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Death Whispered a Lullaby - An Opeth Retrospective, Part I

Editor's note: what is about to follow over the next few weeks/months, is a retrospective on one of metal's most influential bands of all time,

11 days ago

Editor's note: what is about to follow over the next few weeks/months, is a retrospective on one of metal's most influential bands of all time, Opeth. We commissioned it from one of our favorite writers in metal journalism and writing today and good friend of the blog, Langdon Hickman. We gave them zero direction, instead preferring to set free their unique, perceptive, and passionate style as very few publications have before. What resulted is part album review, part memoir, and part philosophical text on why music matters. We love it to bits; we hope you do too.

This is the last interjection from us. The text is very lightly edited and unabridged. Once it's done, we will publish it all as one piece.

Enjoy. Long live Opeth. Hail death metal!

Part I - Prologue and Orchid

Prologue

Opeth changed my life. I've told this story before: the nature of my becoming, a chrysanthemum in my heart blossoming forever, where a piece of my enunciation to myself came out of the ether. My friend Jono and I had known each other only about a year, both coming from difficult homes of differing shapes. It turned out he lived in the neighborhood across the street from me, in easy walking distance; we spent days and days together, wandering through the woods, biking, playing games, telling stories. We both loved music, however. I was deeper in its thrall than him, my young autistic heart already overjoyed at memorizing the discographies and musical movements of my heroes, but he was both a quick learner and a bearer of an adventurous ear. We would later assemble fellow friends of musical adventurism: Jeremy, our sworn brother, and Mark and Kennan, Sam and Louis, friends we still treasure almost 30 years on. But at that point, it was just Jono and me, alone in this fantasia.

This was the late 90s and early 2000s. We both were lucky enough to live in an area that had just gotten the internet, a rare gift in our semi-rural Virginia home, where there was a single mall in a tri-county area (for real) and a grand total of two high schools at the time, a number which would balloon to all of four by the time we were of that age. Our time on the internet was, for we who adored art in our young autism, a window outward to a world that otherwise might only have been myth. We both rabidly read fantasy and science fiction novels, would watch endlessly the films our parents had on VHS and laser disc, would even bike over to video rental places to pluck increasingly obscure and terribly mismatched films for our eager 10- and 11-year old imaginations.

We weren't hungry: we were starving. We would spend ours in a Borders, one of the many bookstores in our town before they all slowly started to get choked out, plucking books off the shelves of seemingly every section of the store, tucking our small bodies in crooked corners, flitting through the movies and CDs they had in their media section. (It was there that I would later feed my burgeoning love of progressive rock, aided by a store manager who would order great heaps of the stuff during the CD reissue window of the mid 2000s.)

So to say that the internet revolutionized our constant search for art would be a hysterical understatement. There was little we wanted more than to sit on the computer all day, poking at strange websites in those mystery years of the platform, where art projects and conspiracy theory sat next to proper research and hyperlinked rats' nests. In these wanderings, we found many bizarre things, the amulets of surrealism that gird the hearts of any young weirdos who braved that space at far, far too young an age (including some material that, for its intense and almost unforgivable edginess, I sometimes regret having experienced). In this window, it was Jono that found a forum that would change our lives.

I am redacting its name: know that it was small, not the bigger ones, and that it was associated loosely with the Cult of the Dead Cow, a loose half-satirical hacker collective who may or may not have even done anything, knowing how UNIX users like their fantasy- and scifi-colored social jokes. We found it looking for, as one does at a young age, a real copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, not any of that fake stuff we'd already discovered. To those who don't know the irony of that sentiment: we did not find it on that forum either. But we found something else, as corny as it may sound: we found a home for young and hungry minds, a place we would both "stay at" for the next nine years.

It was on this forum, which had subforums for every topic under the sun, as was the tradition of BBSes and forum architectures of the time, that we found the shitposting spaces, freewheeling endless mad gibbering and in-jokes that barely counted as jokes at all. We were, in our youth, absorbed. Our time feeding a mad silliness in us meant we drifted to and fro in the other spaces: films, literature, history, politics, music. P2P networks had just recently muscled past the issues with Napster, landing us in the era of Kazaa and Limewire. My parents, fearing perhaps not wrongly that their two young sons (I was far from understanding my own genderlessness at that point) would destroy their computer with viruses given the chance, and lord how we tried anyway, forbade us from having those programs on our sole home computer.

And so it was, at Jono's, that we would download the songs by artists mentioned by these seemingly hip teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, from whom we fastidiously hid our age, so desperate to absorb a cool that was lightyears beyond what our peers would even have known. We were children and so not yet mature in our desires; this was pure in a certain sense but also villainous in another. We wanted to reach the outer limits of art-experience, to acclimate ourselves to the wildest shit imaginable, to shame others. But, within this cruelty, there was a sincere hunger. The true and healthiest nerd revenge is not violence or shaming of others but a hunger for knowledge and experience, a hunger which in maturity transforms into a compassionate flood, sharing these fruits with anyone who would take them without judgment.

He called me into his bedroom one day. He had heard discussion of a record that was coming out, or maybe was already out (who knew given our record shops' tendency to only really carry used records or punk albums and that was if they carried stuff outside of the mainstream at all), a record called Blackwater Park, some band called Opeth. It's death metal, Langdon. Have you heard this stuff before? I had; as a child single-digit in age, I'd come across a Cannibal Corpse video through Beavis and Butthead. My brother, enamored and confused, asked after an older cousin of ours from Florida, who had stories which likely were not even true. Death metal was a mythic thing to me as a child, something me and my brother and Jono heard about on daytime TV especially after the murder trial and false conviction that would become the subject matter of the Paradise Lost series of documentaries. This was death metal, Jono said. Something called "Demon of the Fall". He pressed play, having waited for me to come over before listening to it for the first time. We both fell instantly in mad, animalistic love.

We would discover many other groups from the forum: Mr. Bungle, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, the Hold Steady, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Dream Theater, and more and more and more. We both would be changed forever by this encounter. Digging into what the hell this kind of music was I was hearing, this strange connection I could sense between groups like Opeth and Mr. Bungle and Tool and Pink Floyd but couldn't name, I would be told it was something called progressive rock. I was told to listen to Yes and Genesis, the bands that made "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "That's All". I scoffed; it seemed stupid, a waste of time. But I obeyed. And, again, my life was changed.

But despite these changes, the single truest and most impactful seed, the germ of that radical transformation, was Opeth. Jono and I flew headlong backward through their body of work, slowly assembling quite illegally the entirety of their first four records before eagerly acquiring, by legal or illegal means, every record that came after. Everything about me began not so much to change but to become myself, a sentiment I've only really seen echoed in autistic and trans spaces, this lingering feeling of being haunted by a version of you that feels impossible yet ever-present, slowly becoming manifest. Some art changes who you are while other art reveals who you always were, in occult shadow and the lingering yearning of youthful and aged hearts. Opeth was and is the latter for me. There are good bands, then great bands, then the best bands, then favorite bands. Then, beyond, there is Opeth. They are a jewel in the sky to me, a voluminous orchid.

Orchid

The first task in discussing Opeth's debut is to overstate its difference. Often you'll see mentioned of the first two Opeth albums in particular how radically different they are from the others, the shape of the band as we came to love them not yet present, cleaving much more consciously to a hybrid of death and black metal with strong melodic, traditional heavy metal influences in the heavily contrapuntal guitar writing. There is a clear fault in this statement regarding its total accuracy; Akerfeldt never lost the touch for guitar parts that diverge and intertwine around one another, creating a sense like twining rivers or patterns in the ivy as opposed to more traditional and brutish extreme metal riffing; this approach ties together all "chapters" of the Opeth story.

The group never was, even in this era, particularly one for savage or exceptionally heavy riffing. That the group was so tightly bound with the members of Katatonia in these days, a relationship which would later burgeon into proper album-length collaborations as well as a future death metal band of quality in its own right, is not particularly shocking; Opeth and Katatonia have always shared mostly an emotionalist and evocative core with one another, being autumnal and melancholic in a sincere way where so many other bands, even ones I adore, tend more to wear the cloak of solemnity without properly embodying it.

The first thing you hear on Orchid are dueling guitars, a riff that conjures images of rotting castles. This is a hallmark of black metal in its earliest days and still is in its grimiest and rawest corners, where demo tapes are caked in choking dust. It's an image drawn from the annals of early heavy metal, when albums (especially smaller records by often-overlooked bands) lingered on the phantasmal image of wicked warriors, Conan and Elric, savage barbarians and wicked liches and sorcerers. But where early heavy metal and its epic, traditional and even doomy variants would lean into the heft of these figures only for speed and power metal to explore their glamor and savagery, a savagery which would one day give birth to the more fantastical wings of thrash, black metal expanded that sense of the savage into the rotten and ruined.

No longer were these tales of castles in good repair, lit by candelabras, kings in polished armor and their powerful sainted wizards and knights in wait to charge against legions of wicked beasts. Instead, black metal charted the world in which it all fell to ruin and disrepair, all kings slain, flesh sloughing from the stained bone. Candelabras still glinted with light in the worlds of Hellhammer and Bathory and their earliest ilk, Venom and Mercyful Fate encircling, but these were now evil lights. The implied horrors of early heavy metal groups like Angel Witch, Pagan Altar, Satan, Cirith Ungol and the often underrated Tokyo Blade were seized up and intensified in the creation of black metal, often its first and truest differentiation from nascent death metal, which often aesthetically lingered more on the images of death of the body rather than black metal's fixations on the loss of cultures, castles, histories and their ilk (a fixation which would, in later years, lead to the unfortunate burgeoning of a substantially more reactionary wing of the genre).

Opeth's earliest days were marked by this shared fixation on the more alchemic and mythic roots of black metal. They formed in 1990, just as the second wave of black metal was beginning to foment, gathering up the elements that had previously been strewn haphazardly across heavy and extreme metal's expanse into the aesthetic core that would become the genre proper. The group was initially founded by David Isberg and named after Opet, the fictional Phoenician city buried within the depths of South Africa whose name supposedly translated to the City of the Moon, plucked from a novel called The Sunbird. This novel, as it turned out, would wind up being a minor thorn in the side some years later; the book is often heavily criticized in science fiction and fantasy circles as a coded argument by the Rhodesian-born white author against anti-apartheid sentiment, presenting a nobility of a coded white rule over a primitive Africa. There's little to tie the band to these particular arguments and sentiments present within the novel, drawn instead to the more youthful and idealist interpretation of it as a mythic lost city, wrapped up in the romanticism of the moon, which would become a lingering, recurrent image in the aesthetics of Opeth over their career.

If anything, this tie serves to underscore something often discussed, which is the ways in which the fertility of fantasy unfettered seems often confoundingly agnostic to either revolutionary or reactionary ideals, possessing neither idealism nor rationalism, but instead operating on a sublimated dream logic of desire itself. As often effects us in the world of heavy metal, it turns out that when you create an aesthetic space specifically delimited in the ways in which you allow the abstractions of desire to manifest, you can find yourself playing with dark forces often unwittingly, bands dabbling with images and elements that are adjacent to quite real evils if not sharing bills or slowly becoming bands that explicitly endorse and embody those ideals themselves.

To be clear, this is not an accusation toward Opeth, who to any discerning eye have distanced themselves really from any particular political read at all, staying firmly mum on matters aside from Akerfeldt's half-hearted statement that he's been a lifelong Swedish centrist voter more or less his entire life, and that itself only coming in a minor interview. It is instead a recurrent issue we as lovers of this art face, or indeed lovers of any art face; we are presented a vexing scenario where we cannot strip the problematic from art not because we do not wish to rid ourselves of the disease (or, at least, to gainful engage with it in a productive manner) but instead because it threads through the art itself like fungal filaments. Our great shame as people is that we too carry this stain; it is indelible to the human experience, something wrought both by culture but also emergent within ourselves. Often, the cruelty and evil of extreme art is like a warding spell, a means to conjure and contain this wickedness so it doesn't transcend past the limits of the fantasizing mind. Ah, if this dynamic could be so easily solved by revolutionary thinkers and philosophers and art critics, our lives would be so much easier! But alas, it is not to be so.

Opeth wound its way through a few formations before recording this debut record. The initial lineup of the group save Isberg himself departed when Isberg brought now-band leader Mikael Akerfeldt to band practice as the new bass player without first informing either their current bass player at the time nor any of the other band members; those others, in their shock and anger, quit en masse, forming a group called Crowley who put out a single demo tape called The Gate, thankfully digitally archived and easily found, which offers a tantalizing image of an alternative Opeth we might have received. Interestingly, this alternate image of the band also hewed toward death metal over the tendency toward black metal in the early band's work, mirroring the band we received and their similar directional shift.

The tape itself in its 15 brief minutes offers an alluring image: the songs here are generally much doomier than the Opeth we received, slow and brooding, with a voice that is substantially more feral, feeling more like a crawling shrieking ghoul bursting from a rotten crypt rather than Akerfeldt's deep and imperious growl. Musically, the tape definitively and almost certainly deliberately lacks sophistication; this is death metal as originally conceived, brutish and stupid, ugly and wretched, meant to seize up the punky rebuke of the flash and technicality that heavy metal had found itself drifting to and instead returning to those primitivist roots. As a fan of extreme metal, it's deeply charming. As a historical artifact, a rejected image of the band Opeth might have become, it's fascinating. Had they pursued this route, they perhaps would have been a group like Incubus, Master, Monstrosity or the like, a band of the initial early 90s boom period of death metal as it crested out of the absolute depths of the underground, but they would almost certain not have become the all-time greats of heavy and progressive music that they are now. Ah, the bizarre channels of history!

The group would then enter a period of a revolving door of players, writing material and playing short, often poorly-performed shows. The frustration in the group was palpable; members would leave in frustration or boredom only to return later, people would shift instruments to fill empty spaces, and the band often seemed rudderless and without direction. There are scattered recordings of the rehearsal tapes they would send to labels available online. They show a band that, during this period, seemed to be at war with itself. Songs often take on progressive shape, such as in the multi-part "Poise Into Celeano", which features a straight black metal section following a lushly arranged if naively played fingerpicked intro before eventually evolving into the more mid-paced and richly considered melodicism and harmonic breadth we associate Opeth with now.

Much of the material on these tapes would wind up getting recycled into material on their first two records and a keen ear can note certain chordal turnarounds or melodic licks that would become hallmarks of Opeth's style more generally already present here, albeit in germinal form. The difference between Isberg's vocals, which can be heard on one song, and Akerfeldt's are profound. Isberg stays in a higher register, closer to the more frantic wings of thrash; Akerfeldt meanwhile, even by these early rehearsal tapes, had already developed a deep and menacing growl. In early interviews, he was already citing Wishbone Ash and Jethro Tull alongside obvious metal touchstones. It's so fascinating to see how many pieces for their eventual transformation (including a late-period "reinvention" that many should have seen coming) were already in place before the first album even dropped.

Perhaps the most fascinating sense one gets listening to these grit-and-grain crusted rehearsal tapes is how the band was already consciously attempting to move away from both a purely black or a purely death metal sensibility. For as much as their early two records tend to be most highly prized by black metal over death metal fans, the overriding presence of the latter in this material rather than the former feels like a pleasant shock. The cosmicism and feral graveyard sensibility of death metal tends to be the strongest recurring image here, with even the more bestial and ferocious moments hewing closer to the earthtones and streaked red of death metal than the gaunt blacks, whites and purples of black metal.

It is not, of course, to say that hints of Mayhem and Emperor and Enslaved don't show up across these tapes. But that black metal sensibility emerges often more in fragments of riffs and the assembled image, the group tending toward something more romantic and grandiose than death metal's purview, especially in that era before death metal's conceptual heft expanded as radically as it since has. Moreover one gets the sense, listening back to these tapes, that the band was striving for a clear and differentiated identity. Sometimes, we experience loss when we do not have access to juvenalia, the ability to track the gestational shifts of an artist or group over time, the ability to see what precise little touches caused them to become what we knew them to be. With Opeth, however, that loss generates a kind of strange magic: they simply emerged as themselves, forcing the world to bend to them and not vice versa, a thing many artists dream of and few achieve.

Orchid and Beyond

And so we have built the image that many, especially those looking back on this record from the years of Ghost Reveries onward, tend to take up, that Orchid is substantially more rooted in the black and death metal primordial stew the band would one day rise up from. After all, while it is not precisely uncommon for prog groups to use harmonized and contrapuntal guitar parts rather than more rhythmically-interlocking parts, the precise types of harmonies here lean far more to the post-Romantic approach that heavy metal and its extreme variants tend to cleave to, a particularly grim and macabre neo-classical sound. Likewise, the lyrical approach, similarly macabre, leans to tales of ghosts, of Satan, of strange cloaked figures glimpsed through fog. The titles and precise lyrics of the tracks assembled here were tweaked over time, stripping them of their more direct and campy satanic flair for something more literary and obscure, tending toward the image of the romanticism of gothic fiction and film rather than the blood-soaked underground horror films of the 60s and 70s, notorious for their surreal fusion of technicolor camp and disgusting lo-fi grit.

And yet there is already a sense of progressivism present here. The songs aren't just long; they are grandiose. Riffs develop and unfurl like slow banners, accreting gradual modifications and turnarounds much in the way Metallica incorporated progressive structures early on, wielding the same type of slow developmental riff-building that Yes did in their middle years but applied in a substantially heavier context. These songs are by and large without choruses, an approach to songwriting that, while often present in heavy metal, had largely gone absent in the early days of both death and black metal in the late 80s to early 90s, returning to classic structured song forms to maximize the economics of the crushing and brutal riffs. Opeth seemed by and large uninterested in this approach even on their debut; rarely does the band commit to a frightening or bestial assault, tending more to large-scale constructivism. It can be hard on initial listens to wrap your head around the material, given how rarely certain riffs repeat and how little space the band gives to hang your hat on. Granted for some metal listeners, meant absolutely as a diss, this type of songwriting can be treasured as cleaving to the esoteric, mystic and abstract sentiments of heavy metal, a type of occultation even within the directness of song. Often, of course, this is more a cover for poor-songwriting by classically illiterate fanbases defensive of their micro-scenes.

In the case of Opeth however, who are not alone in this permutation, it strikes as more beguiling than frustrating. The tracks will often have a hooky melody or riff appear briefly only to reappear in variation just near the end of the song, a stray line that Akerfeldt's incredibly post-David Vincent intelligible growl makes surge above the guitars and drums that catches the ear. There is a real beauty to the poetics of these lyrics, which may not strike as award-winning poetry on their own but certainly contain a great deal more subtlety and sense of atmosphere than many of their peers possessed. Orchid and its elements often feel more like Tiamat's landmark record Wildhoney than they do early records by Autopsy and Incantation, Darkthrone and Mayhem, allowing the natural psychedelia present in the gothic, with its opium clouds and the intoxication of the taboo, to swirl in the curls of cigarette smoke and censors here. For an album often described even by the band's fans as one of their most resolutely black metal, it certainly feels much more akin to their own later work than to their peers at the time or to black metal now.

Even the contrapuntal guitar work present here would never fully dissipate, being brought back in key moments on future records more indicative of their key period such as Still Life, Deliverance and Ghost Reveries to highlight particularly keen moments of evil in the narratives present on those records and songs. If anything, the key insight one could take away regarding Orchid especially gazing back on it nearly 30 years later is how the band was committed from the very beginning to a programmatic approach to songwriting, using music and lyrics both as storytelling vehicles in the style of both classic prog bands of old but also certain key, more theatrical heavy metal bands like Mercyful Fate, King Diamond's solo work, Iron Maiden and Morbid Angel's work with David Vincent.

The variety here does the record wonders; while the main body of its material are songs that span well over the 10-minute mark, they are both replete with lots of internal variation as well as shorter interlude songs to keep the attention rapt. CDs did a great deal to change the overall shape of album pacing, shifting away from 20-50 minute portions erring often close to the 40 minute mark to stretching suddenly to 70+ minutes, a length previously kept for double albums. Orchid is by no means a short record, clocking in at just over 65 minutes across a mere 7 tracks, an ambitious span of time for a debut record. But with two of these as brief instrumental interludes spaced as they are, it effectively portions the record into three separate 20-minute chunks of material, a much more digestible portioning especially given how winding some of these riffs and structures are.

In total, it's hard to take seriously discussions of Orchid tabled over the last five to ten years that don't see the future history of the band already written within it. This isn't to say that Opeth did not undergo changes in shape over time nor that we can't discretely segment the band into eras of work, but all of the elements of the Opeth sound even as practiced on recent records are present here in some form. We see the hybridization of acoustic and electric passages, the usages of linear song-structures and the sparing use of refrains, even the usage of piano as an accent to a primarily guitar-driven sound. What follows after Orchid is perhaps better thought of as a dialectical effulgence of the artistic voice rather than a radical reinterpretation or the firmly segmented portions of their discography as people often seem to parrot when discussing this group. But those elements are hard to discuss in the context of just this record, requiring us to chart instead of the analemma of the stars of the group from dusk to morningrise.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 11 days ago