Welcome back to Half Life! Once again, this is a new segment in which we analyze a band’s career and contextualize important parts in their history leading right up to the present. I say ‘new segment’ because this here is only the second installment of the series, following Eden’s excellent overview of the life and times of rock n’ roll band Clutch (and, we promise you, there will actually be a third installment — sorry, I had to). What differentiates this from a retrospective piece is that these are bands that are still going at it and which likely have more great things for us in store. That being said, not every single moment of a given career will be touched on, and any instances of evolution will be seen on their own terms rather than on a strict album-to-album basis.
Today’s band of choice is downright legendary in metal circles, and rightfully so; Stockholm’s Opeth have made quite the name for themselves over their 25-year long career, having toured across the world several times and pioneering a forward-thinking sound that has influenced countless bands since. The band has covered a stunning amount of musical ground in their now-eleven studio albums, and seamless tied together different elements than one would not have otherwise imagined possible. So without further ado, let’s dig right in! Do pack a sandwich, because it’s going to be a long ride.
Few bands would choose to explode on a burgeoning Scandinavian metal scene with 10-minute songs featuring endless counterpoint riffs, liberal usage of acoustic guitars, the seamless incorporation of clear influences from both jazz and black metal, prominent sung vocals alongside traditional death metal vocals, and a cover with a goddamn flower on it. Okay, that’s a lie; no band aside from Opeth would do anything of the sort, and, as one would expect, no other band did. Perhaps the album hasn’t aged exceedingly well over twenty years on, but underneath the expansive (and borderline pretentious at times, really) songwriting on choice cuts such as “Forest of October” and “The Apostle in Triumph”, the very same burning ambition can be found threaded through every single one of their classics since Orchid shines clear as day throughout the record.
This is where the pieces started to truly take form. Fed up with the imitators that Orchid and its largely similar (if a little more jazzy) followup Morningrise had spawned, ringleader Mikael Akerfeldt decided to take a more song-oriented approach, inadvertently resulting in one of the finest concept albums of the 90s. Invigorated by the addition of new drummer Martin Lopez, who was only twenty years old at the time, Opeth’s sound took a noticeably heavier, and more cohesive, turn. Gone were Morningrise‘s 10-minute riff tapestries; rather, the band stripped their sound down to its bare essentials and went along with what was left. From the unrelenting assault of “April Ethereal” to the ’70s prog rock jam that is “Epilogue”, My Arms, Your Hearse is an album that grabs the listener and simultaneously pulls them into a tale rife with longing and sadness while also pummelling them with one monstrous riff after another. And then after presenting itself to be a continuous suite of songs, it loops right back into itself, because how dare you think you were only going to sob to this record once.
If My Arms, Your Hearse is where the pieces took form, Still Life is where they all came together. The melancholy atmosphere from MAYH remains, but there is a noticeable splash of colour to accompany the otherwise gloomy concept behind the record, as Akerfeldt and co. truly settled into their new lineup and began experimenting with the dynamics the previous record had left behind. Most point to Still Life as being the most underappreciated gem in Opeth’s discography, while others believe it to be little more than a lead-up into Blackwater Park; whatever the case may be, the record is Opeth in top form. The sonic variety and experimentation of their first two records is more grounded and easier to digest thanks to a touch of MAYH‘s more cohesive approach, and the fact remains that “The Moor”, “Face of Melinda”, and “Serenity Painted Death”, all absolute epics in their own right, are amongst Opeth’s career highlights.
Every big band has their proverbial breakthrough at some point; yet Blackwater Park was not so much a breakthrough in progressive death metal as it was an unprecedented accomplishment that the word ‘sprawling’ was seemingly invented for. Packed with instant classics such as “The Leper Affinity”, “The Drapery Falls”, and the colossal title track, Blackwater Park infused death metal with beauty in ways previously unheard of, all without ever feeling forced in the slightest. Perhaps I’m a little biased here — Blackwater Park completely and utterly changed how I perceive both songwriting and music as a whole — but one needs to look no further than this album to see why Opeth are as big as they are today. That being said, it’s a fair complaint that the concept-less Blackwater Park lacks the emotional punch of its two predecessors, but the album remains an absolute masterpiece of progressive death metal regardless and is still widely hailed as such.
You’d think an album consisting entirely (entirely!) of subtle keyboard work and acoustic guitars would stick out like a sore thumb in Opeth’s discography, but Damnation is undoubtedly an Opeth record from start to finish — sure, it was coupled with the relentless, if not ultra well-received Deliverance, but their releases were somewhat spaced out, and Damnation is acclaimed largely on its own terms. The album, their shortest by a long shot, is a direct examination of the mellowness that had constantly permeated but never overtaken the band’s sound to this point, yet it somehow maintains all the inventiveness that is a hallmark of their sound. “Windowpane” remains a live staple to this day, its lovely guitar work complemented by Akerfeldt’s gentle singing, and “Closure” is an incredibly fun ride into Opeth’s more experimental side. Damnation remains one of the few examples of a band taking a tasteful, well-executed risk and it paying off monumentally, and few other bands can claim to have done something similar even half as well.
Ghost Reveries marked a significant shift in Opeth’s sound, with two big changes in store — the addition of a full-time keyboard player, Per Wiberg, which gave Akerfeldt license to push the band further into symphonic territory than ever before, as well as the dedicated usage of an open guitar tuning throughout the album. Given the odd tuning and heavily prominent keyboards, there is much more experimentation than on, say, Blackwater Park, yet songs like “Ghost of Perdition” and “Harlequin Forest” are still some of the finest examples of the massive, incredibly dynamic ten-plus-minute songs the band is known for. If anything, the continued experimentation goes to show that even fifteen whole years into their career (longer than some of their fans have been alive) Opeth were not content to sit on their laurels and churn out the same album again. (2015 marks Ghost Reveries‘ ten year anniversary — if you’re lucky enough to be going to one of the sparse anniversary shows around the world, know that I am jealous to the point of physical pain)
I’ll be blunt; half of Opeth’s long-standing members left and were promptly replaced after Ghost Reveries, and boy, does it show. Despite only having seven tracks, Watershed is likely the most eclectic album in the band’s discography, featuring diminished scale shred courtesy of new lead guitarist Fredrik Akesson instead of the characteristic bluesy solos, as well as Opeth’s first (and only) instance of blast beats in their music. “Heir Apparent” stands as the heaviest song the band has ever recorded, yet it’s preceded by “Coil”, a ballad not entirely unlike something one would hear on Damnation, and eventually followed by “Burden”, an epic that’s primarily a love letter to Akerfeldt’s prog rock influences if anything. Some find it disparate and uneven, but Watershed remains one of the most unique records ever put out by a progressive death metal band, and the 12-minute “Hessian Peel” is an adventurous (and sometimes wonderfully atonal) journey that pushed the boundaries of Opeth’s already highly varied sound like few songs did before it.
And this is the now-infamous moment where Akerfeldt held his gorgeous PRS guitar up high, took in the splendour of the view, and split his fanbase like Moses did the Red Sea. On paper, one would be hard pressed to see how Heritage, which features no death metal vocals and minimal distortion, would be any different than Damnation — after all, wasn’t the latter a very well-received record? But while Damnation maintained the subtle darkness found in the band’s other albums, Heritage is Opeth becoming a bona fide 70’s prog rock band, complete with Rhodes pianos and single pedal drumming; a plot twist one may have seen coming considering the heavy prog influence on previous albums, though probably not so much after an album like Watershed. That being said, Heritage is still a solid, suitably complex record, with songs like “The Devil’s Orchard” and “Slither” being barn-burners in their own right. Yet despite Akerfeldt being quoted as saying that this was the album he’s wanted to write since he was nineteen years old, the fanbase has remained in two very distinct camps since, and the somewhat similar follow up, Pale Communion, has done little to remedy the divide.
What’s next for Opeth? That remains to be seen, and so far the band has done little to assuage the fears of those not particularly enjoying the reinvention. But Opeth remain their own band — they would not have made the forward-thinking music they did across their career had they pandered to what the majority of the metal scene found appealing, and they have always written music that served them first and foremost. Perhaps the next record will be a return to their metal sound, and perhaps it won’t; in either case, we know it’ll be very inventive and well put together, and we also know that we have eleven stellar albums to tide us over while we wait, whether our waiting is tinged with hope for another stylistic change or filled with excitement for more material in the same vein. One can’t say with absolute certainty where things are going, but there’s no fun if you know exactly what to expect, don’t you think?