A Devil’s Dozen – Opeth

I wasn’t quite ready for Opeth.

I stumbled across Blackwater Park on the shelf at Best Buy. I had never heard of the band, let alone heard a lick of their music, so truthfully I had no good reason to buy it. I think I had a vague notion that Music for Nations was a metal label, but that was the extent of my information. The cover was mostly plain but somehow alluring. The song titles were evocative. Similar blind buys of Iron Maiden’s The X Factor, Dream Theater’s Scenes from a Memory and Neurosis’s Sovereign had also exploded my musical horizons in the preceding years, and in fact, on the same day I bought Blackwater Park, I also bought Nick Cave’s No More Shall We Part on pure whim. Curiosity is a hell of a thing, though, so I brought home the CD with that strange logo that looked like it had insects in it, and I remember puzzling over the band picture in the booklet of these hippy-looking dudes standing on a bridge. What the hell, Sweden?

Still, despite my burgeoning love of more underground sounds (random buys of Anathema’s Judgement, Cradle of Filth’s Bitter Suites to Succubi, and My Dying Bride’s The Angel and the Dark River had preceded this), I wasn’t ready for Opeth. I hit play on “The Leper Affinity,” but couldn’t hear anything. I cranked the volume on the bookshelf stereo in my bedroom just at the moment that the opening sustained piano chord is leveled up and the music wallops in at full tilt. The angle of the drums right at that opening, how they lean in physically, almost threateningly, while the guitars tangle the space around the beats, and then Mikael Åkerfeldt’s harrowing opening line, “We enter winter once again…” The whole thing was nearly more than I knew how to process, but it struck a very palpable resonance, and at 4:46, when Åkerfeldt broke through with that clean singing voice, it was all over. I was in it.

The world, I think, wasn’t quite ready for Opeth either.

Stockholm’s finest export (by juuuuust a hair – I love you forever, ABBA), though formed in 1990, didn’t emerge with their first recorded work until 1995, making Opeth a relative latecomer to the early ‘90s explosion of death metal. Rather than trying to play catch up to any established sound or act, though, Opeth’s extended gestational period seems to have been spent crafting a perfectly independent version of itself, because once Orchid was released, there was no stopping. They were in it. Opeth’s debut was somber and morose, certainly, but also suffused with an almost baroque sensibility that derived its intensity from the clarity of its focus rather than any ragged aggression in delivery. Grace and delicacy are not often held up as cardinal virtues in heavy metal, but Mikael Åkerfeldt’s and Peter Lindgren’s guitars move around each other with such sternly disciplined ease that it’s not difficult to imagine the players as dancers in the court at Versailles.

But what do you do with a band like this? At nearly every stage of their career, Opeth has operated on a plane of such titanic skill and accomplishment – not to mention uniqueness – that writing about them seems almost unnecessary. Is it possible to listen to Opeth without being bowled over by their self-evident excellence? Nevertheless, such is the task we have set before ourselves.

So, even from Orchid’s earliest missive, Opeth’s mission statement was plain: to be just outrageously fucking great at music. Each album has expanded on this mission in its own way, from Morningrise’s expanded compositional complexity to My Arms, Your Hearse’s cyclical construction and sepia-toned burnished prog gestures, from Still Life’s galloping brutality to Blackwater Park’s utterly perfect Steven Wilson production and loping, stridently melodic leads, from Deliverance’s punishingly labyrinthine whiplashing to Damnation’s folk-drone dreamworld, from Ghost Reveries’s majestic and silkily deadly pomp to Watershed’s beguiling and capital-P Prog-death whirlwind, from Heritage’s taut, sinuous knottiness to Pale Communion’s intensely vulnerable spaciousness, and from Sorceress’s diabolically playful splattering of equal parts doomed down and folked-out pop-prog to whatever surprises In Cauda Venenum may reveal.

Despite all that, truth be told, as superficially different as Opeth ca. 2019 sounds from the choppering tones that introduced the band via “In the Mist She Was Standing,” the spiritual and aesthetic distance the band has traveled in that roughly quarter-century is almost null. In the liner notes to Anathema’s Falling Deeper, Daniel Cavanaugh wrote about that band’s shapeshifting career that “I always find the statement ‘Anathema’s music has changed beyond all recognition’ to be something of a myth. Sure, the way the music is performed and produced has changed and grown immeasurably but the heart of the music, the melody and harmony, the structures… [remain] the same as ever…” You could likely split Opeth’s fanbase roughly down the middle in terms of whether or not they believe the same thought applies to Opeth. Because the most pressing question in the nonexistent discipline of Opeth Hermeneutics is: Did Opeth essentially become a different band from Heritage onward?

I think the basic answer, unless you are a no-account grouch for whom no-growl Opeth is by definition no-good Opeth, is clearly: no. This has been the same band, animated by the same spirit, since day one. The most notable shifts have been matters of degree rather than of kind, and have often turned on personnel change. The onboarding of Martin Lopez on My Arms, Your Hearse resulted in a much more fluid, supple style of drumming than the rather brittle, mathematical patterns of the first two albums, while the switch from Lopez to Martin Axenrot after Ghost Reveries found the band with a much more versatile player better suited to the increasing stylistic diversity they were pursuing. Similarly, the addition of Per Wiberg on keyboards, Rhodes, and Mellotron for Ghost Reveries made even plainer some of the more latent prog influences of the band, as the expanded instrumentation (making permanent some of what Steven Wilson filled in temporarily on Deliverance and Damnation) brought Deep Purple, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, and Yes burbling to the surface. But to put it more finely, anyone hearing the guitar solo in “Benighted” from 1999 should hardly have lost her shit when, 12 years later, Opeth released an album like Heritage.

Because, production and distortion aside, perhaps the one thing that has most truly set Opeth apart (other than the uniformly brilliant vocals of Åkerfeldt) is their penchant for extremely long, elegant melodies, often spread across several measures per figure. Listening to the opening melody on “Bleak,” for example, feels more like listening to peak progressive Rush or underrated jazz legend Oliver Nelson than it does to death metal. But then again, Opeth is a death metal band like a Swiss army knife is a can opener. Yes, but…

Truly, where else do you hear this kind of thing? And what, other than sit and listen and grin in awe, do you do with this? I think the only reasonable reaction is to spread the gOpethspel as far as sound can reach and ears have purchase. As someone generally interested in seeing as many people as possible exposed to excellent music, Opeth is one of the best mercenary bands out there. That is, Opeth can work just as well to convince beard-stroking prog fiends to dip their toes into spicier waters as to persuade death metal troglodytes to expand their horizons. The beautiful thing, though, is that Opeth as a band has never particularly felt like they were intending to achieve either. The progression of their career feels instead like a rather clear-cut example of a band following a very persistent and persuasive muse.

For nearly twenty-five years now, this superlative band has been entirely in the business of making complex music sound effortless, devilishly heavy music sound weightless, and deeply personal music sound universal.

If the world isn’t ready for Opeth, then perhaps it is our task to ready the world for Opeth.

[DAN OBSTKRIEG]

GHOST OF PERDITION

[Ghost Reveries, 2005]

There are a few things that make “Ghost of Perdition” a model example of Opeth and particularly Mikael Åkerfeldt’s songwriting acumen. They all have to do with the seriousness with which he treats contrast. First, the immediacy of it. Åkerfeldt is a master craftsman of light and dark and “Ghost of Perdition” thrusts the listener into their intersection straight from the gate. Eight quietly echoing and foreboding notes open the song and then are overcome immediately by a crushing wave of heavy riff, rolling bass drum, and Åkerfeldt’s indomitable growl. It’s a song about life’s last moments, a young man’s apparently absinthe-fueled observation of his mother’s demise at the hands of a demon or maybe even the Devil Himself. Or perhaps just her own – and his – grappling with demented memories of a lifetime that once held promise but which regret dominates at last.

The remainder of the song explores those final moments, to varying degrees and depths, from both perspectives, establishing the second exemplary aspect of “Ghost of Perdition”: the complexity of the relationship between ostensibly opposing forces within that contrast. Listen to the rise and fall of riffs and verses and in the melody reflecting the mother’s heaving struggle between holding onto life, indeed believing she deserves to, and conceding the right to fight, ultimately paying the wages of sin.

Finally, individual elements work to evoke the full spectrum of emotion in that room. The urgency in the riffs, dry and twisting, carry all the tension of the will to endure, while Åkerfeldt’s leads are beautiful and forlorn and convey a tired longing for any end at all. “Ghost of Perdition” is a reflection of the uncomfortable truth that life and death are forces at once at odds and interdependent. [LONE WATIE]

BLEAK

[Blackwater Park, 2001]

What an odd title for what is arguably Opeth’s best song on what is arguably Opeth’s best album (and boy do they have a lot of both). Breathing like a bear slumbering in its ice cave, the track builds a solid foundation around a riff so good that Åkerfeldt is probably still feeling the lingering effects of the orgasm he had immediately upon discovering it. “Bleak” has everything that makes Opeth great. For starters, there is a perfect balance between electric and acoustic with the two blended and layered for the entire track. Similarly, the track employs a perfect balance of harsh and clean vocals, both of which are utterly memorable, infectious, and singable. Even the harsh sections, primarily the opening, are catchy enough that you will find yourself growling them during the most inappropriate of times. (Like that time your aunt was simply asking you to assist her with her motorized stair chair and you started screaming “Beating… heart still beating for the cause.” Remember the lashing that your father gave you after that one? Almost as memorable as the riffs in “Bleak.”) Also employed across “Bleak” is a myriad of guitar tones; one acoustic-tinny and sharp while another is loose and down-tuned. The electric used for soloing is a delicious caramel while the thicker rhythm guitar is distorted and fuzzy, allowing the lead guitar to take a more focused approach with tighter, more decipherable gain. And the bass tone is just warm and inviting like an automatic molasses injector pumping that goodness directly into your heart. The resulting mix is a sound best illustrated by a wall pockmarked with beautiful mosaic glass that is then shoved into your brain making you love Opeth for life. Opeth is like water or air; it’s something that our bodies simply need to survive and “Bleak” is the greatest example of why that is a scientific fact rather than mere conjecture. Seriously, get to the 5:23 mark and check out that jazzy, clean, mid-heavy little guitar “solo” and tell me you can live another five minutes without Opeth. You can’t. [MANNY-O-WAR]

GODHEAD’S LAMENT

[Still Life, 1999]

“Godhead’s Lament,” Opeth’s best song scattered amidst an obscene pile of Opeth’s best songs, paints an ideal picture of precisely why this band means as much as it does to so many: it’s an emotional rollercoaster—a tale wrapped inside an even longer tale whose narrative is as literal as it can be figurative.

Wait, what the hell do I mean by that.

There is, of course, a literal story here—Still Life spins a yarn about a devilish man who returns from exile in hopes of winning back the hand of his beloved, only to experience some terrifically Shakespearean buggery by story’s end. But even if the listener never bothers to unravel the somewhat vague lyrics, you still feel as if you’re on an epic adventure inside a purely musical narrative because of all the ostentatious pageantry Mikael Åkerfeldt weaves so seamlessly into his songwriting. And pal, as far as textbook definitions of musical pageantry are concerned, “Godhead’s Lament” takes the damned cake and eats the absolute hell out of it, too.

This is the chapter in the story where our protagonist mulls over the possible consequences of his verboten return while spying his deary-loo from a distance, so it has all the dread, bravado, undying devotion and torment one might expect from such a script, and it delivers it all with music that tosses, turns, flips and soars to the point of emotional detonation. Parading so many different moods in a single track ain’t an easy trick, but “Godhead’s Lament” does the deed in spades, and it does so while showcasing what could very well be Åkerfeldt’s greatest strengths as a songwriter: he is an absolute master of seamless transitions. Moreover, there may be no smoother gear-shifter in our scene today. No better guardian of the bridge. No greater changer of heart. Plenty of other songs throughout Still Life do similarly, but “Godhead’s Lament” hits those peaks just a little higher. In fact, the transition right around the 2:55 mark is one of the most poignant metal’s ever managed. The bits of melodic guitar that precede it set the stage perfectly, peppering Åkerfeldt’s growl before a magnificent lead lifts the listener into one of the album’s most exquisite mellow runs.

“Godhead’s Lament”: the entirety of Opeth’s grandness woven neatly into a single, flawless 10-minute song.

[CAPTAIN]

THE NIGHT AND THE SILENT WATER

[Morningrise, 1996]

You know you’re dealing with a true progressive rock band when an eleven-minute epic is only of average length, but this one’s run time falls squarely in the middle of Morningrise’s five tracks and 66 minutes. Inspired by the then-recent death of Mikael Akerfeldt’s grandfather, “The Night And The Silent Water” opens with dueling intertwined guitars that feel like two alternate takes of a similar idea. Akerfeldt’s and Lindgren’s guitars pull together and then move slightly apart in complementary and occasionally contrasting manners, weaving a folksy melody atop Nordin’s drums and De Farfalla’s twisting counter-melodic bass line. The more you listen, the more it appears that those two guitar leads shouldn’t quite coalesce—and yet, of course, they absolutely do. From there, “Night” flirts with further folksy melodies as it dances easily across the intersections of black, death, and folk metals, never landing entirely on one of the three, blurring the lines we fans and critics hold so dear to compartmentalize and digest our entertainment. Black metal rasps sit comfortably alongside deathy growls and the cleaner vocals that would later come to dominate Opeth’s sound, while those dueling guitar melodies continually bounce off each other and balance beautifully against haunting acoustic guitar passages. All in, “The Night And The Silent Water” runs through most of progressive metal’s usual tricks in its 11 minutes and it does so in absolutely stunning fashion before the whole of it culminates in a whispered rhythmic half-chant atop a soaring brace of ascending double-picked riffs. Opeth has changed much in the decades since Morningrise, but what hasn’t changed is how damned great Akerfeldt has always been at constructing moods within a song, and this somber and yet oddly uplifting track is one fine example. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]

A FAIR JUDGEMENT

[Deliverance, 2002]

To me, what sets Opeth apart from so many other bands tinkering with traditional musicality in their death/prog metal is the fact that they honor the idea of “a lovely tune.” Which is to say, they are not intimidated by the beauty they can create. They are grounded enough in their knowledge and abilities as metal artists to allow their work to be beautiful. Their best melodies fit easily with any James Taylor or Simon and Garfunkel tune. In fact, sometimes it seems like they simply find the areas of those types of songs where heavy could live just as easily as light. Then they deliver that heavy.

The majority of “A Fair Judgement” is as gorgeous a piece of writing as any singer/songwriter ever penned. Earnest, simple, and soulful enough for your mom or grandma; yet dwelling easily within the milieu of Opeth’s catalog. And what’s more, it acts as a perfect counterpoint to “Deliverance,” making this album one of the great triumphs of their career. The final movement, where the band drags in some slightly more modernistic doomish metal, drives the above points home. This band can misfire, certainly, but when they hit their target – even when the target is subdued and emotionally open – they are without peer. [CHRIS SESSIONS]

THE AMEN CORNER

[My Arms, Your Hearse, 1998]

A lot of Opeth tracks feature long, mood-setting intros, but the opening minutes of “The Amen Corner” truly feel like an overture. It begins with a huge burst of bombast that only gains in bombast as the drums thump with bombast and riffs get sassy and catchy (and bombastic). It then gets downright mean with a dissonant hook and one of Åkerfeldt’s finest introductory howl-growls. Most of all, it flows, and what follows is an almost perfect succession of passages that don’t just live up to that great intro but form a holistic song that serves a gargantuan album. To say Opeth was done with the riff salad days is an understatement. A catchy “verse” allows itself to gain in intensity; a gorgeous passage of acoustic guitars welcome in a soft lead; that soft lead becomes a louder lead during a doomy section; that doomy section perfectly gives way to a soaring section of singing and soloing, bringing bombast of a different sort; and a spiraling prog/death maelstrom leads to an explosive climax.

Finally, a resolution of quiet guitars isn’t so much a resolution at all, but rather an unsettling “to be continued” statement. Anyone familiar with My Arms knows what follows this brief respite from the onslaught, and what follows is the only track on the album that could possibly unseat “The Amen Corner” as the album’s centerpiece (scroll down for that one). These two tracks are basically inseparable, as is “The Amen Corner” is from the preceding “Madrigal” interlude. A holistic song within a cohesive, perfectly flowing album, indeed. [ZACH DUVALL]

SERENITY PAINTED DEATH

[Still Life, 1999]

My fascination with Opeth is rooted in the My Arms, Your Hearse tracks from the Identity and Blackened label samplers of the late 90s/early aughts; I loved using those long songs for a midnight smoke break during my radio show. I had barely begun to explore Orchid when Still Life was released. Though only available in the states as an import, a dedicated listener made sure I got a copy in my hands. It didn’t take long to hook me and ratchet my fascination up to full-blown fandom.

Although it was fun to play “Face of Melinda” due to sharing a name with a girl I was seeing at the time, it was the much darker “Serenity Painted Death” that became the standout. In retrospect, those unspoken dedications were probably a bad idea given the subject matter, but what we didn’t know at the time can’t hurt us now (but please don’t apply that as a universal rule).

Grabbing the listener right away is the sort of blackened prog that the band would soon perfect on Blackwater Park. The stomp riff that accompanies the unconventional chorus is strangely hypnotic, and the acoustic section that begins around the midway point and flows seamlessly a minute later into fiery growls and electrics is simply stunning. When the final chorus segues into a gorgeous acoustic outro, you won’t even realize that nine minutes have passed, or that the song is about to end. Shit, I’d better snuff this cigarette and get back inside for a stop set. [DAVE PIRTLE]

UNDER THE WEEPING MOON

[Orchid, 1995]

Orchid is a remarkable album in (at least) two ways:

1. It is remarkable for how self-assured, fully formed, and cohesive an album it is; and
2. It is remarkable for how it so quickly paled in comparison to what followed.

This latter point is far more an indication of Opeth’s absurdly prodigious early development into a truly peerless band than it is an indictment of any fault with Orchid itself. “Under the Weeping Moon,” like so much of Opeth’s very early work, operates at a level of stately reserve, using its sharper edges and more guttural Åkerfeldtisms to shade the narrative rather than dominate the plot. The pacing and melancholy tone of its opening owes more to Dissection (whose Somberlain debut had been released the previous year) than Dismember, and while the song soon opens up to a more forcefully deathly gallop, the shading and suggestion of still-nascent second wave black metal atmospherics are rarely far away.

When he snarl-yowls the song’s title, Åkerfeldt sounds like someone aiming to pay back some existential grievance against his studio microphone. Meanwhile, the plucked guitar and feedback-laced midsection of the song finds Opeth in a somewhat rare moment of suspension – certainly the song is building ominously toward some resolution, but in its crackle and menace, it paints for the listener a landscape of craggy hills and dense tree cover, all of which clear suddenly to reveal a starkly empty sky, save for that bare, haunting bulb of the moon. Opeth would eventually improve at stitching together the various transitions and hinges between movements, but the clear break between the song’s post-midsection choppering and the closing acoustic and clean vocal section actually serves to highlight the breadth of the band’s ambitions. “We can already do this, so just you wait…” [DAN OBSTKRIEG]

REVERIE / HARLEQUIN FOREST

[Ghost Reveries, 2005]

I bet Mikael Akerfeldt kicks ass at Tetris.

I say that because the man is simply a wizard at fitting pieces together, compiling from disparate jagged parts a sum far greater than the whole. I could say that about the vocal melodies, the hooks he weaves atop odd-time shifts and prog-rock structures; I could say that about the rhythms that Akerfeld, Mendez, and Lopez interlock with ease. But I’m a guitarist at heart, and the power of the riff compels me, so I’ll talk about those:

Witness the staccato, syncopated introductory motif to “Reverie / Harlequin Forest,” choppy chords and a haunting melody offset with the first of the song’s two killer serpentine riffs. Most bands would be content to build the song around that and the melodic chorus that separates the verses, toss in that growl-heavy bridge part, and BAM, the song would be done, five minutes long and all of it filled with stellar riffing.

But of course, Opeth is not most bands.

So from there, “Reverie / Harlequin Forest” breaks down into a descending chord pattern on 12-string guitar, leading into a natural harmonic melody that harks all the way back to “Roundabout.” By the time the Martins return – they being then-drummer Lopez and bassist Mendez – “Harlequin Forest” has taken a turn from metal to rock, still minor key and moody, somber lead melodies balanced against strummed acoustic guitars. Until an almost-return to the chorus chords from earlier, and then the second of those serpentine riffs, the better of the two. As Akerfeldt’s and Lindgren’s guitars coil together like snakes themselves, that riff lurches into another staccato stomper. It’s a one-two punch that provides a damned fine closing for a grandiose piece of perfect songwriting, all the pieces fitted together with no stumbles, no rough edges, no wasted space. The puzzle is complete. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]

HESSIAN PEEL

[Watershed, 2008]

It should’ve been the closer. Why wasn’t “Hessian Peel” the closer? Maybe Åkerfeldt & Co. felt the need to conclude their genuine watershed moment with a more accurate depiction of what was to come. Were they even aware of what was on the horizon way back in 2008?

I’ve often felt the following question would be particularly fun to throw at an enduring band: given the chance, would you opt to change the song order on any of your classic albums? Most would likely say no, because, let’s face it, there must have been a reason for the song order in the first place, right? Watershed feels like a special case, though, because it carries the singular distinction of being the final Opeth album to feature actual death metal, and “Hessian Peel” increases the uniqueness by holding the honor of being the very last song to showcase Åkerfeldt’s impressive growl wrapped around swaths of death metal hijinks. Eleven years and (very soon to be) four albums later, that particular point on the timeline seems significant enough to award “Hessian Peel” the lofty status of «amazing closer», but that distinction, as we all know, wasn’t meant to be.

One thing for certain: “Hessian Peel” is a weird song. Perfectly appropriate, given the fact that Watershed as a whole represents one of the strangest Opeth albums to date, musically and lyrically. In the case of this particular track, Åkerfeldt eventually disclosed that the title actually refers to…um…LP sleeves, which, you know, ties in perfectly with the song’s lyrics dealing with a recently deceased mother, weeping children, and a backward message that alludes to a secret meeting with Satan in a courtyard. This was all apparently inspired by the tragic death of one of Åkerfeldt’s ex-girlfriends, who left behind a son after committing suicide. Accordingly, the music reflects the sort of inward “peak sentiments” one would expect when faced with such an unfortunate scenario.

The first four minutes don’t even sniff of metal. A notably dark and swift stroke sets the stage for a profusion of melancholic, proggy, psychedelic folk / rock flecked with oboe and light string orchestration—essentially the strong King Crimson deference the band fully mastered during their second phase. It is absolutely stunning work, these early minutes, and any misgivings about Martin Axenrot’s ability to fill the shoes of Martin Lopez behind the kit are laid to fucking rest in these moments.

Then, BOOM: all hell breaks loose around 5:45. A roaring “Light comes on / the signal for us to end our lives” hits the listener’s face, followed by a surprisingly peppy lead that in turn gets wiped out by the very last “OOAH!!” and a particularly fucked up riff right around 6:30. And as expected, the gear-shifting ain’t over yet—the band shifts back to its folky / proggy / smooth face, underscoring a fancy little fret run that sounds a bit like a sneaky thief, and then a mighty roar and one last measure of twisted death makes a curtain call around 9:30, putting a notably profound period on the end of Opeth’s death age. A perfect death eulogy. [CAPTAIN]

DEMON OF THE FALL

[My Arms, Your Hearse, 1998]

Hard to fathom, I know, but people everywhere choose to carry around terrible opinions. One such terrible opinion you might see snooted about is that “Demon of the Fall” shouldn’t make a self-respecting Opeth fan’s list because it’s too obvious. An easy pick. The “big hit.” Well, okay. A few thoughts: 1) Please take the express train to Eat Shitsville, Population: You. 2) Yes, you’re goddamned right “Demon of the Fall” is obvious. It is obviously one of the finest songs from the fine career of one of heavy metal’s finest bands. Strange as it may seem coming from such a frequent bastion of bullshittery as music criticism (hi, hello, please don’t call us music critics), obscurantism is rarely an asset. Oftentimes, a thing that seems self-evidently to be righteous and tremendous actually is so. Thus, here we are: “Demon of the Fall” simply does the business. An unstoppable opening riff that churns and thwomps titanically. A fiery acoustic break that previews the world-destroying chorus. An absurdly drawn-out howl from Åkerfeldt that leads into the chorus (if you listening closely, it’s actually two howls stitched together, but each one runs about 10 seconds, which is a LONG time to make that kind of sound). A chorus that, as mentioned, is world-destroying, as in, it picks up your puny world in its hand and crumbles it to glorious dust.

The musical reason that the indelible chorus lunges out of the speakers so fiercely is because the band drops into an 8-beat meter divided as 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2, which makes the ear anticipate a ninth beat such that the last 1-2 is a splash of cold water. Or maybe a splash of pickled herring on an open fjord-jumping wound. Whatever. Of course, Opeth’s entire career is more or less built on sophisticated musical moves that feel both natural and inevitable even as they’re piledriving your head into a literate mush. The guitar figure that emerges after the clean vocal chorus at the song’s end and is then mirrored in the acoustic outro is another such moment, a thing of such ridiculous beauty that it only underscores Opeth’s world-beating confidence that they play it for about 30 seconds and then forget it. They’re saying, “We have so much great shit, we can use as a throwaway the kind of huge moment most bands would kill for.”

So, obvious? Hell yes, and also: utterly mandatory.

[DAN OBSTKRIEG]

DELIVERANCE

[Deliverance, 2002]

For an adventurous mind, the lyrics, song titles, and music of an Opeth song can offer a real Bermuda Triangle in which to get perpetually stuck. One of the best examples of this is the whole Damnation / Deliverance package and specifically the title track of its heavier side. “Deliverance” is much more than merely one of the most iconic metal songs of this millennium and the rightful replacement for “Demon of the Fall” as the closing epic of Opeth’s live set. It is an endless source of metaphor, of interpretation within its cryptic storyline portraying a messy string of thoughts of a serial killer, and a title that appears to be the key to the riddle. It is also an the amazing musical free fall that begins as abruptly with one of those sharp-cornered mid-era Opeth riffs that poor Martín Mendez has been trying to hopelessly pad with his smooth bass lines for 20 years. Finally, it ends gloriously with Opeth’s most innovative use of rhythms courtesy of the guitars and then-drummer Martin Lopez (drumming that Martin Axenrot has taken as a legacy to preserve in honor of his predecessor and the band’s fans).

And the nine minutes that separate the abruptness and glory are no fucking joke either. “Deliverance” offers the listener a world of riffs and leads from death metal to prog rock and anything in between. There’s also an absolute delight of a solo and a versatile vocal performance ranging from some of the most powerful growls to some of the most delicate clean singing Åkerfeldt has ever exhibited in any of his masterful songs. Most importantly, the bits and pieces are so skillfully united that the whole assembly rejects categorization despite the obvious nods to this and that genre, making “Deliverance” a groundbreaking, expansive composition the likes of which only Opeth is… no, were able create only at their very, very best.

How ‘bout those metaphors and interpretations, then? Well for one, the lyrics never say there is no deliverance. Further, through empirical studies we know that serial killers are many times unable to explain why they do what they do, just like the killer in the lyrics. Finally, there’s that unnecessarily wild psychological theory that regular people are just unmade serial killers. It’s like we all just follow the same white noise in our heads. It makes us do different things, but the subliminal message is always the same. Maybe there’s deliverance – or even just a brief moment of gratification – waiting if you could just look at your… nah, fuck this bullshit, I’ve got stuff to do. [JUHO MIKKONEN]

BLACKWATER PARK

[Blackwater Park, 2001]

“Blackwater Park” deserves two particular and personal nods. First, it is among the most intense songs I’ve ever heard live, which should not come as a surprise. As the 12-minute closer to an album almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, it has to be huge, and it manages to raise the stakes for everything that came before it (which is quite a thing) while giving the album an almost apocalyptic finish with its ever-building latter half. And on a parallel note, it is easily the most suspenseful song I’ve had the privilege to experience in person. This suspense, this gripping nature, this joyous anxiety… it permeates every second, and is earned as much by the album’s quiet material as by its progressive death metal prowess.

That suspense is born in the song’s first act twist. After not even three minutes of heft threaten to demolish both mind and soul, the metal drops out, intentionally stopping the momentum and leaving the listener hanging. What follows is a few minutes of quiet, eerie, and beautiful clean guitar lines. It is during this stretch that the song, in its live incarnation about 15 years ago, held a crowd of over 1,000 rabid fans in absolute stasis. Never have I seen a venue seem so still, so incapable of movement, and so ready to explode when given the opportunity.

This song is more than willing to oblige. The rest of the track is the archetype of a finale; perfect riff follows perfect riff as Mike Åkerfeldt spews some of the most memorable, albeit ambiguous lyrics of his career through some dominant, haggard vocals. (Do the words speak of the self-destruction of mankind? Of the inescapable nature of death? Both? Are these one in the same?) Every passage elevates that which came before, proving that a listener can be held in suspense even while experiencing that ever-desired catharsis. There are grooves and irresistibly catchy riffs; there are blackened, dissonant lines; there is Martin Mendez playing the most antagonistic slap bass ever recorded; and there is that finish. When the finale of the finale finally hits, everything turns to dust.

It is the end.

There remains only an acoustic guitar fade-out acting as either a witness to the devastation or the sound of rebirth, of life returning after all else has been wiped clean. Again, it may be both. One thing is for sure: on record or live, nothing can follow “Blackwater Park.” Only silence is appropriate.

Absolutely exhilarating. There is simply no band like Opeth. [ZACH DUVALL]

If you got to this point, you have a high word count tolerance. The week is only getting started.

Posted by Last Rites

GENERALLY IMPRESSED WITH RIFFS

  1. Great write-up and selection. Like Dan, I bought Blackwater Park (at Circuit City) on a whim without having heard of the band. Opeth’s logo and BP’s cover art sold me. Choosing only ten songs from their catalog is tough! My list, if every death metal album has to be represented at least once:

    “Forest of October” (Orchid)
    “The Night and the Silent Water” (Morningrise)
    “April Ethereal” (My Arms, Your Hearse)
    “Demon of the Fall” (My Arms, Your Hearse)
    “The Moor” (Still Life)
    “The Leper Affinity” (Blackwater Park)
    “Blackwater Park” (Blackwater Park)
    “Deliverance” (Deliverance)
    “Ghost of Perdition” (Ghost Reveries)
    “Hessian Peel” (Watershed)

    Safe picks, I guess.

    Bonus track!: Bloodbath – “So You Die” (Resurrection Through Carnage)

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  2. Excellent write-up! Think I’m gonna have to do an Opeth binge again soon. It’s been a while, especially with their older stuff.

    I didn’t have a beard at the time, but I was definitely one of those prog fiends brought into the death metal fold as a result of discovering Opeth. My first experience was Ghost Reveries followed by seeing them on that tour, and I’ve been a fan of both then and the genre ever since. It was a small step from Opeth to Death and Meshuggah, then through tech death and melodic death metal.

    Coming from the prog world, the shift in sound that began on Heritage hasn’t bothered me in the slightest, even though at times it feels like the new albums lack the sheer power and epic ambition as exemplified by the tracks mentioned above such as Blackwater Park have.

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  3. Thank you for this incredible article.Led Zeppelin maybe my favorite band, and Radiohead are God’s, and Sgt. Peppers is genius, as is Coltrane and Master of Reality, but… nothing quite combines the magic and heaviness and melancholic beauty of Opeth. I have listened to them on headphones in the dark many times. It takes you to a another realm of musical perception and dark forest atmosphere.

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  4. Thanks for reminding how much I love Ghost Reveries, one of my first contemporary metal albums and still one of my favorites. Thanks in particular to Lone for pointing out one of the reasons, Åkerfeldt’s mastery of light and dark. So true.

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