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Very creative but flawed - 82%

gasmask_colostomy, March 30th, 2017

Wow, people really do get excited over Opeth, don't they? Looking at the 23 reviews gathered beneath mine, I can only see seven that seem not to include hyperbolic statements in either their title or review score. I've never quite got that strong a feeling from Opeth, but allow me to say that I like the majority of the band's output and am (by some happy coincidence) sitting on my sofa wearing an Opeth hoodie as I write this. For those unfamiliar with the band: firstly, where have you been hiding? And, secondly, here are the commandments of songwriting according to the Swedes.

1. Thou shalt include an acoustic interlude in every song over 5 minutes.
2. Thou shalt not write any song shorter than 5 minutes, excepting acoustic interludes.
3. Thou shalt not let thine drummer slack off and play in 4/4 timing more than once per album.
4. Thou shalt create elaborate concepts that most people can't be arsed to understand.
5. Thou shalt use two guitars to ensnare listeners in an emotional web.
6. Thou shalt switch ceaselessly between death growls and clean vocals, barring in thine early work and thine progressive rock accident that shalt end thine career.

In essence, every early and mid-period Opeth album can be recognized by their adherence to those commandments, while the post-Watershed efforts require a whole new religion, which results in about as much deviation as Christianity from Judaism after that Jesus fella was crucified. Blackwater Park, however, stands out among the "progressive death metal" releases in that it most definitely has the greatest commercial appeal and the greatest accessibility. Considering that Steven Wilson was called in for the first time on this release, his impact seems to have shaken up the writing and recording process, giving the album a sheen and sparkle that reflects the doubled recording time (from a month and a half to three months) and some more straightforward ideas pertaining to song structure and hooks. Songs like the opener 'The Leper Affinity' really have a widescreen quality to them that gains gravity from the swooping slow guitar lines that the band began to use on the preceding Still Life. The riffs hit a touch less hard than before: there is no fist-to-face aspect to this album and instead we must concentrate on mood, detailing, and the different kinds of motion. There is a winding quality that comes back time and again in the songs, which feels like mist rising, while I also get the feeling of elevation and a soaring feeling, such as winds across a cliff face might give. As a result, the atmosphere is still very much "outdoors", though there is more of an element of mystery and dewy British mornings than the Scandinavian forest or the quiet Mediterranean village that permeated the previous efforts.

If all this talk of atmosphere is putting you off, then I don't think you're going to like Blackwater Park very much, because it needs an investment in the mood of the music to get the full benefit. Some of the songs, especially the wandering 'The Drapery Falls', don't do much besides atmosphere, containing many transitions from acoustic to dreamy heavy playing (heavy is the wrong word here, but what can one contrast with?) and wrapping the listener either in a fog of emotions and thoughts or boredom, depending on their attitude. On the other hand, there are some definite moments that regular fans of metal can be expected to enjoy. The punchy riffing of 'The Funeral Portrait' is a more aggressive and memorable example (the riff at 2:00 will blow your head off if 'Dirge for November' made you sleepy), plus the lengthy title track goes halfway to death metal in its most incensed moments, as well as packing a majestic melodic conclusion and a couple of monstrous solos.

A new feature of Opeth's music that Wilson brought to the fore is also the growing tendency to include repeating parts in songs, allowing the length of the album to become more manageable in the face of hooks and choruses. Both 'Bleak' and 'The Drapery Falls' manage to strike with refrains that rise high above the rest of the music both in terms of focus and emotional intensity, the forming being perhaps the greatest vocal hook that the band ever came up with. Neither song is arranged around those moments, but 'Harvest' is a much simpler song that harks back to 'Benighted', the similarly all-acoustic song on Still Life. At first glance, 'Harvest' is a ballad with a longish solo section straddling six minutes and following a fairly regular pattern of verse and chorus, yet the execution of such a piece really takes this album to the next level. There is a pastoral quality to the song that evokes very specific images for me, aided by Mikael Akerfeldt's wistful vocal delivery and some fine soloing that seals the deal. If I played that song to a girl and told her that the moment I laid eyes on her, etc. etc. - I reckon it would give me a fair shot. It's pretty fucking gorgeous, that's what I'm trying to say.

Thus far, I'd say that I've been viewing Blackwater Park in its better light, because there are some problems with it that prevent me from really appreciating it as much as I should. In the first place, the balance between the two sides of the band is not exactly even: placing the more overt, accessible material next to the dreamier, mazier compositions shows up the weaknesses of both, while the mood is jerked around a little by the transitions between the two. Whereas a full-on onslaught of ideas made early Opeth albums like Orchid into long reveries, the attention-grabbing nature of 'The Funeral Portrait' and 'Harvest' merely highlight the fact that what lies between them ('The Drapery Falls' and 'Dirge for November') are more than a little rambling and unfocused, causing attention to grow and diminish throughout the listening experience. There are also one or two small sections that sound forced here, particularly during 'The Drapery Falls', while 'Bleak' - great refrain aside - could use some tidying up in other areas. Thus, in somewhat the same way as I found myself frustrated when reviewing Ghost Reveries, Blackwater Park comes mighty close to being damned with the label of inconsistent.

In the end, the good material on offer overwhelms the weaker parts and I'm convinced that, with a bit of cutting, this could have been the band's finest hour. The strength of 'Harvest' and 'The Funeral Portrait', as well as large parts of 'The Leper Affinity', 'Bleak', and the title track have rarely been matched in terms of simultaneous complexity and catchiness, while Opeth themselves have never returned to this style since. As such, this album is not to be held up on a pedestal nor shoved down into the pit, but can be generally appreciated for what it is - a very creative and partially flawed listen.