Music

Benighted by Beauty: The Legacy of Opeth's 'Still Life'

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.


Opeth

Still Life

Label: Peaceville
US Release Date: 1999-10-18
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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.

All quotes come from the linear notes of the 2008 special edition of Still Life.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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