Over the past decade, Opeth have evolved into one of the most distinct sounding bands in metal music. One of the most daring bands death metal has ever seen, the Swedish band, led by guitarist/singer Mikael Åkerfeldt, shattered the rigid constraints of the genre, most notably with their highly acclaimed 2001 album Blackwater Park. By combining the progressive side of death metal with a more midtempo, melodic, almost folk-based sounds, Blackwater Park set the template for a pair of experimental sequels, the ferocious, adventurous Deliverance in 2002, and the much more mellow, acoustic-tinged Damnation a year later. For all of their innovation, though, Opeth’s music has always come off as a bit chilly, dazzling in the kind of technical expertise prog fans adore, but lacking in the kind of accessibility that goes over well with casual listeners of metal. With the tuneful Damnation throwing down the gauntlet, daring longtime fans to accept the fact that things were going to change, it was only a matter of time until the band got it completely right, releasing a record that appeases extreme metal enthusiasts, with the potential cross over to the non-metal crowd. After seven albums that stretched the boundaries of contemporary metal like no other band has dared to do over the same period, with Ghost Reveries, Opeth has finally pulled off their magnum opus.
While other death metal bands tend to embrace more of a free-form (some might say sloppy) songwriting style, Opeth take the more brutal sounds of the genre, and place them within a very controlled song structure, a style befitting progressive rock bands more than metal acts. As a result, you get moments of astounding power, but all executed with note-perfect precision and discipline. Åkerfeldt is a remarkable vocalist, with the ability to deliver both a very effective death growl (menacing, yet still intelligible) and a (dare I say) lovely smooth-voiced croon, and over the past few years, his “clean” singing has been slowly creeping into the band’s sound at an increasing rate, culminating two years ago on Damnation. If there was one negative aspect of Blackwater Park and Deliverance (not to belittle two great albums or anything), it was that the acoustic element seemed too tacked on, and conversely, the one complaint among fans was that Damnation wasn’t heavy enough. Now, all the experimentation seems to be over; Ghost Reveries has Opeth perfecting their sound, achieving a stunning balance between the melodic and the aggressive, a marriage of the haunted and the haunting.
While the new album is a decidedly moody piece of work, it’s both a very accessible album and a welcome return to the monstrous sounds of the past, something instantly noticeable on the opening track “Ghost of Perdition”, which, after a brief, understated intro, explodes with distorted chords and death vocals. Only here, there’s more nuance to Åkerfeldt’s compositions, the disparate styles intertwining with a grace that is all too rare in metal music. Both “Ghost of Perdition” and “The Baying of the Hounds” mark a return to the challenging progressive strains of Deliverance, and especially on the latter, Åkerfeldt reaches a new level of creativity. After opening with a sensational, organ-driven groove reminiscent of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, the song takes off on a winding road full of hairpin turns, from a murky movement dominated by Rhodes piano, to soaring, Isis style chords, to an astonishing, contemplative acoustic breakdown that materializes from out of nowhere, but fits perfectly, piano notes cascading, and mellotron droning mournfully in the background, before returning to the thunder of five minutes previous.
The more the album settles in, the more obvious it becomes just how deceptively simple the rest of the disc is. Serpentine mellotron melodies slither their way through “Beneath the Mire” and the slinky, Middle-Eastern-themed “Atonement”, while the 12-minute epic “Reverie/Harlequin Forest” benefits greatly from the band’s restraint, as they opt to stay close to the initial melody throughout. A similar sense of discipline can be heard on “The Grand Conjuration”, arguably the album’s finest moment. A jaw-dropping example of what a great band can do with the simplest of melodies, it’s the most stripped-down epic track Opeth has ever recorded. The primary hook, which consists of a series of ascending and descending notes, is understated, but so effective at establishing a simultaneous sense of comfort and unease, and the band takes that one little melody, and makes something massive and majestic out of it, to the tune of ten minutes. Opeth are never a band to rush things, and here they just take their time, shifting smoothly from hushed verses (“This poetry/ Our blasphemy/ Know the sounds/ Of infamy”) to bellowed choruses of demonic wrath (“The hands of Satan/ Assembling his flock/ Pale horse rider/ Searching the earth”). The song meanders languorously: a moment of double-bass driven doom… a brief appearance of discordant notes resembling a damaged music box… a soaring movement which has you visualizing an unholy beast rising from the ether… until, finally, we come full circle, welcomed by that distinctive initial melody, which brings the song, and the album, to a spine-tingling climax.
The addition of a fifth member, keyboardist Per Wiberg, was a perfect next step for the band to take, and his inclusion makes a huge difference on the album: a Rhodes piano shimmers eerily, a mellotron weeps in the background, a Hammond B3 churns ominously, a grand piano chimes dolefully. The album’s production is much fuller than previous releases, sounding more intimate, yet more muscular at the same time, the improved sound putting more focus on Åkerfeldt’s vocals, as his growls are much fuller-sounding, his singing the strongest it’s ever been (especially on “Isolation Years” and “Atonement”). His lyrics have a majestic, dark beauty to them, highlighted by the gorgeous “Isolation Years”, which dares to achieve a Poe-like sense of longing and impending doom (“There’s a certain detail seen here/ The pen must have slipped to the side/ And left a stain/ Next to his name/ She knew he was gone”).
Ghost Reveries marks the full realization of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s artistic vision. This is not just music that caters solely to the extreme crowd; like Black Sabbath, like Bauhaus, like Nine Inch Nails, it’s gloomy music for the masses, as exhilarating as it is ghostly. For anyone who doesn’t mind a hint of darkness in their record collection, this album is essential. One of the year’s very best.