Friday, 14 October 2016

A Lament For Opeth

Back in the summer of 2006 (insert *OMG that's over ten years ago*) Alison and I had been going out for only a few months and would spent Friday and Saturday evenings either out at the cinema or typically in front of a DVD in my flat. It was during one of these hot July evenings that I popped on the Opeth Lamentations DVD, a two-part concern that was recorded shortly after their Deliverance and Damnation albums were released. As a music fan whose favourite bands touch on heavy rock and metal, I thought there was a fair chance that she would at least appreciate the softer more melodic pieces as means of introduction into the band. The first set comprised of the Damnation album plus Harvest and Alison loved it, commenting only on the length of their amazing hair (it was amazing). A short break followed whilst we refuelled our drinks and then they came out for set two: the heavy stuff from Blackwater Park and Deliverance, starting with Masters Apprentice. Never have I seen a more extraordinary reaction from someone in my life. Having been immersed in the ethereal beauty and calming majesty of their "clean set", the sonic onslaught that followed, complete with death growls and doom-laden riffs, was about as contrasting a sound as you could wish to hear. It was fair to say that Alison preferred the softer stuff, but was amazed nonetheless to experience the extremes of light and dark that is Opeth.

I had first seen Opeth back in 2004 when they played a Sunday morning slot on the main stage at the Download festival. I was tired and hungover so didn't really take much of it in, but they did seem tight, heavy and packed full of strange time signatures and other quirks so it seemed worthwhile investigating further. Several months later I purchased a copy of Blackwater Park which had been heralded as their "go to" album. It was an amazing listen; long progressive songs with atmospheric almost gothic themes, death metal growls and heavy riffs coupled with folk passages and soulful singing. It was the complete package. I then picked up Morningrise (a complete punt in a record store) and was blown away even further. The progressive synthesis was still there but the theme from this earlier record was more black metal meets medieval folk with a slightly grittier production. Every song was an epic, sprawling monster that demanded repeated play. On the back of this I bought their debut Orchid (similar style to Morningrise) and then the deliberately mellow Damnation album. At that point their latest record Ghost Reveries came out and yet again it was a winner. On the back of this I bought tickets to see them at the Carling Academy in Birmingham. Tickets were cheap and they ended up playing the third stage without a support band. I was somewhat disappointed that they played little of their earlier stuff (I wasn't familiar with albums three and four at this stage) but they still included some great songs including The Baying of the Hounds and Deliverance which was absolutely brutal. Yet again, the standout feature was the extreme contrast in styles from death metal to folk, from intense heaviness to melodic harmony and the way in which these sections interchanged was tight and deliberate. Moreover, Mikael Akerfeldt was a great frontman; unusually for a metal vocalist he refrained from the typical rabble-rousing shouts and actually spent the gaps making everyone laugh with what I would describe as a more typically British sense of humour (but then what do I know about Swedish comedy?)

It didn't take me long to purchase the remainder of their back catalogue and within a year of that gig I went back to see them, this time playing the main Carling stage with Paradise Lost as their support. The set that night encapsulated everything that is great about the band. It was a couple of nights before they recorded almost the same set at London's Roundhouse (exchange Bleak for The Grand Conjuration) with songs from every single album, starting with Ghost of Perdition and ending with Demon of the Fall. The pinnacle came after Face of Melinda when upon he described recording the Morningrise album with the intention of using lutes to replicate the sound of minstrels, before launching into The Night and the Silent Water (my personal favourite Opeth song).

As is always the case with bands, there is the danger that things will implode and that began to happen with both the drummer and guitarist departing prior to the recording of Watershed. In my view these were crucial changes to the line up as Peter Lindgren always refrained from soloing for the sake of it and contributed genuinely unique melodies to complement the vocal sections. Martin Lopez was arguably even more of a significant loss as few metal bands posses a drummer who intersperses Latin passages along with double kicks. As a consequence, Watershed was slightly underwhelming. There were some great moments on there: the Lotus Eater and Burden were unique and the last couple of tracks were very progressive, but otherwise it felt like some of the magic had been lost. No matter; I saw them live twice after that and their live performances were still intense, varied and their two new members were clearly growing into their respective roles, especially on older material which was still as tight and soulful as ever.

Heritage was a drastic departure but the organic, earthy feel seemed interesting and evoked memories of folk-horror movies from the sixties and seventies. Within that there were tracks such as The Lines On My Hand that were new and exciting and I got the impression that it was a bold way of exploring a different sound similar to their approach on Damnation. Of course it wasn't anywhere near as good as Damnation, but they couldn't be blamed for trying something different and it at least avoided the contract with better previous albums that they suffered from with Watershed. Pale Communion was an altogether better album as it flowed more consistently, but it did raise alarm bells that perhaps this new progressive rock approach was the new norm. Would he ever growl again? Would they insert heavy riffs again? Would their production continue in its path towards total murkiness? 

And so to Sorceress. I should make an effort to pull myself out of this self-indulgent love letter to Opeth, but there is a point to this lengthy retrospective. As a band three albums into their new style I think it is reasonably clear that the era of death and black metal has gone for good, which is fine, I get it. They are now older, its harder to pull off extreme vocals and probably even harder to remain unique and avoid repetition after so many albums. The bit I find harder to overcome however, is the gradual abandonment of the contrast between dark and light that I have spent so much time waxing lyrical over. Here, I am not talking about different tacks on the same album (Willow the Wisp is clearly folk whereas Sorceress is clearly doom fusion). I am talking about the contrasting dynamics within the same song. There were touches of this on Pale Communion, let down partly by the production and recording set up (the piano links in Eternal Rains were far too quiet in the mix and subsequently created a disconnect in the flow) but on Sorceress many of the tracks simply don't have the changing dynamics and if they do they don't make as much sense as earlier material. Critics point to the change in style towards progressive rock but let's remember that Opeth have always been a progressive band, the key element with their former material is that the metal roots allowed them to expand on a wider range of sounds. Layered on top of this is the ongoing issue with production; it is so bass heavy and congested that none of the instruments are allowed room the breath. As a consequence the passages seem chaotic and are difficult to engage with. Rather than to anticipate the next section, I find myself trying to make sense of the cluster of notes and chords and that detracts from the enjoyment of listening. I am convinced that this is deliberate; Mikel Akerfeldt has stated repeatedly that not only does he find metal boring these days, but he dislikes crisp production and prefers and organic sounding set up. The new Opeth is here to stay, but I can only wonder if he would have been better off creating a separate solo project. 


And to the present. I slipped in the Lamentations DVD a week ago and was immediately transported back to a period of my life that I recall fondly as well as a period of the band that I believe was the strongest. It confirmed all of the above; Opeth were so much stronger when they stuck to their roots and produced albums of progressive death metal with folk and jazz woven in. Brutality and sensitivity is a powerful concoction. New Opeth just is not the same and having re-watched Lamentations I now want to lament. 

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