The wait is over. The release date for Opeth’s latest, Sorceress, is almost upon us; and with it, the latest round in the controversy that has dogged them for three albums now. “What happened to the death growls?” “Why aren’t these guys heavy anymore?” “Opeth sucks now.” These are not opinions that I personally share, as I’m huge fan of Pale Communion. That said, Heritage is certainly not their best record, or even one of their top 5. In fact, it may even be their weakest. No shame there, given the ridiculous quality of their complete discography. Time will tell how successful and well-regarded Sorceress is, though early indications are that your opinion on Sorceress will likely mirror your opinion on Pale Communion. The two tracks released in advance, the title track and “Will O’ The Wisp” certainly strongly suggest this.
But they aren’t the first band to release a record that has the fans howling with rage. Before we take a look at Opeth’s trajectory, let’s take a look back at some other that invoked strong negative reactions when they were released. Some have aged well and have pointed musicians in new artistic or commercial directions; others are still unlistenable years later and remain relegated to the bargain bin or wherever the equivalent digital purgatory falls on the modern map. Is Opeth following a similar pattern? And, if so, what is to be gained from walking this difficult path?
Tangled Up In Mad: Rock’s Long History Of Angering Fans
Bob Dylan is a classic iconoclast—he’s made a career out of confounding expectations and generally playing against the assumptions and wishes of fans and critics alike. Dylan has never made it easy on anyone, challenging fans for the first time when he presented a set of electric rock ‘n’ roll during his legendary performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He had been known for his acoustic folk and to say his conversion to rock ‘n’ roll was not received well is a massive understatement. The set was largely drowned out by boos and yells. This continued for quite some time, and is documented on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert” when an audience member yells out “Judas,” which prompts Dylan to reply “I don’t believe you,” before sneering his way through “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Slow Train Comin’ wasn’t the first time he pissed off fans, or even the second. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last (for example: any casual fan who has attended any Bob Dylan concert in the last 15-20 years. No one clears seats like contemporary live Dylan.) But it was definitely the funniest.
That’s right: the funniest. People were skeptical about Dylan’s conversion to Christianity from the outset, and Dylan didn’t help matters on the third of his “Christian” records by releasing a song called “Lenny Bruce.” But Slow Train Comin’ is a different matter. It is totally straight-faced and is even one of Dylan’s stronger records, if you can stomach the Old Testament proselytizing. Fans on the tour certainly couldn’t, and he was booed loudly and roundly when he preached between songs. I tend to see Dylan’s career as a series of adopted personas. To me the best way to approach his diverse catalog is to see Robert Zimmerman (Dylan’s birth name) as a diverse method actor who has played a number of different characters in performance, all of whom are named Bob Dylan. By adopting this religious persona, I believe he wanted to wanted to add gospel songwriting to his diverse set of songwriting skills, so he adopted the persona so he could approach the material in a “genuine” fashion.
Lou Reed is another musician who has made a career out of making difficult music. The Velvet Underground, is, without question, of the most influential bands of all time. They had a penchant for white noise, and employed it to great effect on classics like “Heroin.” In that example, as the song slides into the maelstrom, it’s easy to hear how the noise fits the theme and expands the palette the band is using. But those old VU records are easy listening compared to what Reed had up his sleeve for his fifth solo album. Reed has always been a controversial figure, known for being controversial with the press and rude to fans. But nothing compared to the screeching noise that comprises Metal Machine Music. Originally released as a double LP set, it is comprised of nothing but feedback and the occasional clicking sound. Literally nothing. If you want to hear feedback used effectively, it’s been going on for years. It’s worth seeking out the appropriately named “Feedback” from the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic masterclass Live/Dead or “Karen Revisited” from Sonic Youth’s Murray Street and many, many more. Those examples alone are over 40 years apart. But Metal Machine Music seems calculated to annoy. While the album did generate some hilarious responses (most notably legendary critic Lester Bangs, who wrote “If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars.”), it’s hard to see how this album aided Reed’s artistic development. On the other hand, it’s Lou Reed.
The early 90s was a great time to be a member of Metallica, as their self-titled LP (often called “the Black Album”) produced hit single after hit single. But it may not have been a great time to be a Metallica fan. To be fair, this is the album that broke Metallica wide open and made them a sort of Gen-X Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones; a successful run, commercially, that has lasted all the way through to today. And while it’s fair to say that the public-at-large loved this album, it’s equally fair to say that a huge majority of Metallica’s existing fanbase absolutely despised it.
The first three Metallica albums absolutely kill, no question about it. …And Justice For All is also a very solid record, if well-known for its absolute lack of bass. It was the first Metallica album that was not universally beloved. The band has stated that the audience seemed bored during live performances of complicated epics like the title track, but that applied to exactly no one I know who loved the band in the 80s. They were filling arenas with music that was absolutely uncompromising for the time, and were poised to take over the world whatever they did next. So why release the Black Album, a Bob Rock-produced, slicked down version of the band, so clearly a guided missile designed to blow up the charts? If this record had been released by virtually anyone else, it would likely have earned universal acclaim. But this wasn’t anyone… this was Metallica. From the moment “Enter Sandman” was released, it was greeted with everything from scorn to contempt to anger… from the existing fanbase. But it signaled that Metallica was willing to take huge creative risks, even though the results, from an artistic perspective were highly mixed, at best.
If you weren’t Metallica, the 90s were a tough time to be a metal band that had been successful in the 80s. This challenging era, dominated by so-called “grunge” and nu-metal, prompted Slayer to release what is generally considered their worst record, Diabolus In Musica. This album gets a lot of shit, but that has never made sense to me. People complain that it’s their nu-metal record and that they were trying to be trendy for the 90s, but I don’t hear that, save perhaps the use of 7-string guitars. “Bitter Peace,” the opening track, is absolutely killer, and the alleged “rap numbers” are really not that much of a departure. It’s not like Tom Araya was some sort of crooner before this record. His vocals have always been shouted and fairly rhythmic, so I simply don’t see what the fuss is about. This is more of a retro-hate thing, though. No one cared at the time, as Slayer had struggled to stay relevant in the grunge era, with the disappointing reaction to the underrated Divine Intervention and the kinda so-so hardcore covers record, Undisputed Attitude. The fact that they included an original (“Gemini”) probably was a confirmation that they were currently out of ideas. After all, a covers album as an artistic statement is one thing. But including one original really suggests “yeah, we had this one, but not much else so we were like ‘fuck it, let’s do some covers.’” As Slayer has also vaulted into the exalted ranks of classic rock/metal, and people take stock of their catalog, it’s only natural to dump on something. After all, High Fidelity stone-cold nailed us music nerds and for something to be good, something else, by definition, has to be bad. And Diabolus is a natural choice. Not a terrible album at all, but it also yielded nothing that paid any artistic dividends, either. It’s Slayer, for fuck’s sake.
There is very little that needs to be said about Van Halen’s largely forgotten Van Halen III. Eddie Van Halen and company had already pulled off the nearly impossible, dismissing original singer David Lee Roth and bringing in Sammy Hagar to fill his shoes. The so-called “Van Hagar” years were very successful for all involved, and even included “5150,” the title track from their debut, that is one of Eddie’s absolute best riffs. But when they brought in Gary Cherone of hair metal wankers Extreme, it was clear lighting wouldn’t strike a third time, and the resulting album fell with a resounding thud. The tour bombed as well. If there was a silver lining (if…), it was that the Van Halen brothers realized they needed to make peace with Roth if they wanted to keep touring or making new music.
Lou Reed and Metallica deserve special accolades, as they were each determined to appear in articles like this one more than once. They weren’t content to each have an album that ticked everyone off separately. Clearly, to truly cement their place in a dubious pantheon like this one, they needed a collaboration of absolutely unlistenable garbage; and so it was done, and that collaboration was called Lulu. No one believed for one second that this would be good, and it produced no discernible benefits (perhaps on that new Metallica album everyone’s inevitably going to hate? Knives out, people!). I have a pet theory that Reed was having some fun with Metallica after getting acquainted with them at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009, where they backed him for an unbelievably awful, cringe-fest version of the VU classic “Sweet Jane” (worth a listen just to hear James Hetfield do the vocals on the chorus). We’ll never know his intent, I suppose, especially now that Reed has passed on. Maybe he has an unpublished memoir locked up somewhere that when released will give us all a good laugh. It’s hard to believe that he gave Hetfield the lyrics “I am the table” and was able to keep a straight face while asking Hetfield to sing them. Still, improvised and off-the-cuff Metallica riffs set to Reed’s avant-garde lyrics is absolutely as terrible as it sounds. If you want something to rival the aural unpleasantness of Metal Machine Music, well, there’s Lulu. I could go on about the hilariousness of this collaboration endlessly, but I’ll just note that no less an authority than Lars Ulrich himself believes that it will be an avant-garde classic in 25 years. So, there you go.
Morbid Angel unleashed Illud Divinum Insanus after an eight-year gap between records. Perhaps that wait built anticipation a bit high, or perhaps it was that the band branched out and included some industrial elements. Whatever the case, listeners were not happy. Not one bit. The debate on this one somewhat mirrored the one surrounding Heritage, with people who disliked the record being forced to explain that it wasn’t the experimentation that turned them off, but the weakness of the material itself. That really is the crux of the dilemma with Opeth. If extreme metal is art (which most of us can agree that it is), how do we let artists develop? If they can’t experiment with their sound, their music will likely become stagnant. On the other hand, if a band introduces new elements to their sound, can’t fans react honestly if the actual songs are weak? If not, the whole thing is nothing but a huge circle jerk, which will also undermine the quality of the music.
Opeth’s Watershed Moment
Which brings us back to the present day, and Opeth. Their recent records are certainly not the miserable dreck of Metal Machine Music or Lulu. They aren’t the more-or-less status quo of Diabolus In Musica. And they are definitely not the transparent, slicked up stadium rock of the Black Album. So, what, then?
I truly believe that Slow Train Comin’, and other elements of Dylan’s career path, are the most analogous to Opeth. To be sure, they don’t have the social significance of Dylan nor his iconic status. And the music of Opeth has nothing to do with the music of Bob Dylan. But they do seem to have the willingness to challenge fans in a quest for artistic credibility and a legacy of not compromising their creative vision. The Dylan parallels were quite striking on the first leg of the Heritage tour, which featured no songs with the old death growls. At the gig I attended, audience members shouted “play some metal” between songs, and this heckling became more pronounced as the show wore on with no metal in sight. Opeth’s style may not be as openly confrontational as Dylan’s, as he at times seems to relish pissing people off with a delight almost as evident as Lou Reed’s. But Opeth and Akerfeldt certainly aren’t overly concerned with placating people, either.
Opeth signaled with Heritage that they were moving into the classic rock phase of their careers. Or, more to the point, Mikael Akerfeldt was moving into the classic rock phase of his career. After all, Opeth is a band in name only. One only needs to view the 20th anniversary release Live At Royal Albert Hall to have this confirmed, as Akerfeldt hilariously reminds the audience that bassist Martin Mendez, the longest-serving member of the band, joined up for the fourth album! While Opeth is not technically a solo project, it’s not hard to argue that Akerfeldt is the Dave Mustaine of extreme metal, which is weird, because he seems like a pretty mellow, funny guy, unlike the Alex Jones-spewing Mustaine. But both men front bands in which they are the only member present throughout numerous lineup changes and the driving creative force and songwriter of the band. Many consider Heritage a turning point for the band, and it’s easy to hear why. But perhaps it’s useful to take another step back and consider whether the current era of Opeth began on Watershed.
I would like to assert that listeners can divide Opeth’s music into three eras. The first era (Orchid, Morningrise, My Arms, Your Hearse and Still Life) are albums that adhere closer to tropes of classic metal than the band’s later works. Though groundbreaking, there are strong traditional metal elements, especially in the guitar playing and writing, as well as the harsh vocals. Still Life shares a name with a classic Iron Maiden tune and “Face Of Melinda” is a veiled nod to Mercyful Fate’s Melissa. It’s fair to say that these albums (and the next group of four) are universally beloved. A point to keep in mind, as well, is that when Orchid was released in 1995, Akerfeldt was 21 years old and, by his own account, still very enamored with metal.
The second era (Blackwater Park, Deliverance, Damnation and Ghost Reveries) took the progressive elements lurking on the fringes of the first era and brought them to the forefront. The band signaled that this was to be the case by bringing prog wunderkind Steven Wilson on board as producer and even a guest vocal appearance on Blackwater Park. The “odd duck” among these records is Damnation, which features a folksy prog sound and no harsh vocals. Akerfeldt has stated that he had too many “clean” sections for Deliverance and that Wilson suggested these sections could compose an album on their own; this is strange considering the album has a cohesiveness largely absent from Heritage, which was written as a standalone record. But, excluding Damnation, these albums all have a distinct flow that lend the overall albums an overall hypnotic quality. This quality was obviously present in the first four as well, but the band improved the technique and took it to incredible heights with what may be their finest work, Ghost Reveries. The flow and compositional finesse of this album is artistic that the band, perhaps, set the bar impossibly high.
Then came Watershed. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines watershed as “a time when an important change happens.” After the mellow “Coil”, the band hits listeners with what is undoubtedly the heaviest, most brutal song of their career, “Heir Apparent.” Could this signal to listeners that the end of the harsh vocal era is nigh, with the song announcing “we’ve taken this as far as we can and we’re moving on?” The contrast between the two opening numbers is striking, considering that “Coil” contains lyrics like “When I get out of here/ When I leave you behind/I’ll find that the years passed us by” and “Heir Apparent” features “Cold days/ Old ways/ Told lies/ No more” and “A burden so great weighs heavy on old and withered beliefs/ The swift solution crumbles beneath the mock notes of a masterpiece.”
According to author Umberto Eco, classic conspiracy literature often included an utterly impenetrable 30 or 40 pages at the beginning of books, to discourage those who were dabblers or, perhaps, were amongst the uninitiated or unilluminated. If you listen to this third era of Opeth straight through, “Heir Apparent” may serve the same purpose. If you’re not an extreme metal listener, good luck getting through this one to the almost pure prog that lies beyond. The track stands in contrast to the rest of Watershed, which lies much closer in spirit to the other three albums of the third era of Opeth. As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Opeth was moving in a new direction, especially in retrospect. The tracks “Hex Omega” “Porcelain Heart” and “Coil” would all fit in easily on Pale Communion and wouldn’t be out-of-place, at least sonically, on Heritage (though the songwriting on Heritage is a more scattered style than these tracks from Watershed). Considering my earlier assertion that Opeth albums can be considered in groups of four, and with Sorceress being the fourth in this cycle, the question can reasonably be asked: what comes next? It may be that this current trajectory will go out the window and Opeth will make another change. Or it also may be that these groupings of four exists only in my head, and the next album will prove it. We won’t know for two or three years. But I plan to keep listening, no matter the course Akerfeldt and company chart.
And whether or not you like these records (and plenty of people whose opinions I respect do not, and not just because there are no death growls), you must admire Opeth’s dedication to innovation and change. It’s what has propelled them into the pantheon of classic bands.