Review Summary: Prog-death perfection.
What defines the “Opeth sound” for you? What are those trademark qualities that make them stick out in your mind? Maybe it’s their penchant for combining serene, pastoral passages with sudden bursts of death metal fury. Maybe it’s their highly diverse approach to progressive music, one that weaves through several disparate genres while staying focused from a songwriting standpoint. Or perhaps it’s the incredible talent of frontman and chief songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt, the vocal and guitar virtuoso who has led Opeth to several decades of critical and even commercial success. But if there’s one thing that’s surprisingly rare in the band’s body of work, it’s the concept of… well, a concept album.
Out of Opeth’s thirteen studio albums (at the time of this writing), only two of them are actually regarded as concept albums. And even then, the concept of My Arms, Your Hearse
is about as loose as it gets. The one full-fledged concept record in the group’s discography is their 1999 masterpiece Still Life
, a twisted tale of lost faith, religious fanaticism, and tainted love. The seven songs found on this tracklist represent the maturation and crystallization of Opeth’s sound - and while some of their early rawness and intensity was lost in the process, all is forgiven when you hear what the boys really unleashed with this project.
Among Opeth’s greatest strengths are their musical worldbuilding and sense of immersion, and Still Life
doesn’t disappoint in this regard. As soon as you hear the sinister guitar harmonies that introduce the monolithic 11-minute opener “The Moor”, you just know these guys won’t pull any emotional punches throughout the experience. Of course, as this epic track picks builds and builds, it becomes classic, signature Opeth: crazy dynamic contrasts, frequent switches between growled and clean vocals, poetic lyrics, all that good stuff. And it’s in this song that we get the basis of the story at hand.
The album takes place in a distant past. Our narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the record, gets forced out of his hometown for not adhering to the faith the rest of the inhabitants have. And while it’s not explicitly stated what religion is being addressed, it’s heavily implied – and was even confirmed by Akerfeldt himself – to be Christianity. But our main character, much like Okonkwo in the classic novel Things Fall Apart
, makes one fatal mistake: he returns to his hometown. Not for redemption in this case, but to return to his old lover Melinda. Things indeed do
fall apart, as the head council of the town want both him and Melinda dead, and… well, the ordeal ends about as happily as you imagine it would. Everyone dies; it’s a *ahem* Bloodbath, if you will.
Of course, the music itself matches the concept wonderfully. Every emotion and mood is effectively conveyed, whether it be sorrow, anger, peace, wonder… you name it, Still Life
has it. And much of that is attributed to the ever-expanding range of sounds and tones that Opeth were willing to play with. Want something that conveys the tension and anxiety of the main character returning to his old town? The tightly-coiled riffs and dissonant leads of “Godhead’s Lament” will do the trick. How about something that conveys the melancholy and dread of the tragic relationship with Melinda? Check out the light bluesy folk of “Benighted”, or the brooding jazz-tinged motifs of “Face of Melinda”. In fact, while we’re on that last part, Still Life
might just be the jazziest pre-Heritage
Opeth album; almost every song has elements of fusion, but it’s not done in an overly eccentric or distracting way. The influence comes in small traces here and there, such as subtle chord shifts or warm, bluesy guitar tones.
I know I’ve put a lot of focus on Akerfeldt so far, but the other members are incredibly impressive here as well. Peter Lindgren’s guitar work demonstrates his wonderful musical chemistry with Akerfeldt, as the duo’s guitar parts mingle and intertwine with each other effortlessly – especially during the complex acoustic passages. Meanwhile, bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Lopez – yep two Martins! – form a rhythm section that’s equal parts technical and groovy, and equal parts consistent and varied. If you wanna hear a prime example of every member being completely locked in and working perfectly in conjunction with each other, look no further than the intro of “Moonlapse Vertigo”; acoustic and electric guitars meld together to form a funereal melody, while the rhythm shuffles along slowly to match the melancholic mood. And for a faster moment of inner-band chemistry… the groovy-ass chorus of “Serenity Painted Death”!
wraps up with its second 10+ minute epic, “White Cluster”. And whereas the album begins with a furious barnburner like “The Moor”, it finishes on a much more mournful note – quite appropriate for the events that transpire in the story. But that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, as the song contains one of the most intense, ripping solos in the entire Opeth discog. The guitars are soaring and shredding, as Lopez goes absolutely nuts on the drumkit. But when all is said and done, the lowkey, somber ending of “White Cluster” has a pretty clear meaning: the main character and his lover Melinda have died and joined the afterlife, finally reunited beyond the grave. How romantic… and kinda morbid.
As many of you are aware at this point, I hold Opeth in an incredibly high regard. Hell, the first tattoo I ever got was of the “O” in their logo. So it takes a lot for me to elevate one of their albums above the rest, but Still Life
really is that record. Beyond the impeccable songcraft and masterful use of atmosphere, the unifying concept ties this tracklist together even more strongly than on the band’s other efforts. The anti-zealotry message and tragic love story give Akerfeldt ample ground to stretch his wings as a lyricist, and the result is an experience that is simply unforgettable. This is the kind of record that I most associate with the term “progressive metal”, elevating metal’s artistry and pushing the boundaries of what it can do as a genre. Truly the perfect Opeth album.