Review Summary: Opeth's first foray into the 21st century saw them drawing together everything they'd attempted up to that point into one superbly refined whole, but it also leaves the listener knowing that the band were, and are, capable of so much more.
Whilst I love a good debate about which album is a band's 'masterpiece' as much as the next guy (this isn't true, I hate those arguments.) for the sake of this review, let's all agree that Blackwater Park is Opeth's magnum opus, their coming-of-age moment, the closest they've come to making a true 'classic.' Even though it's not my favourite Opeth album, I'd have to agree that all of these statements are true; it was a huge step up from previous release Still Life, not necessarily in terms of quality but in terms of budget, production, streamlining, and anything else you can think of. Upon its release in 2001, the metal world stood still, mouths agape, and proclaimed Opeth to be their new kings. So let's take a retrospective look, just over a decade later, at why this album is so revered.
A piano chord, slowly swelling in volume, isn't the typical start that one would expect to a death metal album. But that's how Opeth began their first album of the new century, with opener The Leper Affinity proving to be just the punch, right in the face, that fans needed to be reassured that, yes, Opeth were still the same old, well, Opeth. That's not to say that Blackwater Park doesn't cover any new ground; frontman Mikael Akerfeldt's clean voice is much stronger throughout, and some of the riffs he pens here as so meaty that you feel like you need a set of cutlery to handle them. But equally, this is no Watershed in terms of evolving the band's sound. And that's really what BWP is; a refinement, cutting down the crippling repetition that hampered their earlier efforts, and, for the most part, keeping the ADD listeners happy with numerous instrumental sections that keep the songs fluid and exciting.
The best example of this ever-changing nature of the tracks is the second song on the album, Bleak. In its nine minute running time, it runs the gamut from Middle Eastern-tinged death metal verses, to pleasingly melodic choruses, to bluesy solos, to fiddly acoustic passages, to... you get the idea. Whilst this could easily feel like the work of a dillettante if not pulled off correctly, Akerfeldt manages to stitch all of these differences together into one incredibly pleasing, cohesive tapestry. Other examples of such Frakensteinian songwriting occur in the final minutes of Dirge For November, which features a well pulled-off transition from Opeth's standard death metal into a haunting, almost ambient outro that features an undulating piano and guitar part. It's an impressive way of closing an equally impressive song, and leaves the listener feeling shell shocked, not quite sure what they've just experienced.
So, Opeth definitely got the progressive aspect right on BWP. But another refinement occurred in the 'short songs,' area. Harvest, the third track of the album, shows that Akerfeldt can write a perfectly good 'clean' song, featuring guitar parts that err just on the right side of dissonant, and adequately executed clean vocals throughout. The epic ten minute The Drapery Falls features its fair share of clean sections too, and alternates wonderfully between them and the gaping chasms created by the heavy E-Bow sections. All in all, BWP saw Opeth hone their craft almost to a science, which is probably the main reason that it's considered to be such a classic by metal fans around the world. Another key strength of the album, that seems often overlooked, is the acoustic layering of every single guitar part that is embedded into the entirety of the album. While this is very subtle, it really adds to the evil sound that the album has, and manages to make it sound both as folksy and as sinister as possible, much like the album art.
So why, then, after all of this acknowledgment of its quality, am I 'only' giving Blackwater Park, admittedly Opeth's classic, a four out of five?
There's a word you might have noticed popping up two or three times in this review: refinement. And everything about BWP absolutely reeks of it. Sure, the band did perfect everything that they had attempted so courageously, but ultimately failed in some aspects of, in 1999's Still Life, but were any of the key elements, the core 'Opethness' of the band's sound, really changed that dramatically in the transition into the new decade? And to that test, BWP gives us the result of a resounding no. Nothing new is really being attempted here; one can almost feel the band laying out every musical idea they had tried up to this point, and simply working on doing it 100% right. And I can't fault them on their execution; virtually everything here is done almost perfectly, and nothing seems out of place. Hell, the intro of Blackwater Park even features my favourite riff of all time. But the key reason that everything here is so good, is because Opeth have tried it all before.
I hate to compare BWP to 2008's Watershed, as I know I'll get flamed for doing so unfavorably, but their latest release really saw them experimenting, and trying new things that only they would even think of attempting. Sure, Bleak has some slightly unusual sections for a death metal band, but then so did Face of Melinda before it. In BWP, you experience first hand the strength of Opeth as a unit. You just know that they have all of these great new ideas bubbling up under the surface, but none of them come to fruition on the album. The counterargument to this is, of course, to say that BWP is exactly what I've been criticizing it for; Opeth taking a step back, and drawing together everything they had been doing up to that point into one polished whole. And I'm okay with that, as it does come out sounding tremendous. But I really don't feel like I can give anything above a four to an album that constantly gives you the overriding impression that the band that made it can do so much more. And that's why, for me, BWP might well be amazing, but it's lazy.