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Please do not headbang during Opeth's set - 65%

TheExodusAttack, March 23rd, 2010

An oft-lauded masterpiece of modern music, Blackwater Park is the next great step in the evolution of heavy metal? Born of the blues and ganja smoke in the late 60’s by Black Sabbath, and streamlined and solidified into a more-than-legitimate music genre throughout the 70’s by Judas Priest, Motorhead, Black Sabbath once again and the progenitors of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it seemed like metal music was going places. The following decades revolutionized how the world saw, listened to and interpreted heavy metal, as the had music split into dozens of subgenres, with bands as polarized as Riot, Kreator, Candlemass, Mayhem, Disembowelment, W.A.S.P., Death (and Black Sabbath, of course) all crusading for the good of the genre. Even the often downtrodden era of the 90’s and 00’s yielded countless inspirations and unique (for better or for worse) releases. But here it is, 2010, and all I am really looking forward to is the next Black Sabbath album, dammit.

But for now, we have Opeth. Oh joy.

I find it greatly difficult to express my opinions regarding this band. For months, I constantly flip-flopped on my stance, originally thinking “this is just as lame as the Internet told me it was,” before moving towards the idea that “you know, this really isn’t all that bad and offensive,” until I decided once more “this shit sucks. Hard.” So after this long history of indecision, I’ve finally settled down and come to the conclusion that Opeth merely plays repetitive, inoffensive, boring, meandering music that, by some miraculous stroke of luck, somehow became idolized and worshipped by the mainstream metal media worldwide. Yes, ask any average (presumably young and not entirely experienced) metalhead about Opeth, and you’ll need to duck from the waves of saliva and semen that will invariably expel from various orifices at a frightening rate. The vast amount of praise bestowed on vocalist/guitarist/principal songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt and company would lead someone who knows nothing about metal music to believe that they have written nine (and counting) metal masterpieces, dripping with “emotion,” “atmosphere,” and “progressive” touches.

The band is touted by its annoying fans as “Progressive Swedish Death Metal.” The progressive aspect of Opeth is a tad bit debatable, however. Because of their convoluted song structure’s, the band received the tag not so much because their music is legitimately progressive, but because they write very long songs, that contain both death growls and clean singing *gasp!!*. Anybody can write long songs in this vein, but it takes to talent to write a good short song, and even more to stretch it out to the lengths of these songs and maintain interest. And considering the many great bands spawned by the Swedish death metal movement, Opeth is easily the single worst band to come from it, merely for the fact that they do not play death metal whatsoever. Yes, Mikael Åkerfeldt growls deeply, but plays nary a death metal riff, only slow, samey-sounding metal riffs of an unclassifiable genre. Let’s call it “progressive,” shall we? The tempo of the music rarely ever rises above a casual rhythm, and drummer Martin Lopez never plays a blastbeat, or even plays fast at all, aside from a few quick bass-drum segments. As far as the listener will be able to tell, guitarist Peter Lindgren offers fairly little to Opeth’s sound, even though it’s quite possible his presence is the only thing keeping them from descending into a torrent of musical suckage. Martin Mendez’s bass has been very enjoyable on past albums, but here his contributions are sadly buried by guitars hardly worth highlighting at all.

Opeth’s fifth effort, the charmingly named Blackwater Park, is quite representative of the band as a whole. The album is 70+ minutes long, with most songs ranging from 7 to 11 minutes in length, while a few others are relegated to the expected level of “2 minute acoustic interlude, just to shake things up.” Each song showcases a variety of vastly different segments; this would normally be impressive, except the band paid no attention to how these sections transition between each other, or whether they even sound good whatsoever when they are juxtaposed next to an entirely different-sounding part of the song. This is the downfall of Opeth: for the most part, they just don’t really pay attention while writing their songs. It’s like they wrote 2 minute intros for 35 different metal songs. Some consist of distortion and riffage played in a monotonous yet somehow enjoyable fashion, accompanied by Åkerfeldt s growled vocals; some are built from acoustic guitar noodling and clean singing. Yet others consist of piano, and even other contain both acoustic and electric guitars at once, and may include clean vocals instead of death growls during the “metal” parts. Some of the segments may feature guitar solos, which throughout Opeth’s career, are pretty much just “there:” meaning enjoyable while being played, but without being particularly noticeable or integral to the songs when they finish. But despite how nice these individual parts are, they are still just intros to songs, and nothing more. They must be expanded upon and taken to its logical conclusion while maintain variety, yet never overwhelming the listener. But rather than expand upon what they already wrote, Opeth simply took these 35 intros and slapped them together in 8 songs.

This is a bit of a hyperbole, of course, as the band clearly paid some attention to how the album’s individual moments flowed, but only to the point that they never sounded jarring and outright wrong. However, the transitions still do sound awkward and confuse the listener. The first few songs manage to be strong and, rather surprisingly, memorable to a degree, but these feelings never grow any stronger as the album goes on. “The Leper Affinity” has that one good riff in the beginning, but the song just goes through the motions without accomplishing much. There is a guitar solo at some point, as well as an acoustic part. The vocals are harsh for a bit, and then go soft and delicate later on (really, however great Åkerfeldt’s singing voice is, it is quite emasculated), before switching once more. The metal comes back again, and then gives in to a piano piece at the end. However bland that description of the music is, it is all that can really be said about it. When the song ends after 10 minutes of trying to decide where to go, it hasn’t accomplished much, other than to demonstrate the band members smoke too much weed and are unsure how to properly end a song.

The one-two crotch-shot that is “The Drapery Falls” and “Dirge for November” best displays why this band is looked down upon by a minority of the metal scene. By the time you’re halfway into the former, you’ve already forgotten everything that already happened in the song. At 5:50, the band introduces some of the worst riffing I’ve ever seen be taken seriously by anyone: it sounds off-kilter, trying far too hard to be “progressive” and “unique,” and it is just flat-out not enjoyable to listen to. A few minutes of nothing of particular importance later, Opeth display’s their weak grasp on what constitutes musical progression. They switch to acoustic, folky guitars, complete with soft singing, but before the listener can even wrap his head around what just happened, the band blasts into about 7 seconds of chaotic, metallic nonsense. The guitars then drop out again, but just as the listener is trying to relax and absorb the calming atmosphere of the music, it is ruined once again by a fast metal part that isn’t even good in the first place.

I make it sound like this album is painfully bland and never pleasurable to hear, but this is thankfully not true. “The Funeral Portrait” is easily one of the best songs both on the album and in Opeth’s spotty discography. It opens with one of the fewmoments on the album worthy of headbanging, contrasting simultaneously with some interesting sounding acoustic parts. This is followed by an excellent (!) Celtic Frost-esque passage, all wrapped up on Opeth’s own unique, silly take on progressive metal. The band steadily moves forward without ever looking back, and I can’t help but wonder why they don’t always sound as good as this. Well, at least as good as it sounds until 3:50, where I suppose the band felt that if they played a song for more than 4 minutes without introducing a massive shift in dynamics, they would no longer be taken seriously by their high-minded, snobbish fans. So they do introduce a quiet part, and once again, it is quite unnecessary. It wouldn’t even be so bad if the band stuck around to develop it, but they abandon the acoustics after 10 seconds or so before returning to the metal. At this point, I am always quite baffled, wondering why they even felt the need to stick a folky part in the song if they weren’t even going to use it for more than a few moments; it’s like they put it in there solely to aggravate me. But the following guitar solo is more noticeable than usual, and thankfully the Celtic Frostian riffs return as well. Several clean singing and bland guitar noodling parts later, there’s another good solo and the song ends without feeling several minutes longer than it actually is.

Opeth is an enigma in the metal scene. They play long, lavishly constructed songs that somehow manage to accomplish little, despite the band member’s obvious talent and prowess with their instruments. They have become astoundingly popular worldwide, and developed one of the most rabid and irritating fan bases ever. By most standards I should hate music that eschews the massively important concept of songwriting so casually, but Opeth has a bizarre, charming quality about them that keeps me coming back for more. However mediocre the band is, I will say that I’ve listened to them more often than I would care to admit. Something about Opeth can bring me back every once in a while, but Blackwater Park is usually not the album to do it (the band’s debut, Orchid, will normally hold that title). This is an album meant to be listened to alone, while in a muted and bland sort of mood: neither happy nor sad. The third song, “Harvest,” a six minute all-acoustic track, best exemplifies this atmosphere, and manages to be a decent song in and of itself. “Bleak,” “The Funeral Portrait,” the opener and the particularly great closing title track “Blackwater Park” are all good, mostly memorable songs. But Opeth has never known when their formula has gone too far, and cutting down (or perhaps removing altogether) “The Drapery Falls,” “Dirge for November” and the interlude “Patterns in the Ivy” would’ve been beneficial to the album’s pacing. Ever since the quality of Opeth’s music declined after their third effort My Arms, Your Hearse, I suppose nobody should expect much more of the band but nice, boring music: mildly pleasing to play while driving on dreary autumn days or while trying to fall asleep, but little times else.