" and the especially violent "By the Pain I See in Others." All in all, some naysayers could very well label Deliverance as something of a Blackwater Park redux, but this would be a shortsighted reaction given the album's remarkable individual achievement. The fact remains that Opeth is still quite without peer in its contribution to advancing the cause of heavy metal in the new millennium, and in that light, Deliverance stands as yet another work of towering vision from this incredible band. [Deliverance does leave a few unanswered questions, however, seeing as it originally comprised only half of a proposed double-disc set, the second of which was eventually rescheduled for separate release at a later date.]

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