Review Summary: Another excellent outing from an outstanding band breaching the boundaries of metal musicianship.
Opeth, since its inception in the early 1990s in Sweden, has become a big name in metal today. Virtually every metal fan knows the name of this band, and in almost any metalhead's collection at least one record of this band can be found. They also seem to get loads of praise, with the main songwriter, Mikael Åkerfeldt, getting credit for his songwriting techniques and the influences he incorporates into his music.
After the in my opinion sludgy Deliverance, and the quiet Damnation, Opeth needed something new to get them back on track. Most of their records came from spontaneous mindsets; while this made for its enjoyable moments, it was time for a more structured approach to music. Not that they would use a standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus 2x formula, for that Opeth have always thought outside the box too much, but more practice, more refinement, a more... clinical approach to music perhaps. A more thought-out approach, too.
And especially on the longer songs, this work ethic creates some gems of songs. Ghost Of Perdition is a monster, that after the first two fading piano notes, comes blasting out of your speaker like a TGV passing by your house at 300 km/h. Then meandering into a trademark Opeth song, ranging from death growls accompanied by pounding, chugging riffs, to mellow acoustic interludes combined with softly sung vocals, plus everything you can find in between, it might well be the best track to exemplify what Opeth is all about. You could drop a needle on any point of this song and recognise it as Åkerfeldt and co. within ten seconds, and still, this band never manages to bore the hell out of me. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this band, or Opeth are just that good at what they do.
And there are more such typical Opeth tracks on here. The Grand Conjuration is played like a warlock. Evil, haunting, yet moody like magicians can be, it shows that Opeth don't change their course one bit. They don't make the same song everytime, they do vary, and they do experiment, but the general gist remains the same. Again, a classic Opeth track for the ten minute plus duration of the song. It sounds like stereotypical Opeth, but with just that extra 10% of musicianship that some other bands don't have that place Opeth at the summit of all the pretentious progressive metal bands out there.
Of course, Opeth are not without their flaws, and sometimes may overindulge in their style of music. Atonement is probably the only song on here I don't like, and that's because it's a superfluous piece of wankery. It's well placed, but it just is void of breath, it's inanimate and uninspired, as if Mikael said: "We've had three monsters of tracks now, we already have two good balladesque songs, but we need something here too.." and they wrote Atonement. It has none of that Opeth vibe. Unlike the slow and mellow parts of for example "The Baying Of The Hounds", this isn't just slow and mellow, it also drags like a grandmother in chains.
The aforementioned The Baying Of The Hounds, however, is another monster, just like The Grand Conjuration, it has those awesome "riff and growl" moments, and the ending is really melodic and quiet, only to culminate in some more heavy metal onslaught. Despite the fact that Opeth keep doing those tempo changes and hard-soft interactions, they still manage to surprise you everytime with their abrupt volume and tempo changes. The same goes for the epic Reverie/Harlequin Forest, which is by far the most complex track on this disc. It also is the longest, and on here, every influence that Opeth has ever mentioned, comes to a culmination in an excellent track that you will remember for years to come. Another classic of this band's impressive catalogue.
Isolation Years is another ballad, but unlike Atonement, this one genuinely works. It showcases that other side to Opeth, the 70s progressive vibe dripping off together with a nice mix of melodramatic lyrics and atmospheric music. If you didn't know better, you'd thought these guys (read: Mikael) had brought Jonas Renkse (of Katatonia) in to write this music. It has that kind of atmosphere, but without the deep guitar riffs. Soldier of Fortune, the bonus track, is an excellent Deep Purple tribute, and it really rocks my socks off. Opeth are not just noise, which they again prove on this record. These guys know their music, and just shoot their load on every song.
Another thing that never ceases to amaze is Mikael's impressive vocal range. While on his earlier outings, he would stick a lot more to the harsh death growl, and occasionally chime in with some hauntingly melodically sung vocals, on here he mixes them a lot more, leading to a much better vocal distribution overall. I enjoy both sides of Mikael's voice, but growling does get on my nerves after a while. He also possesses a proper singing voice, which really would be a waste not to use: he can do incredible things with it, ranging from falsetto crooning to plain singing, to really haunting vocal lines. And on top of that, he also knows how to play a guitar, without sounding like he feels the need to wank all over it. Whereas bands like Dream Theater tend to solo for the sake of the solo, Mikael does incorporate solos into his work, and so does his colleage on the guitars Peter Lindgren: but every guitar solo is well thought out, fits perfectly in its spot, and is generally appropriate for the song. A lot of his guitar parts also consist of mellow acoustic parts, which have never come across as redundant to me either, mainly because of the relaxed atmosphere they create. Whenever Opeth changes the tempo to traffic jam speed and uses mellotrons, acoustic guitars and cleanly sung vocals, these guitars just enhance that atmosphere. Not a note, no single plucked string seems out of place on these soft, lullaby-esque tracks.
The bass work is not as over-the-top, or maybe I should put it this way: it's not as easily noticeable as on the earlier albums. On Morningrise, I could often hear the bass (with some awesome bass lines, I might add!), on here it's not as prevalent, and while in no way am I trying to insinuate that Mendez is an incapable bass player, because he's definitely good, it would just be pleasant to see him slightly higher in the mix sometimes. Then again, with those crushing riffs, you can't really do a lot to get heard as a bass player. Sad, because at the forefront, Mendez may have proven that he is in no way inferior to the other members in this band musically speaking.
Lopez, who has sadly left the band, also proved on this record that he was more than just a metal drummer. Playing some ridiculous drum patterns, rather than just whacking the double-bass drums, he has shown us all how varied you have to be to be a successful metal percussionist. Incorporating Latin and jazz influences, and combining that with the brutal death metal side of the band, and accomplishing the feat of long and coherent songs and making a proper album is no mean feat. But Lopez manages to pull it off with aplomb, which in my opinion shows why it's sad that he had to leave the band. I'm sure Axenrot will be a fine replacement, and we'll see what he can do on this band's next outing, but he is definitely facing a tough legacy of an amazing drummer who has bled all the colours of the rainbow for this band.
Overall, this disc is up there with the other standout releases. While Opeth and a bad album is not really a valid combination in my eyes, this is definitely a satisfactory release by a band from whom we have come to expect a high quality standard of music with every disc they send out for their hounds to devour. Sure, I won't deny that this does not possess the Still Life majesty, or the sheer melodic beauty of Morningrise. But it can give the acclaimed Blackwater Park a run for its money, and it easily outclasses the already awesome Orchid. If all you new metal fans are looking for a band with a consistently high quality discography, make this band your next buy. You won't be disappointed.