Searching Their Way to Perplextion
Still Life‘s narrative borders on Shakespearean levels of romantic tragedy and social commentary, making it the most poetic and philosophical in Opeth’s catalogue.
Sweden is home to some of today’s most revered progressive metal acts, including Meshuggah, Katatonia, and Pain of Salvation; however, perhaps none have been as integral to the success and expansion of the genre as Opeth. Formed in Stockholm in 1990, the quintet has spent roughly a quarter of a century transforming complex musicianship and diverse vocal styles into pure works of art (in fact, they often refer to their releases as “observations” or “volumes”, which emphasizes their regal ambitions). Indeed, each of their LPs offers something truly special, demonstrating an almost unparalleled level of consistent experimentation, tastefulness, and creativity.
Naturally, fans like to debate over which of their ten records is the best. For some, the relentless ferocity of My Arms, Your Hearse or Deliverance reigns supreme; for others, the expertly balanced heavy/soft dynamics makes Blackwater Park or Ghost Reveries triumph; or perhaps certain listeners dislike the heaviness altogether, so they choose Damnation or Heritage. As much as I adore each of their offerings, I find that none of them match the melodic magnificence, conceptual brilliance, or seamless structural flow of the group’s fourth outing, Still Life. Not only is Still Life the finest Opeth release yet, but it’s also one of the best metal albums of all time.
In celebration of its 15th anniversary, as well as in preparation for the band’s 11th opus (Pale Communion, due out in August), I want to venture into a detailed reflection of what exactly makes Still Life so damn remarkable after all these years. I’ve listened to it far more than any other Opeth piece, yet it never ceases to reveal new nuances and cleverness, making it still the most refined, intricate, and gripping entry in their discography.
Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt reflects that he began writing Still Life while staying with his best friend, Jonas Renkse (frontman of Katatonia). He says that “nothing was really happening” with either band despite both recently signing to Peaceville. Around the same time, he and [former] guitarist Peter Lindgren shared an old apartment and had to manage their food finances closely. He also mentions that this was the first record with bassist Martin Mendez.
In addition, Åkerfeldt confesses that he was nervous about recording the collection because he was writing everything alone and no one had heard any of the songs yet. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s fairly extraordinary that they managed to create something so polished, coherent, and rewarding out of such risky and fragile circumstances.
As for the lyrics and plot of Still Life, Åkerfeldt based them on a short story he was writing: “[It was] about religious beliefs contra atheism and how it would have affected someone in the old or even ancient days. The main character was a religious man who somewhere down the line started questioning his faith and eventually would lose it. He was to be banished from his village by ‘the council’ and would only return years later for his past love, Melinda, who was scheduled to be unwillingly married through family pressures.”
As you can see, this narrative borders on Shakespearean levels of romantic tragedy and social commentary, which makes it the most poetic, philosophical, and profound concept in Opeth’s catalogue. Of course, a storyline is only as good as the ways in which it’s presented; fortunately, the group does a standout job conveying the intensity and emotion of Åkerfeldt’s tale (more on that in a bit). In the end, he states, everything turned out “quite well. The material on this record was the most complicated music I’d written so far, and since, I believe.” Even after several subsequent masterpieces, this statement remains true.
As we all know, the cover of something has a huge impact on its reception and endurance, and the cover of Still Life certainly does its subject justice. Designed by revered artist Travis Smith (who’s also worked on album art for Amorphis, Iced Earth, Anathema, and Riverside, to name a few), its majorly red and black palette showcases a medieval woman in the foreground, weeping and draped in sacred garments; in the background, we see a cross buried in a grave. Between them is a blood red lake and sky. It also appears that the scene takes place at either dusk or dawn, with dim light coating everything in an ethereal essence.
This illustration is extraordinary for a few reasons. First, it’s simply a gorgeous yet haunting and mysterious image; really, it wouldn’t be surprising to find it hanging in an art gallery. Interestingly, the cover of Still Life is also more elaborate (and possibly more “artistic”) than its predecessors, all three of which consist of mere photographs (whereas this one is a painting). Also, it combines perfectly the scenic nature of its precursor, My Arms, Your Hearse, and the more avant-garde sketch used for its successor, Blackwater Park.
Furthermore, the likeness represents both the story and sonic quality of the album exceptionally. We can suspect that the crying woman is Melinda, which would mean that she’s mourning at the grave of our ill-fated protagonist. The quality of the picture denotes something timeless and allegorical, like a cautionary fable. As for the two main colors, one could argue that the blackness expresses the anger with which Åkerfeldt and company perform, while the redness illustrates the various emotions and passions felt during the full-length’s softer moments. Obviously, none of this is to suggest that the other Opeth albums don’t achieve a similar relationship between their music and images; Still Life just achieves the most with it.
Musically, Still Life immediately sets itself apart from the group’s previous efforts with its decorative, sophisticated, and luscious opening, “The Moor”. While their prior sets started aggressively, this one fades in slowly with a compelling and delicate acoustic guitar arpeggio that glistens with warm despair. It’s by far the most elegant and prophetic beginning they’ve ever had, and the way it blends into the ensuring devilishness is brilliant. The remainder of the song features ingenious modifications and transitions between riffs, rhythms, and especially tones, as Akerfeldt perfects the art of segueing between sections with meticulous grace.
The song also demonstrates a heightened concern for poignant lyricism. Phrases like “The sigh of summer upon my retreat/ fifteen alike since I was here,” “All the faces turned away/ And all would sneer at my demise,” and “There is no forgiveness in these eyes/ For any of you/ Dispel the mist for now/ Melinda is the reason why I’ve come” instantly intrigue listeners by introducing the characters and conspiracy. It also helps that these words are uttered via several of Åkerfeldt’s best melodies and instrumental motifs, and the methods by which he moves between these heavenly and hellish spurts are outstanding. Luckily, its follow-up, “Godhead’s Lament”, manages to equal it on every front.
Afterward, “Benighted” soothes the soul with what is likely the most ceremonial, comprehensive, and charming acoustic guitar work the group has ever crafted (although even diehard devotees must acknowledge its similarities to “Never Let Go” by Camel). It’s angelic and comforting, as are the vocals and words. Åkerfeldt presents cathartic invitations like “Come into this night/ When you’re able/ To undo your deeds/ And atone with your lonely soul” with a wistful yet wise and calming tone. The second half of the track incorporates more tactics, including percussion, resulting in the jazziest arrangement in their career thus far. “Face of Melina,” while heavier and more ominous by the end, shares a similar evolution and stylishness, granting listeners a fair amount of solace amidst the chaos.
Without a doubt, the finalé of Still Life, “White Cluster”, perfectly encapsulates everything that makes this disc so special. It features a constant flux of embittered rebellion and serene acceptance from the protagonist as he’s about to be hanged in front of the village. It begins with brutal riffs as he screams, “Sealed the spell of my scrawny body…and greeted me with a hiss,” before morphing into an brittle but empowered lamentation: “This is forgiveness, so I know/ Once I repent, I seal the lid/ I slither for you, and I’m dying/ I find trust in hate.”
He then bellows a new melody and proclamation—“They wear white for me/ Seemingly jaded and lost/ I forge myself into your dreams/ and here I am your life”—to the crowd (and perhaps to Melinda directly). A bit later on, the band ventures into a total progressive metal outburst crammed with rhythmic shifts and fiery solos prior to reprising the mournful side. What’s more intriguing about the track is that it ends with an afterthought; the song itself fades out 45 seconds before the track ends, and after a few moments of silence, a short and simple guitar/bass duet lulls listeners as they internalize the previous hour of noble tragedy. Where it originated, I’m not sure (it was probably just a sample of an abandoned piece), but it definitely gives Still Life an extra veneer of artfulness and weight.
Overall, Still Life soars higher than the rest of its siblings because of its ideal stability and seamless flow. It moves like a continuous song-cycle, so each part feels like a chapter in a focused and vital novel. Also, while most of their albums feature brilliant transitions and stylistic shifts to demonstrate both the dark and light sides of Opeth’s universe, this one offers the strongest complements between them.
In other words, they’ve never been interwoven so beneficially and effortlessly. Logically, the affective, classical nature of the story plays a major part, too. Still Life unquestionably signaled a major progression for Opeth, and while they may have grown even more as musicians and arrangers over the last 15 years, they’ve never achieved such a perfect synthesis of elements since. Every Opeth album is exceptional in its own ways, but Still Life still resides at the top of the tower.