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The construction of a typical Opeth song is really based on guitar riffs. But rather than a lone powerhouse driving the song, guitarist/singer Mikael Akerfeldt weaves together many intricate passages with lightly distorted guitars. When all these pieces are put together it forms a singularity of massive scope. The guitars don't churn or burn, they don't spew or chug, they grind and slide, they swirl and dig. The overtones present in any massive moment are incredible and genuinely melodic.
This band really knows how to create harmonic tension. The very first licks in the opening track The Leper Affinity starts with a middle E5 and then the same chord with a flat 9. This is followed immediately by some descending stacked minor thirds, and then quick chugging on the low E. And as it goes along, more guitars are added to the mix. Often Akerfeldt puts near identical passages on top of each other. It isn't like double tracking because the differences are too great. The effect is something akin to being just out side the eye of a hurricane. There are so many little pieces flying by, that you can only catch some at a time. It takes some skill to hear everything all at once.
The transitions are incredible. This is an area that so many have trouble with. Going from one riff to another is something Opeth elevates to an art. It would be easy for me to fall into more music-geek traps and detail my favorite of said passages but it is entirely unnecessary. I will tell you that the coolest thing is hearing this band transform instantly from a seemingly dissonant, grinding chaos, to a full-on Odysseus. Dark clouds seam a distant memory in place where giant power-chords and soaring vocals have the power to lift you up so high. One particularly great example is on The Drapery Falls when everything seams so together you can't help but move. Your head will bob, your fist will be raised, and you won't know these things are going on. You have no control. But it is a very shaky place to be in, as "Leper" proves going into a double grind that increases in power up until the very end. The things you will least expect are when all the instruments drop out entirely and a tender acoustic guitar will play delicate passages like a light breeze across your face. By the time you acclimate to the situation it has changed. Opeth always keeps you guessing. At times a song doesn't even sound like itself. There even a few tunes into which musical brutality doesn't enter. Harvest, Patterns in Ivy, Dirge for November, all flow brilliantly with a tonal purity that you just can't be expecting. "Patterns in Ivy" is especially surprising because it fades into the immense darkness of the album's title song. "Dirge's" delicate hollowbody electric figures sound so mellow and wide-ranging acoustic chords cast a spell. "Dirge" isn't entirely acoustic but the difference in sections is so pronounced that the two sections might as well be different songs. The electric section is equally lovely.
No one can get out of a review of this record without talking about the vocals. They are mostly very harsh and deep, an intense growl devoid of melody, fairly typical death metal styled vocals (another review mentioned that they were typical of black metal. This is not true; black metal vocals are very high and screechy). This will bother many and unfortunately deter some. They do not bother me. I enjoy them and the lyrics, which are cryptic and sometimes clunky (the band is Swedish, but they sing in English). To those of you who cannot take this kind of voice, I offer this: stick it out and give it a chance. Try listening to it before you make a purchase to see if you can really handle it. Also keep in mind that Mikael Akerfeldt does all the vocals, even the impossibly high and soaring clean stuff that could impress a hardened voice instructor (I've seen it happen). Let it sink into you and cringe and run away. After a while you may not even notice that Mikael is singing in that voice. If you keep an open mind you may find yourself really enjoying this. Most people won't be immediately thrown off, and some who aren't fans of death metal will actually enjoy it.
There is really something special to be found here. This is a band being truly creative, taking risks with their music. It is too easy to stick to a tried-and-true formula. Opeth falter sometimes, but these occasions are over-shadowed b the immensity of their genius.