For all the jokes and derision that electronic music fans have to endure about the seemingly endless splintering of genres and sub-genres, one would have to imagine that metal fans were standing quietly hoping not to be noticed. While the general world may only know about “metal,” true believers know the world of loud guitars has it’s own series of classifications that can send you down a twisty rabbit hole. Thrash, grindcore, stoner, tech... the list goes on and on. For as many classifications as you can imagine, there are a similar amount of arguments about who is what, who is not and all of the High Fidelity–related chatter.
Opeth is one of the bands at the center of such arguments. Emerging from the Swedish death metal scene more than 22 years ago, they seemed to be firmly defined. But the band, led by singer guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, proved to be a far more slippery beast. For proof, look no further than the three CDs and DVD reissued by The End.
The batch of albums spans from 2001 to 2004 and captures the classic line-up—Martín Méndez on bass, drummer Martin Lopez and Peter Lindgren on guitar—at the peak of its powers. It also finds them undertaking the biggest stylistic shifts of their career. The change begins straight away with the band’s breakthrough record, Blackwater Park. Conveniently their artistic breakthrough came at the same time of their widest distribution, the first addition of an outside producer (Stephen Wilson of Porcupine Tree), and most importantly, the first time they started to use the studio as a tool.
From the opening, it seems like business as usual: guttural Cookie Monster vocals, brick-heavy riffing and start-stop tempo shifts. Then, much like when the Wizard Of Oz goes from black and white to Technicolor, everything suddenly changes. There’s clean harmonic singing where you can actually understand the lyrics and musically there’s an increased amount of texture. Instead of trying to adhere to the rules of death metal, the band spreads their wings and incorporates different styles. So it goes a touch prog here and a bit psychedelic there. It’s a great balance where the sharp contrast seems to magnify just how good the parts work. Simply put it was a star-making moment and the band came through.
Emboldened by their experience with Blackwater Park, the band decided to push it further with their next two albums, Deliverance and Damnation. Although they were released a year apart, the two albums were recorded simultaneously during a seven-week stretch for a possible double album release, with Deliverance being the “heavy” album and Damnation being the “mellow” record. Deliverance is the next logical progression from Blackwater, with slightly less guttural vocals, but Damnation is a revelation. There are moments that are dripping with delicate beauty, and it’s the type of album that seems like the exact opposite of what a death metal band should do. Taken as a snapshot of a three-year period, it’s almost absurd that Opeth went so far so fast, especially considering that they did most of their writing in the studio.
The capper of the reissue set is Lamentations: Live at Shepard Bush Empire 2003, which has the band playing selections from all three records. Needless to say, if the records didn’t convince you that Opeth were serious musicians, the DVD makes the case very elegantly. The Damnation set that opens the show hits hard, and the band makes all of the very complicated shifts seem effortless. And although the term “epic” has been used and abused, there’s just no other term that better describes the two-hour concert that features just 14 songs. And there’s something very satisfying about extended workouts that dig all the way into the nooks and crannies of the songs.
For longtime fans, this reissue batch doesn’t bring that much new to the table. The main reason behind the reissues is to bring these albums back into print in the US, but there are some slight additions. Blackwater Park comes in a mini hardcover book with a DVD containing a surround-sound version, as well as a documentary about the making of the album and a bonus live version of “The Leper Affinity,” but it’s the same version that was issued for the record’s 10th anniversary. The DVD set is the only major upgrade and includes the entire concert split on two CDs. So while the reissues may not add anything new, for fans of metal in its many permutations, it’s a great travelogue, even if it doesn’t totally clarify where Opeth lies on the metal spectrum.
Dorian S. Ham