Despite Opeth’s relative popularity, they always seem to avoid widespread recognition when it comes to the modern progressive rock/metal scene in particular, often playing second fiddle to genre heavyweights such as Tool and Porcupine Tree. But while Opeth might lack Steven Wilson’s prodigious ear for melody and intricate composition, and a singer like Maynard James Keenan who makes really funny shouty noises sometimes (the only compliment I could bring myself to give Tool), they deserve a great deal more attention than they’ve been getting for the last decade and a half.
For the majority of their career they’ve been masters of restraint, refusing to indulge in the common progressive rock vices of pretentious lyrics and aimless riffing. Their first album, 1995′s Orchid, contained the faintest whiff of black metal influence; this was immediately dropped in favor of death metal, and folk rock inextricably bound a dependable (if somewhat predictable) sound that served them quite well over the years. They only ever ditched this hybrid genre if it was to isolate a particular element of their preexisting style: Damnation, Heritage, and Pale Communion find the band forsaking the death growls and aggressive distorted guitars, pursuing bare-bones progressive rock.
The 1998 concept album Still Life is classic Opeth. Death metal hammering gives way to the smooth baritone of singer Mikael Åkerfeldt, gentle acoustic breakdowns burst apart unexpectedly in screams of pounding drums and wailing harmonics. Even the notion of a concept album isn’t foreign to the band—their previous record, My Arms, Your Hearse, toyed with the idea of a unifying story. But the very fact Still Life doesn’t break new ground seems to work in its favor. It’s grand and beautiful, while at the same time being a richly understated mastery of well-trodden techniques.
The album begins with an unnamed protagonist returning to his native village, after being banished many years before for expressing doubt towards the Christian faith of his fellow villagers. There he seeks his beloved Melinda, who has become a nun in his absence. The shadowy ‘council’ quickly catch wind of his arrival, and in the tragically romantic spirit of metal songwriting things go terribly wrong. I’m not going to spoil the ending this time, though if you follow the lyrics you’ll probably see the major developments coming a mile off. There’s just something so sublimely effective about reading the lyrics to the closing track “White Cluster,” as the final clean guitar lick fades into the darkness.
Well, to be honest, that’s probably the only way you’ll want to read them. On their own, the lyrics often read like bland, torpid angst poetry, with more cliches and flimsy metaphors than a Breton Campbell short story.
“By the turnstile beckons a damsel fair/the face of Melinda neath blackened hair/no joy would flicker in her eyes/brooding sadness came to her eyes”
Not terrible by any means, but not something that can hold its weight without a sturdy foundation of death growls and distorted guitars. But that’s okay, because Still Life is an album which achieves beauty through summation rather than the magnificence of standout parts. Here the mundane is complimented and amplified, with no intrusive flashiness to greedily vie for your attention. You don’t love Opeth because of the cool singer or the wicked guitarist, you love Opeth because you’re enraptured with Opeth itself, as a cohesive, perfectly synchronized songwriting unit.
But wait, there’s more! Opeth do have guitar solos, and crazy tortured growls, and many other sections that could be considered ‘flashy’ in a certain context. But the thing is, these parts never take precedence over the natural progression of the song, and only exist as logical next steps in the flow of the piece. The wonky, dissonant riff that kicks off ‘Godhead’s Lament’ exits just as it starts to grow tiring; it’s replaced by an enchanting folk singalong that imperceptibly flows into the track like a gentle breeze. Likewise, the folk part precariously skirts the line between beauty and self-indulgence. Before it crosses that dangerous barrier, it gives way to a monstrous death metal finale, descending chromatic notes ringing out over Mikael’s titanic yell. The closest Still Life gets to high-school music class noodling is the middle section of ‘Moonlapse Vertigo’, and even in that song they don’t allow themselves to stray too far from the central idea. The guitar solos, though they’re as fast and brutal as any death old school death metal lick, are snippets of texture and colour, hints of a secondary melody that dazzles with its harmony as well as its speed.
Opeth self-produced this release, alongside Swedish producer Fredrik Nordstrom. A few of their later releases, one of them being the awesome prog record Damnation, were produced by Stephen Wilson, and to be honest I feel like this record could really benefit from his comprehensive knowledge of audio engineering. For lack of a better term, this album just lacks a certain punch, a clear and urgent tone in the instrumentation, to accentuate certain important parts of the composition. The songs have a tendency to disappear within themselves, aggressive riffs melting into each other to so often that any measure of urgency or notability is effectively sapped away. In a similar manner, multiple songs on this album can end up blending together in a rush of crunchy guitars, with only the occasional outlier to save the day, like the tender ballad ‘Benighted’.
This minor gripe can easily be averted by simply paying more attention to the album though, which in itself unearths a host of new benefits. The relentless, elegant forward momentum of Still Life belies an apprehensive calm, pockets of otherworldly majesty that frequently arise in unlikely corners of the record. It’s simply amazing to witness the various forms these songs take during their relatively average run-times (for progressive music, anyways). Despite the relative homogeneity in style, each chunk of death metal or wispy folk feels like a different time and place, from a quiet Scandinavian forest in ‘Benighted’ to a rainy, hopeless Medieval village in ‘White Cluster’. In a way, they’ve both perfected and refuted the key qualities of progressive rock: though they take full advantage of a system of independent and swiftly evolving sections, these sections always seem inexorably tied to the piece itself, feeling like an actual song with a start and end goal.
So yeah. Progressive music that’s progressive without being bloated and (overly) pretentious. In retrospect that probably won’t do them any favors; I imagine they’ll always be regarded as a ‘subordinate’ band in their scene. A designation that suits Opeth’s music perfectly—an unassuming iteration of a familiar genre, with wonderful hidden rewards awaiting anybody willing to give their music a shot.