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A return to form? - 65%

Tea_and_Crumpets, August 31st, 2008

When reviewing an album it’s always important to place it in context with the bands other work. So let’s make no bones about it, Opeth’s best album is Still Life and their best work (like most bands), lies early in their discography. Still Life is pretty much the pinnacle of Opeth’s sound, a natural evolution of the albums before it and it is this album that made me a fan of the band. Despite being a fan I never had my head so far up Mikael Åkerfeldt’s arse to see when things started going wrong. After Still Life came Blackwater Park, again superb, with the album cementing the Opeth sound and proving to be their breakthrough release. Then we were met with the lamentations albums (Deliverance & Damnation) - a mistake. Separating out the two parts of Opeth, the heavy and soft, fundamentally took away from what made their melding of progressive rock and extreme metal so good. Most recently there was, Ghost Reveries, their worst album to date, bloated, slow and commercial. So with this in mind how does their latest album fare?

Thankfully it looks like Opeth took a step back from Ghost Reveries and wondered how they could change the path they’d started down. The classic Opeth ‘sound’ present on their work with (producer) Wilson is back on this album, and that’s its greatest strength. However let’s put this in context, it seems like Opeth went back a step to their Blackwater Park template and decided to experiment with it, taking into account some of the work on their more recent albums. This sounds like an exciting premise for a great album, but ultimately it fails.

The album opens with Coil, a short acoustic track. It’s not really short enough to be an intro, but nor is it long enough to be fully realised and so it becomes something of an oddity. The fact that the album opens with a short track without any real metal on it was worrying from the off, and if an outside listener was presented with this track alone, the album seems to say more acoustic easy listening than extreme metal. If we look back at previous albums some of Opeth’s strongest tracks have always been the first on the record, ‘The Moor’, ‘The Leper Affinity’ and ‘Wreath’ all being prime examples of this. However, to take criticism in the way the album was structured would be petty, but this track acts as an indicator for what to expect from the rest of the album. The song in itself is great for what it is, and for the first time we see Opeth bringing in a female vocalist, which fits well with the song.

In direct contrast to the first song ‘Coil’, ‘Heir Apparent’, the next song is the albums heaviest and should prove to be a highlight for Opeth fans at the heavier end of the listening spectrum. The song has quite a doomy feel to it, and despite a short piano interlude just before a minute in it is packed with deep meaty riffs and is the first time we hear Åkerfeldts deep growl on the album, which I am glad to say, sound brilliant. Mikaels vocals stand out as a highlight of the album, and both his clean and growled vocals are carried off masterfully. A Dan Swano esq booming growl, coupled with a soft clean voice for Opeth’s acoustic segments make Åkerfeldt the perfect Opeth vocalist.

However, while Mikaels vocals sound great this brings me onto another point, the almost reversal in Åkerfeldt’s use of each of his vocal styling’s. Previously albums had featured growling vocals for roughly 70% of the time, with short smatterings of clean vocals used for the acoustic bridges. However on this album the roles are reversed and Åkerfeldt’s deep growls play an unusually short roll.

This lack of growled vocals is also reflected in the music present, with the vast majority of it being distinctly un-metal and un-heavy. The rest of the album and its opener Coil are all examples of this, being more acoustic rock blended with prog rather than extreme metal. They have some more metal parts in them, but these seem like short snippets rather than the driving force of the album, and this leaves the album without much of the classic Opeth contrast and means some of the songs are very bland and lacklustre. Mark my words; I can see the next Opeth album filtering out even more of their metal roots, and this album seems like a change of direction. I should clarify that I have no problem with the band being less metal - if it worked - but ultimately it just detracts from their sound and makes it less unique and powerful.

Several reviews before me have really hit home the crux of the matter with this album though; it has good ideas, but they just aren’t carried off well. The track Lotus Eater provides the most obvious and widely discussed example of this - the use of clean vocals on an obviously heavy and blast beat laden part of the track. I must say at first I was really thinking this didn’t work at all, but now I admit to quite liking it and the clever change of soft against harsh, rather than the usual soft on soft or harsh on harsh (in terms of vocals and musical accompaniment) style of Opeth songs works quite well. It should be noted however, that this is not the innovation most Opeth fanboys proclaim it to be, being used by other bands like Borknagar over half a decade before Opeth. In spite of this the idea in itself is hardly expanded upon, and instead of being a truly great talking point of the album it merely becomes a gimmicky idea in a segment of one song. Why not expand upon the idea by have huge deep snarling vocals on a soft acoustic guitar piece? Why not merge the two vocal styles together like Devin Townsend, having the beginning of words sung cleanly and shift into a growl towards the end of the word or line and marry with this with a change in the music too? These are only suggestions, but the possibilities of actually making something of the new elements Opeth adds in this album is never really accomplished and leaves the album feeling unfinished and the ideas in it half baked.

Another criticism is that when a change from harsh to soft occurs, it is done so very poorly and there is no real transition to speak of, but more of a sudden jump. This has always been a flaw in Opeth’s music, but there have been times when they’ve dealt with this issue better than others, but unfortunately this is not one of them. The best example of this is ‘Porcelain heart’, which feels so disjointed it becomes something of a Frankenstein’s monster, different parts of the song feeling as if they have been cut up and randomly stuck together. The track starts out softly and proves to be very dull, then at 1:44, it just stops. There’s a 2 second silence and then a heavier riff comes in (albeit hard rock heavy, not heavy metal heavy). That’s just poor song writing, there’s no progression or bridge, just a random change. This is another reason why it enrages me when people say this album (and also their last, Ghost Reveries) is more progressive than previous Opeth work –it’s actually far less progressive but instead the song writing is a lot worse.

Progressive music is characterised by the subtle building and transition of sound, which usually avoids the simple chorus and verse structure of most songs. Most of the songs on this album sound like they’ve been stuck together almost at random, which instead of making the album more progressive leads to a simple A, B pattern structure such as on songs like ‘Lotus Eater’ and ‘Porcelain heart’ (heavy part A, soft part B, heavy part A, soft part B). What made Opeth’s earlier work so great was the fact that it was genuinely progressive, and despite having a heavy/soft structure no one part was revisited, and the songs naturally progressed through both types of part which made up the song (soft part A, heavy part B, heavy part C, soft part D etc).

To conclude the album can be characterised by a return to the classic Blackwater Park sound, mixed with lots of experimentation. Most of the time these experiments fail to produce anything meaningful or add to the Opeth sound and the album suffers from a bad implementation of ideas. The album also has a lot less of Opeths metal elements and sees a cutting back on progression in favour of what seems like jarringly bad transitions from soft to hard parts of songs. Overall, I wouldn’t say it was Opeths worst album, but it certainly isn’t the brilliant return to form some are claiming.