Picture this: Opeth are a relatively small band, prior to the release of their most commercially successful albums. However, within the niche community of death metal, their name is already a household reality. Their first two albums, Orchid and Morningrise, revolutionized the field and gave birth to a whole new genre. What now? Where to go from here that wouldn’t seem underwhelming, that would keep pushing the envelope of the band as artists? Naturally, you need a mix of innovation and repetition; the next album needs to keep pushing forward but also be rooted in the sound and atmosphere that the band are known for. They aren’t big enough, yet, for complete genre departures. From this system of pressures is born My Arms, Your Hearse, one of the greatest, most complete metal albums to ever be released.
It is a concept album which nonetheless remains focused instead of sprawling. The storytelling is concise and accurate, leaving plenty of room for the blend we had demanded above. It begins with the sound of rain while “Prologue” erupts into “April Ethereal”. The latter track is nothing less than sheer brilliance: it opens with an aggressive and fast paced intro which leaves no question about what sort of album this is. That Opeth’s black metal influences are the first thing you hear on this album is a testimony of the way in which this album is rooted in their past. While it takes new leaps forward for them, it’s also heavily steeped in the influences of Orchid and Morningrise. The middle of the track features another staple Opeth trick, the classically progressive rock guitar solo.
Fading into a progressive, odd time signature riff, this piece of the track foreshadows much of what future Opeth will sound like. In general, you could say that their upcoming albums are all contained on this one. “Demon of the Fall” is perhaps the finest example of that. The opening riff, balancing tight lead work with open chords strummed wildly on the guitar is quintessential Opeth. That balance is what makes their future career, alongside the interaction between the guitars and drums in the verse that eventually prevents itself. Nor is the track done being iconic: all fans of Opeth know that balance, where Akerfeldt growls at his most aggressive only to then, a short few transitions after, move to his beautiful, clean vocals. That tension between sorrow and anger is Opeth. It’s not that it wasn’t utilized in previous albums, but here it comes into fruition.
If you zoom out a bit, you can see that tension in the album structure itself, another staple of future Opeth creations. “Credence” follows “Demon of the Fall”, picking up on the more acoustic elements found within the earlier track and elevating them into a central role. That decidedly creepy atmosphere, sacrificing nothing of the darkness but casting it in a slightly “off” manner, is present here as well. Looking back, it’s almost a wonder that people (including me, of course) didn’t see Damnation coming. “Credence” is a perfect example of how these quiet segments never felt like a gimmick but rather an integral and intrinsic part of the Opeth formula.
Of course, that formula wouldn’t be complete without the inevitable, cataclysmic ending. If the opening parts channeled the quiet moments of “Demon of the Fall”, its following track feeds those parts back through the heavier filters of the album’s sounds. “Karma”, the epilogue track aside, is a perfect closer for this album. It features all the little snippets of previous tracks in one package, bringing the different elements under one roof. Besides being simply a complex and impressive track, it’s made all the more powerful by the way in which it communicates with the rest of the album. Perhaps that’s part of its genius: you get something different for the multiple transitions that these sounds have been through and yet, somehow, it still echoes the preceding tracks.
This is also a tool which Opeth didn’t use that much on the first two albums but, after this one, would utilize again and again. It’s a fine place to bring our inquiry to an end and reiterate our main point. My Arms, Your Hearse is not simply a magnificent album. It’s also a genesis point for what would come to be one of the most successful and overall excellent careers in death metal specifically and metal in general. So many of the ideas that would make this band a true giant are contained here. However, due perhaps to the amazing, original production, the album hasn’t aged one bit. It’s not an exercise in nostalgia to listen to or a research into the primal places from which modern Opeth were created. It remains a steady, engaging and well made album, that continues to influence countless of up and coming musicians. Perhaps that’s its quality of distinction: how much it manages to echo forward in time to continue and affect us and our community so profoundly.