“FUCK THE SOFT SHIT,” screamed some knuckle-dragging doofus after Opeth played a song from Damnation on the 2006 Gigantour run throughout North America.
“No, don’t fuck the soft shit. It’s part of who we are,” responded the one and only Mikael Åkerfeldt in his usual lighthearted, funny, and ever-so-slightly stern tone, earning an applause from the largely appreciative crowd. Those might not have been the exact words, but that catches the gist of it.
This was around the time when Opeth was truly on their victory lap after more than a decade of hard work and phenomenal records. They were sharing the stage with legends such as Overkill and Megadeth and exposing their music to its widest audience yet. That they wouldn’t go with a purely brutal setlist for such a tour speaks volumes about who they are as artists. The softer shit really is a huge part of their sound, not just within the heavier numbers, but as standalone songs and – in recent years – as full albums.
As you (undoubtedly? hopefully? maybe?) saw in our Devil’s Dozen of this First Ballot Heavy Metal Hall of Fame band, our voting results leaned towards the hefty hefty. This isn’t to say that our list didn’t include soft material; quite the contrary, as there isn’t a single Opeth song with death metal elements that doesn’t also have passages of soft guitar, and most also have Mike’s golden singing voice. But other than “A Fair Judgement” – which is still a crazy heavy song – we didn’t include any tracks that are devoid of harsh vocals. More than that, the results of our voting totally omitted four Opeth records: Damnation, Heritage, Pale Communion, and Sorceress. That amounts to a full third of their catalog (not including the imminent In Cauda Venenum).
Some of you are likely not too angry about this result. “The newer stuff isn’t as good,” you will say, to which I, a staunch defender of every Opeth record not named Heritage, will somewhat agree. (Heck, I’ll even defend Heritage to a point.) Those four records would likely be towards the bottom of my Opeth rankings, but that speaks far more about the astronomical quality of the other eight than it does those four, not to mention the manner in which I was introduced to the band (through metal, obviously). Had Opeth never played their genre-splicing, groundbreaking blend of progressive rock and death metal, their latter albums would have had no problem still finding plenty of ears in the modern progressive rock scene. They simply have no concept of mediocrity.
Contrary to what a lot of detractors may think, doing death growls is hard. Doing them as expertly as Åkerfeldt did for years takes constant vocal training and conditioning. So even if Opeth hadn’t entered a natural “easing up with age” phase of their career, the move into largely undeathed progressive rock would have been expected based purely on physical exhaustion. (Opeth still plays plenty of old stuff live, sure, but Åkerfeldt’s growls don’t quite possess the full power they had years ago.) The soft sounds didn’t begin recently, of course, as they’ve been an Opeth tradition since the beginning. Between the horror-noir vibe of “Benighted,” the beautiful lack of urgency in “To Bid You Farewell,” and the grand swell of “Face of Melinda,” Opeth’s progressive death metal records were always made deeper through quietly dark, largely acoustic songs or more traditional metal ballads. Only debut Orchid lacked such an inclusion (unless you count the interludes), and seeing as how Åkerfeldt was still unsure of his singing voice at the time, this is no surprise. (The question: has there ever been a greater result of someone being forced to be the vocalist because there was no one else to do it? The answer: No.) From “Credence” to “Harvest,” these songs were far more than space fillers or dynamic expanders; they were key cogs.
Eventually came the inevitable Damnation in 2003, their first entirely non-metal record. It’s also the most distant and subdued record they ever did, with only a couple solo sections and the jammy instrumental “Ending Credits” adding any real warmth. The rest is as ambiguous as the distorted cover art. Is the bedroom, with its creepy doll, a place of comfort or tragedy? Likely both. The album’s best, most complex songs – opener “Windowpane,” the multi-tiered “Closure,” and the stunning “To Rid the Disease” – are as gorgeous as they are haunting. And the deft touch touch of the piano in the latter – courtesy of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson as both player and producer – is perhaps the album’s most ghostly moment.
While Damnation was recorded alongside and conceived as a companion to the hugely heavy Deliverance, it ended up being the most unique record in their whole catalog. Its name and cover art connect it to its counterpart, and the lack of metal connects it to the band’s modern period, but the mood – subdued, grey, and morose, sometimes to a fault – only crops up occasionally on later albums.
The closest connections came on the following Ghost Reveries – the “reblending” record – both within its metal songs (the middle passages of “Harlequin Forest”) and soft tracks. None exemplified this more than “Hours of Wealth,” a song that hides the tiniest sliver of hope within its overwhelmingly bleak air, carried along by Åkerfeldt’s most expressive clean singing to that point. It both hearkens back to the mood of Damnation and hints at the even greater soulfulness Åkerfeldt would adopt on Opeth’s recent output. Again, this song was a key cog in a concept album; without it, “The Grand Conjuration” would not stand as tall as a dark monolith, nor would the record’s occasionally occult tone also carry with it a sense of personal sorrow. That sense of personal sorrow comes through greatest on closer “Isolation Years,” yet another beautiful bit of softer Opeth.
It would be easy to view Watershed as the last metal Opeth record – it is that, after all – but in many ways it was also the first modern Opeth album. The record has that name for a reason, and with all due respect to Damnation, Watershed is where Opeth finally began to fully indulge all of their beloved sounds of the 70s (while surprisingly also playing the only blast beats of their career). Some of this takes place in the heavier songs – the “dancing minstrels” opening of “Hessian Peel” is straight out of the Canterbury Scene – but it is “Burden” that shows off the band’s then-new mindset the most. The song’s piano and verse vocals communicate insurmountable sadness, but the answering guitar swell and eventual organ solo scream triumph. Everything carries a lushness and looseness, from Martin Mendez’s freely moving bass lines and the bluesy leads to the constant detuning of the acoustic outro. It would have no problem being transplanted onto any of the most recent records.
While Watershed was indeed Opeth’s last metal album, that does not mean that they have completely moved onto purely soft material. The last three albums all have a fair amount of heaviness, it just isn’t necessarily the death metal heft of the My Arms, Your Hearse variety. Rather, they are now playing their heaviness more in the Red, Aqualung, or In Rock mold. On Watershed, Åkerfeldt had embraced the freeness and psychedelic haze, and the current Opeth lineup is just as adept at delivering this material as it is “Demon of the Fall.” The next steps should have been a surprise to no one.
When listened to in retrospect, 2011’s Heritage sounds like a band getting something out of their system. Several songs are sequenced in ways that never quite make sense, calling to mind the slight riff salad days of the band’s first two records, but with psych-tinged progressive rock instead of blackened, progressive doom/death (and often with far less success). “I Feel the Dark,” for instance, offers up extremely soft acoustic passages, some bigger doomy hits, and some heavier jamming, often switching styles arbitrarily or with little warning. Tracks like “Nepenthe” and “Famine” are even less cohesive (okay, the “doom flute” in the latter is pretty great). Even with the irresistible catchiness of “Slither,” the urgency of “The Lines in My Hand,” and the shuffling, mysterious coda of “Folklore,” Heritage is still likely the nadir of their catalog. But due to the voice of Mikael Åkerfeldt and his band of incredibly talented merry men, it makes for one pretty damn listenable nadir. Rarely has a mess of an album sounded so easy on the ears.
Heritage had to happen for a few reasons. Metal is often among the most rigid of all musical forms, and Heritage helped Opeth free themselves of rigidity while also getting a bunch of ideas out of Åkerfeldt’s head all at once. The record gave Opeth freedom to meander, and while nothing on the record uses meandering to arrive at such brilliance as peak King Crimson, it was still a necessary step. It also allowed Opeth to become just a little playful and smartass (you’ve seen the cover art, right?), as if Åkerfeldt wanted just a touch of his sense of humor to come across in his music. But just a touch.
Mostly, Heritage had to happen so the albums that followed could build upon it and correct its mistakes, which they did wondrously. Pale Communion was a resounding return to quality, if not to form, as Opeth was now taking a form unlike any from their past. From the opening frames of “Eternal Rains will Come,” it was clear that it would continue the hazy 70s prog feel but with much tighter and diverse compositions. Even a song as lengthy and multi-tiered as “Moon Above, Sun Below” managed to maintain the balance of complex prog and slight improvisation. Also helping matters were keyboardist Joakim Svalberg, whose interplay with the riffs was more fitting for the new style than was that of Per Wiberg, and Martin Axenrot’s ability to be an absolute drum god in any style. No one member of Opeth ran with his new freedom quite like Axe.
Perhaps most importantly, the record exploded with a soulfulness that was only hitherto hinted at, and was Mikael Åkerfeldt’s greatest performance as a singer to date. Don’t agree? Listen to the confident pain he shows in the Damnation-esque “Elysian Woes,” the grandiose swell in the chorus of “Voice of Treason,” or how he channels prog souls as old as the Moody Blues in “Faith in Others.” He’s incredible throughout, but his work in the album’s stunning last few songs is nothing short of sublime.
Like Pale Communion, 2016’s Sorceress is among Opeth’s most diverse records, and it achieves that breadth without drawing from the death metal well. Sorceress also brings back some of the driftiness from Heritage, but again finds much more success purely through the quality of songcraft. (And like Heritage, has yet another very pretty but hilariously silly cover.) Sorceress has a bit of that medieval vibe to it at times, but much of it offers different takes on a heavy, progressive psych rock feel, such as the sassy struts in the title track and the proggier, infectious melodies of “The Wilde Flowers.” Beyond this, there are fun twists on classic Opeth, such as the structure of the complex and incredible “Chrysalis” or the balladry of “Will o the Wisp,” which would fit on any number of older records. Then there is “Strange Brew,” which seemingly does both. It starts with haunting vibes not unlike Ghost Reveries, but eventually turns into an absolute prog/psych freakout, a nearly nine-minute suite containing soulfulness, a bit of gothic darkness, blues rock, huge dynamics, and a seriously dramatic finish.
What tracks like these and albums like Sorceress really tell us is that deep down, Opeth still sounds like Opeth, and not just due to Åkerfeldt’s unmistakable voice. The precise dialect may be different, but in many of the riffs, rhythms, structures, moods, melodies, and quality, it’s pretty clear that the language remains the same. It’s a safe bet that In Cauda Venenum will continue this trend when it lands in a couple weeks.
It will at least continue the recent trend of very pretty but kinda hilarious artwork. Yes, that is a mansion on a tongue.
That Opeth’s softer, less- or non-metal material is important has always been obvious, but their parallel evolution in both progressive death metal and rock were perhaps less so. After all, for years most fans were paying much more attention to how they were developing as an extreme metal institution, but the growth with softer sounds also helped to fuel their greatest records while eventually giving them the confidence to continue making the music that feels the most natural at any given time. Mikael Åkerfeldt is a truly singular talent, and he should only make the music that is backed by his utmost convictions. Opeth is simply too important to pander.
If anything, they should lean more into their current impulses. Most recent setlists are still dominated by older material, and while it would be a shame to never hear death metal Opeth live ever again, the band not playing more recent material is also a shame. There’s more to feature now than ever, and a set that included “Voice of Treason” alongside “White Cluster” would be quite a thing. Word that they’re considering playing all of In Cauda Venenum live on their upcoming tours is a great sign.
So here’s hoping that Åkerfeldt and Opeth continue to only follow their strongest impulses, and that someone goes back in time to bum-rush that knuckle-dragging doofus. After all, we owe this band great thanks for how they have enriched our lives over the years. May they continue to earn our thanks through many more years of music, be it made of towering death metal monoliths or warm, fuzzy blankets woven from hazy riffs.