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.”
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.