Friday, 17 August 2012

Featured Artiste: Opeth

Opeth is a progressive death metal band that recently switched to jazz-influenced classic prog in their last album 'Heritage'. The next Opeth album can be expected around 2014, so I guess a feature two years before their next offering is apt. Opeth is anything but immediate, I myself had Opeth on my iTunes for a few months before I was suddenly engulfed in their music. Opeth's music can be described emotionally dense, with their songs usually interpreted as having several arcs across an average song length of 10 minutes. Opeth's most notable style is their shifting between harsh death metal growls and soft, beautiful acoustics while frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt's vocals always nail the mood of the passages accompanied. Rather than going on a few individual songs, I will go through Opeth's last ten albums in chronological order, because Opeth is focused on the bigger picture.

1. Orchid (1995)

The first Opeth album and already a critical success. Bands rarely display such maturity and musicianship at their debut but 'Orchid' could be considered the work of a veteran band. Twin guitar harmonies pervade this and the next album, but what was more interesting is the arrangements on the album. As stated earlier, the band already had powerful dynamics for music that was as soft as it was heavy. Though not as prevalent as in other albums, there was a tremendous amount of non-metal influences in 'Orchid' for it's time, a time when rednecks like Pantera were parading with their cowboy anthems and Slayer was at its peak and Metallica was selling out and KoRn entered the market. Opeth easily swept through them with this adventurous, ambitious and epic debut. Crowd favourites include the epic 'In Mist She Was Standing', 'Forest Of October' and the fantastic 'Apostle In Triumph'.

2. Morningrise (1996)

The guitars on this album are amazing. The drumming, though not as perfect as in the coming albums by Martin Lopez, was important in adding to the nuanced moments of the album. Johan DeFarfalla's bass was thick and complex, and the combined efforts of guitarists Åkerfeldt and Peter Lindgren, along with then drummer Anders Nordin created a suffocatingly thick atmosphere that was intensely personal, again another characteristic that separates Opeth from its peers. The music can be described as a well mixed balance between progressive, death metal, black metal and acoustic guitars (which are plenty in this album). Åkerfeldt's vocals are far from perfect, with the use of screams still pervading most of the album, and his singing sometimes cringe-worthy, but overall they do not spoil the music one bit, in fact, it's imperfections lend to the almost perfect dynamics of this amazing album. My second favourite Opeth album. There are not many standout tracks, seeing that there are only six in this album, but if I had to hazard a choice it would be the jaw-dropping 20-minute-long 'Black Rose Immortal', which features more riffs than complete albums put out by other bands at that time.

3. My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)

Opeth is a band that is all too familiar with change. This point of time marked the departure of Nordin and DeFarfalla. In came Martin Lopez, who recorded drums on this album while Åkerfeldt contributed bass for the album. Based on a story of a man who comes back from death to find his wife, 'My Arms...' proved to be a breakthrough for Opeth and set the tone for the next seven albums that would come it's way. Åkerfeldt started using more vocal effects that result in a monstrous death metal vocal performance. Song titles form the last words of the previous songs and flow into each other almost seamlessly. Drums are now more metal, with the usage of double bass considerably increased. There are many strong songs here but the quintessential metal track here is 'Demon Of The Fall'. The acoustic riff in the middle builds up enormous power before the electric guitars comes soaring in with Opeth's favourite riff, as Åkerfeldt screams out the the title of the song, before everything collapses for the sad, melodic ending as the protagonist sees the woman who he married flee from him as she sees him.

4. Still Life (1999)

Another concept album, this time of a protagonist in an older setting who was exiled for his lack of faith who returns home after several years seeking closure whilst getting friction from the town council. Opeth's music took an evil, ominous tone from here onwards, with the inclusion of Martin Mendez on bass (the oldest current member of Opeth after Åkerfeldt). This forms the classic Opeth line-up, and in typical fashion, 'Still Life' outshone it's predecessor in all elements. Åkerfeldt grows ever confident in his vocals, his singing the driving force behind the stunning, melancholic 'Face Of Melinda', which opens beautifully and ends on a powerful ending with soaring riffs. Opeth is more focused this time, with songs becoming shorter than in those of their first two albums. Guitar riffing, though not as memorable as on in 'Morningrise' and 'My Arms...' take a turn towards groove metal, perhaps with the increasing popularity of Pantera and Lamb Of God at that time. Still, songs like 'The Moor' and 'Serenity Painted Death' continued in Opeth's vein of progressive black metal tainted with unbelievable emotion. Fans were pleased, critics were pleased, the mainstream took a little notice, that is, until Opeth's next album.

5. Blackwater Park (2001)

A contender for the best metal album. Stunning. Mind blowing. Genre defining. This are tags reserved for the overrated thrash metal albums of the 80s and some classic metal bands like Maiden and Black Sabbath. But nobody expected a quiet metal band from Sweden to come up with such a phenomenal album. Currently's best album of all time, on top of Megadeth's 'Rust In Peace' and Metallica's 'Master Of Puppets'. This may seem absurd at first; how many bands actually have influence on as many bands as Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield did in the 80s? This criticism may be a little early. Firstly, 'Blackwater Park' sounds nothing like anything anybody recorded in the early 2000s, not even Opeth themselves. Whilst retaining their classic sound of contrasting dynamics, 'Blackwater Park' showcases perfection in all levels. Not a single second on the album is wasted. Take opener 'The Leper Affinity' for example; it starts off with a single distorted piano note, that bursts into an instantly memorable riff and Åkerfeldt's now perfect vocals, deep, brutal, menacing and without effects, effortlessly fusing the high rasps of black metal and the growls of death metals. The song changes riffs with immediacy and consistent timing, letting each riff sink into your head before logically progressing into the next riff, with guitar solos placed at the most unexpectedly apt timings, before the song slows down to acoustics, which sound random in text but seem perfectly obvious in sound, and Åkerfeldt reveals his new weapon - a beautiful singing voice as if from one of the classic rock bands of yesteryears. He is unrecognizable, chillingly beautiful and lost. He is one with the musical backing, and the song immediately takes a short return to death metal before breaking to a extremely cohesive, groovy, heavy and melodic jam before ending the same way it begins, with slow piano notes that pierce through a fantastically clean production by English progressive rocker Steven Wilson, whose love for jazz and obscure classic rock enshrouds the death metal wreckage of this album. And this is just the first ten minutes of the band. Audible bass, soaring guitar atmospheres, sudden piano notes, perfect vocals and riff after riff that land in the fine line between death, black and groove metal. Opeth mastered the art of transition between contrasting styles on this album, with the random time signature changes in the last four albums replaced by smart progressive bridges that give way to the next almost as if it's the most obvious music change. Top it off with poetic lyrics that are loosely based on the general decadence of the supposed citizens of "Blackwater Park" whilst finding time for an elusive storyline with characters voiced by Åkerfeldt's twin vocals and Wilson's affectionate, high croons (a combo that drives the chorus of the song that made me like Opeth, the ever classic 'Bleak'). Every song on this album is multi-dimensional, be it the Middle-Eastern riffs on 'Bleak', the folk-themed 'Harvest', the groove-oriented 'The Funeral Portrait', the suicidal beauty of 'Dirge Of November' and its intelligent structure, the crowd-pleasing anthem 'The Drapery Falls' or the final, 12 minute magnum opus title track, a track of tremendous power progression even during the brief repetition of acoustic riffs after two minutes, before giving way to a section which feature dual vocal tracks simultaneously running together, an effect usually used by pop stars. The result is a chilling vocal performance that simply increases the intensity of the song before the album reaches it's climax at the nine-minute mark, repeating the previous riff in acoustic guitars before every member of the band plays his part with perfect timing as Åkerfeldt spits forth his most remembered vocal part in an Opeth song 'Sick liaisons raise this monumental mark / the Sun sets forever in Blackwater Park', the guitarists go nuts together for a while before the song explodes and is instantly replaced with a slow fingerpicked riff that fades out. Amazing album and definitely the starting point of anybody interested in Opeth. This album has set the mark for almost all progressive bands in the underground, with Ihsahn, Ne Obliviscaris, Agalloch, Intronoaut, Enslaved, Slice The Cake, Be'lakor and many more following suit of this style.

6. Deliverance (2002)

Not exactly everybody's favourite and a majorly overlooked album that Åkerfeldt himself has confessed to dislike, 'Deliverance' is my favourite Opeth album. Whilst there is nothing much to comment because stylistically there is little change from 'Blackwater Park', 'Deliverance' which is meant to be the heavier twin of a planned two-part album diversifying their contrasting styles, showcases some very intelligent song-writing. Unlike the previous albums that presented itself to the listener with an almost juggernaut amount of elements with increasing build-up, 'Deliverance' presents the chaotic changes and progressions in a subtle, nuance manner, which probably gives an indication as to the apparent inaccessibility of the album. On the other hand, songs like 'A Fair Judgement' are some of the most instant songs ever made by Opeth, and the blues-driven guitar section and the multitude of solos in the middle could give even The Beatles a run for their money, and this is no exaggeration. The tile track features military drumming from the ever improving Lopez, and is up there with 'Demon Of The Fall' and 'Blackwater Park' as the heaviest songs written by Opeth (though the later 'Watershed' blows them away). The last two songs though, with their ever-progressing song structures, intricate riffs and harsh tones, are what I find the album's major strengths. This one album is up to your subjective tastes though.

7. Damnation (2003)

Personally for me, the most overrated Opeth album. This is the softer twin and their most experimental (until 'Heritage'), with no screams, no distortions and no blastbeats. Just. Pure. Acosutics. And. Singing. By no means a bad album, but rather less mature than their other works, probably because of the limitations imposed by the new instrumentation. Still, there is boundless creativity even with these limited tools. For one thing, this album cemented Opeth's proficiency outside the metal genre. Song length is cut down to better accommodate the obvious focus on this album - mellow emotion. Passion overflows from this album, and supersedes the initial monotone of the album. Songs like 'Windowpane', 'In My Time Of Need' and 'To Rid The Disease' feature so much painful angst in their quiet melancholic ways, while songs like 'Closure' and 'Hope Leaves' continue to break new ground for Opeth with their ever expanding musical direction and challenging son structures.

8. Ghost Reveries (2005)

Album number eight is Opeth's first venture on a commercial record, Roadrunner. And fears of a sold out album were immediately assuaged with the first single, 'The Grand Conjuration'. Opeth's change of style was immediately apparent. Featuring clockwork drumming and mature guitar riffs, Martin Lopez and Peter Lindgren give a memorable departing performance. 'Ghost Reveries' features the most accessible Opeth songs ever written, without sacrificing their humble beginnings. The long acoustic passages and electric guitar moments are here, the snarls and croons are here, the intricate rhythms are here. What has changed is their presentation. Whilst previous albums tended to drone on self indulgence, 'Ghost Reveries' meanders through its dense music with urgency and focus. The songs are extremely cohesive, each title presenting itself like a deep chapter of a intense novel. Similar sounding tunes, courtesy of newly added keyboardist Per Wiberg, float and linger around the claustrophobic layers of instruments as Åkerfeldt belts out lyrics that have accumulated poetic beauty over the span of a decade. Indian raagas, Latin drumming, layered vocals, Moog synthesizer solos, pianos and lush, dense atmospheres weave in and out of blastbeats, trademark screams and guitar solos that sound more from seasoned rock veterans like Clapton or Page rather than the usual shredfest from other metal bands. This isn't as much experimentation as it is a refining of the styles achieved in 'Blackwater Park' whilst taking note of the good points of the innovation in the last two albums. Opeth would have a major change in musical style after this album, but this is a fitting bookend to one of the most breathtaking bands in the metal realm. Standout tracks are obviously the opener 'Ghost Of Perdition', the epic 'Reverie/Harlequin Forest' and the emotionally painful 'Isolation Years'.

9. Watershed (2008)

After the exits of guitarist Peter Lindgren and drummer Martin Lopez, ex-Arch Enemy shredder Fredrik Åkesson and death metal drummer from Åkerfeldt's side project Bloodbath, Martin Axenrot are added to the band. This of course means that a general shift in sound will be expected, and the nature of the two new additions predicted that Opeth might drop their progressive sound for a more straightforward death metal fest with the usual shredded solos and bomb blasts. The reverse happened. The album starts off with an acoustic duet, a shocking introduction for a band that is already well recognized for its diversity, with the addition of female vocals at the second half a clear indication that this is a band that will not rest on it's laurels. Right after that, the sound of a vortex almost as if sucking in the chilling beauty of the album opener leads to Opeth's heaviest song. Devoid of even a whisper, 'Heir Apparent' features a band that makes intelligent use of its strengths. 'Heir Apparent' is such an intelligent song and unlike any other Opeth track, it features galloping riffs, Åkerfeldt's most menacing growls, cold blastbeats and even shredded solos, amidst acoustic guitar and orchestral arrangements (what?!). The contrsting dynamics have never been sharper, and the lyrics also become more powerful:

"A burden so great
Weighs heavy on old and withered beliefs
The swift solution crumbles
Beneath the mock notes of a masterpiece
Death in his eyes, waiting
Spiraling judgement, provoked in the rains"

And the song refuses to end this way, choosing instead to slide into a smooth jam that leads to the next curveball, 'The Lotus Eater' which is not only a deconstruction of metal dynamics but of general songwriting. It starts off with a hum, before bludgeoning forth with blastbeats with Åkerfeldt spewing forth not screams but icy cold SINGING, more like a pop star than a rock star. The screams are still there, but the real shock is the middle of the song, where the band members suddenly break off from the song as Åkesson's groovy solo leads to a weird, neo-funk-jazz section that comes out of nowhere. 'Burden' is classic progressive, with soulful singing and fantastic guitar and keyboard solos executed by Åkerfeldt and Wilberg, and an interesting outro with someone progressively detuning Åkerfeldt's acoustic riff. 'Watershed' has numerous minute details like these that add depth to the songs. The opus is of course the Led Zeppelin throwback 'Hessian Peel', a song that continues to push Opeth's boundaries whilst retaining the character of their roots, a rare feat for a band 15 years into their career. As again, Opeth prove to be peerless in their musical directions in an age of similar sounding bands.

10. Heritage (2011)

The album that decidedly chased away fans from the group's catalogue, and one of the strongest albums of last year. 'Heritage' is polarizing because it marks the band's rejection of death metal in it's entirety, embracing instead the progressive elements that have slowly made its way into the band's sound. That does not make it any less complex, in fact, 'Heritage' is dense and possibly more intense than the previous outing. Whilst Opeth albums are generally easy to execute on instruments, the songs here feature more technical elements, with polyrhythmic drum fills and blues guitars and great classical singing. Not sounding like 'Damnation', 'Heritage' explores fingerpicking and progressive riffs in the vein of 70s bands like Camel, King Crimson, Yes, Captain Beyond and Deep Purple, as seen in the unlikely Dio tribute 'Slither' which sounds like it came out of the 60s. Songs have a more gothic feel, and the album revels in its beauty despite its technical accomplishments, which isn't a very far throwback from the previous releases in terms of theme. The album has several memorable sections, choosing the preference for detail executed in 'Ghost Reveries' and 'Watershed' rather than the in-your-face arrangements of the band's past. Repeated listens reveal new elements in the album, especially in the drums department, with Axenrot sounding like he has never attempted death metal drumming in his life with his delicate jazz rolls and fills. This is quite contradictory, an album that showcases tha band's love for emotional depth despite it's almost complete rejection of its roots, which it playfully parodies in its album cover. Love them or hate them, Opeth shows no signs of slowing down with age and maturity. Let's see how the new album will sound and if Opeth have chosen the right path, or if Åkerfeldt chooses to go back to his roots. Standout tracks? Try the whole album.

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