Still Full Of Life: 20 Years Of Opeth’s Still Life

There are devotees of metal out there who don’t respect Opeth, just as I assume there are human beings roaming the planet who don’t care for David Attenborough. The mind boggles at what sort of calamitous misfortune(s) might lead to either consequence, but considering both parties discardable or, at the least, mortally deranged is a reasonable conclusion. In the case of the Opeth haters, perhaps it’s best to assume the misguidance is rooted in a general distaste for complex, proggy heaviness that’s equal parts moody, muscular and elegant, and that spends equitable time prancing about like a grave bard as it does roaring like a disturbed man-beast from the Island of Dr. Moreau… With songs that are often over 10-minutes long. How is it even possible to flinch at such a strategy?

In truth, any and all bands lucky enough to reach a point of well over a million followers are eventually fated to net detractors, because humans love “seeing what all the hubbub is about,” and many of those people are predisposed to dislike what others enjoy because…well, for any number of reasons. Because of twitter? Because humans covet uniqueness at the expense of decorum? Because people also like Smash Mouth? And because, let’s face it, Opeth play the kind of music tailor-made for anyone who might say, “You know, I love Rush and Yes, but I wish there was a band out there that did similarly, just with more Satan.”

Release date: October 18, 1999. Label: Peaceville Records.
Still Life, Opeth’s fourth full-length and first for Peaceville Records, represents a true landmark moment of progression. For many, it stands as the band’s finest hour—a topic nerdly nerdletons love debating over in reddit threads that dive into minutiae so obscure that the actual members could be unaware of their existence. Wherever the record happens to fall in an admirer’s personal rankings, however, there is less argument over the fact that Still Life endures as the pinnacle “gateway album” in the Opeth catalog. (Although some might argue that distinction belongs to Blackwater Park. Imagine living with that shame.) Granted, being a true progressive band means things change with absolutely every release, and 1998’s My Arms, Your Hearse was a necessary step before the leap from 1996’s Morningrise. But Still Life represents the moment when harsh and fanciful truly (and feverishly) conjugated and a genuine polish lifted the band into a big(-ish) spotlight.

As is often the case, it starts with the cover artwork. Travis Smith’s style was pretty characteristic of metal at the time; realism and fantasy blends together using a method that layers filtered photos in a mosaic sort of style that generates an alternate form of reality. In ’98 and ’99 alone, Smith was responsible for doling out this technique to Opeth, Death (The Sound of Perseverance), Katatonia (Tonight’s Decision), Control Denied (The Fragile Art of Existence), Overkill (Necroshine), Nevermore (Dreaming Neon Black), plus a stack of other less familiars to boot.

In the case of Still Life, Smith’s rendering draped a conventional gothic scene in a leafy, mostly black curtain that envelops a vigorous, notably un-gothic shade of red. That splash of color demanded the eye’s attention while scanning metal CD bins in an age when record stores were still prevalent—so much so that it’s become one of the first things many of us relate to Still Life when reminiscing about the record decades later. Fittingly, Smith eventually re-tooled his design, strengthening the red even further.

Warmth: that could very well be Still Life’s most charming and defining characteristics. I normally prefer to be more confident and absolute with such proclamations, but Opeth has always thrown so many ingredients into the witch’s cauldron that a case can be made for any of them being the most active component in the final spell. That warmth, though—an alluring, glowing, and sometimes savage warmth that bleeds through from the blush of the cover artwork and wraps itself around the listener from moment one to the very last second. A warmth with the strength to rouse a sense of nostalgia that can easily be separated from the romantic and tragic tale of lost love that’s literally at the heart of the Still Life narrative. Yes, of course Melinda is the woman who stayed behind in the village and became a nun after her admirer was forced to bolt because he didn’t like the cut of Jesus’ jib, but she’s also the golden memory of Katie Finklestein, who cuffed her acid-wash jeans and had a particular way of twirling her hair while reading underneath a certain tree back when you were a freshman at Frigoff University in ’89.

True, the hushed and haunting “Benighted” might have been the most ideal illustration of the record’s prevailing suppleness, but the absurdly relaxed outset of “Face of Melinda” has those delicate jazz undertones that crop up throughout the record and make the song feel like a rainy afternoon spent interlaced with [the preferred loved one of your choice] on a couch. Åkerfeldt’s clean voice was solid in the earliest Opeth years and better on My Arms, Your Hearse, but the leap to Still Life was one that could make Bob Beamon spit-take. Honey-voiced doesn’t even begin to define his tone here—a feat made all the more remarkable upon discovering that Åkerfeldt spent the first nine years of his life as a feral child roaming the Vivungi region of northern Sweden with a moose pack and never uttering anything beyond honks and grunts amidst his calf siblings. Don’t believe me? Dig up a copy of the Vivungi Folkbladet from June 1983.

“Face of Melinda” also benefits from a perfect transition into a heavier measure in its second half that’s reminiscent of the band’s early years, and “Benighted” loses two points from the Russian judge for being lifted straight from Camel’s “Never Let Go.”

About those transitions: I realize we’ve already discussed the fact that warmth is Still Life’s most endearing trait, but this record also indicates the moment when Åkerfeldt leveled up enough in the songwriting department to secure a master’s degree in Transitions. To be sure, he wasn’t exactly a slouch prior to 1999, but holy hell does Still Life ever feature a surplus of shifting sentiments and varying levels of tenderness and toughness navigated with a champion’s awareness of seamless passageways. GRACE and FLUIDITY: maybe those should be the record’s key selling points. The way the opening “The Moor” slowly shifts from its turbulent midpoint into a mellower stretch by suddenly introducing a bit of clean vocals, then a beautifully melodic fret-run, and finally a crowning stretch of acoustic guitar and Åkerfeldt’s crooning “There is no forgiveness…in these eyes” is pure fluidic musical poetry. And as per the discussion earlier this week in the Opeth Devil’s Dozen, does a more elegant and epic passage exist than what’s delivered 2:55 into “Godhead’s Lament?” Maybe the shift that occurs a little less than two minutes later, dawg.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you enjoy closers? “White Cluster” is a category 5 storm—Opeth’s version of “Black Horsemen” (which remains the greatest thing that’s ever closed something that isn’t named Mariano Rivera, and I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary), but without the stairs and devil baby eating human remains before being nailed to a coffin. “White Cluster” has virtually everything else, though, including the album’s most turbulent moments, Martin Lopez’s finest drumming, one of the record’s tastiest riffs (4:30…wowee), Åkerfeldt’s longest howl (5:49-6:05), and a particularly stellar (and surprisingly extended) lead around 6:23. Is it the finest closer Opeth has produced to date? TO THE REDDIT BOARDS, PROFESSOR!

Ending on a personal note, my first exposure to Opeth was, appropriately enough, back in 1999. It was My Arms, Your Hearse that was responsible for my indoctrination, however, as Still Life ran into distribution issues that delayed its official arrival into the U.S. by two years. When I eventually tracked the latter down, it was an import copy from Amoeba Records in Berkeley, California, and I did not blink an eye at the $20 tag based on the strength of “Demon of the Fall” alone. That memory abides in glorious detail, because Still Life has the unique distinction of being the only CD I’ve ever purchased that dropped my jaw so quickly that I had to pull over to the side of the road in order to properly focus on what was suddenly jumping from my speakers. The moment when Åkerfeldt gravely confesses “Melinda is the reason why I’ve come” in the second half of “The Moor” shook me to the bone. And despite the decades that have since passed (gulp), most everything about that occasion remains fresh in my mind, which I suppose is the textbook definition of a “defining moment” delivered by one hell of an exceptional album. And really, that’s the point of all this: pulling aside another few moments in time to pay tribute to an album that—regardless of where it happens to land on anyone’s personal Opeth leaderboard—has not suffered one single fucking speck of tarnish on its stunning brilliance after enduring this earth for twenty years.

Still very much alive; still no expiration date in sight.

Posted by Captain

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Handsome & Interesting Man; Just get evil all the time.

  1. Perfect, mate. What a genius piece of writing about a genius album. Lovin’ this week’s articles. Kudos, fellas.

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  2. “The mind boggles at what sort of calamitous misfortune(s) might lead to either consequence…”

    Sure, I’ll bite. Opeth was one of the first “extreme” bands I ever got into, during the Blackwater Park days. I immediately got all their old stuff and was blown away by how much quality material they’d put out in the style. For a few years I thought of them as one of my favorite metal bands.

    Buuuut I didn’t care much for the follow ups and so maybe they fell off my radar a bit. I’m not sure what happened. A few years went by. I was listening to alot more black metal. I’d gotten into Agalloch around the time of Ashes, bought all the old stuff, and considered them a new favorite.

    For whatever reason, I didn’t listen to Opeth at all during that time. One day I decided to throw one of their classic first 5 on–and I was struck by how lifeless, rote, and just pointless some of the songwriting was. All the key changes, jazzy parts, rhythmic change ups etc are impressive but I was unable to find the emotional through line to the majority of the tracks (even tho I basically had the album memorized). It mostly just seemed like the classic prog problem- alot of showing off that never really connected to actual feelings

    At the time I was really surprised by my own turn on a band I’d once adored. I like some prog, tons of jazz and classical, and lots of “tech” stuff too so I’m not averse to musicianship or showing off.

    The only thing I could think of was a comparison to Agalloch. It’s not a fair comparison- Opeth are considerably better musicians than any of Agalloch’s members. But they both write long, meandering pieces that integrate elements of extreme metal with clean singing and some more rock-ish textures. But maybe because of the differences in musicianship (especially back when Agalloch was mostly just one guy), I found their tracks to have no filler, no wasted moments, no parts that didn’t lead to other parts or develop into something, etc. They couldnt play like Opeth but their pieces weren’t so gassy and bloated either.

    So 2006-7 ish. I’ve never been able to get back into them and have watched their rise to become one of the biggest metal acts with a mix of happiness for them (they seem like genuine and hardworking types who believe sincerely in what they do) and bewilderment.

    I also strongly disliked Agalloch’s final album. I felt like it jettisoned what was great about them in favor of noodly interludes and unfocused grandiosity disguised as ambition. In other words, they started to remind me of…

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    1. Very curious. I’m sitting here trying to think of a metal band I once loved that has since become irrelevant to me, and I’m coming up blank. “Liked” shifting to “dislike,” sure, but no significant 360’s. Follow-up question, have you seen Opeth live?

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      1. No I’ve never seen them live. I think by the time they started hitting the festivals in the states where I might have seen them, my taste had moved on.

        I should be clear that I dont dislike Opeth or begrudge them their place in metal history. I still have those first 5 CDs and dont plan to part with them. They clearly represent the summit of a certain approach to death metal and obviously had a major influence on subsequent generations of bands, for better and for worse. As I think back on that time of my life now, I was listening to alot of stuff with prog leanings–Tool, The Mars Volta, Mastodon, etc. Only one of those has managed to “age” with me. Although I still get into the occasional album with proggy flourishes (that Fallujah album from 2014 was great!) it always feels like borrowed time until those influences swallow what I liked about the band (which is exactly what happened there).

        But when I think of how I got into classical, the pattern is similar. I started with the huge, powerful arrangements of the late Romantics. Only after a few years did I begin to prefer the tighter compositions of the earlier Viennese school. That stuff is less grandiose and “obvious” but more satisfying in the long run. I think my feeling about so much prog is similar– its impressive, but doesn’t leave me with much to hold on to, and over time my preference is for bands that can subvert their own musicianship to tell s right story. I mean, my favorite “prog” band is Popol Vuh, and they hardly even count.

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  3. Great piece about an album I don’t think has been properly accounted for within the band’s discography.

    We all generally agree that Orchid and Morningrise are for the riff-heads, MAYH defined the jazz/prog infused sound they would carry through their prime, Blackwater Park made them underground famous and Deliverance/Damnation is the creative trial balloon for the latter half of their peak. Still Life doesn’t have a that kind of logline, but this writeup does such a good job of clarifying why it’s a rightly beloved album.

    You can hear them iterating on old ideas, like the way “The Moor” recalls the swinging riff from “Under the Weeping Moon,” and embracing new stuff like the really extended clean sections in “Benighted” and “Face of Melinda,” but this isn’t a transition album, it’s an achievement.

    I didn’t realize the album’s release was delayed so long in the U.S., I have to assume why it tends to be a little overlooked, at least in my view.

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    1. I would love to be able to jump back in time and see the reactions to Still Life in the old Metal Review forums. How long it took to catch on (import copies or domestic), and what the initial reactions were. My recollection is that the majority of the MR community was very pro-Opeth from MAYH forward.

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  4. glad to read stuff like this, Opeth was also one of those first bands that got me interested in the more extreme types of music out there. It’s always a real treat to go through their discography in order, and that transition to this album is so intense I still am blown away by it every time. Their sound filled out so much and everything was just so much more rich and intense…I can’t imagine going back to a time in my life before I heard not only this album but this band. Fuck yea!

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  5. “I can’t imagine going back to a time in my life before I heard not only this album but this band.”—Yes! Which makes me think it might be fun to do an article that focuses entirely on “Oh Shit! Moment” bands.

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    1. Altar of Plagues’ “Teethed Glory and Injury” and Spectral Lore’s “III” are two more that come to mind. That feeling when the doors fly off

      Reply

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