8. My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)
Opeth’s third album, My Arms, Your Hearse, was a huge breakthrough for the band. They pared down the length of their tunes (just a tad), but not the skull-crushing riffs or even the twisty structures or melodic detours. It wasn’t a radical reinvention, but a refinement of what came before. The production is substantially clearer than the previous two releases, allowing each riff and acoustic passage to sound crisp and punchy.
My Arms, Your Hearse also contains their first bona fide classic, “Demon of the Fall”, which manages to fold contrapuntal guitar octaves, bouncy acoustic guitars, and horror movie atmosphere into their sound. (Fun fact: the last lyric to each song on this album is the title of the next song.)
7. In Cauda Venenum (2019)
Proof that more than two decades into their recording career, Opeth still had some tricks up their sleeve, In Cauda Venenum was released in two versions: one sung in English, the other in Swedish. They also manage to find new ways to subtly tinker with their sound, whether that’s with staccato acoustic guitar backing in “Continuum”, the distorted bass and menacing keyboard in “Charlatan”, the surprisingly bluesy guitar that pops up in “Universal Truth”, or the way the Spanish guitar runs that open “The Garroter”, which gives way to a dark, jazzy ostinato bassline and delicate, brushed drums.
6. Pale Communion (2014)
The King Crimson/ELP affectations of latter-day Opeth come into full effect on Pale Communion. After the relatively scattershot but captivating Heritage, the band came roaring back three years later with a superlative expansion of their new, prog-rock sound. Some fans may have moaned about the absence of growling vocals and high-gain distortion, but Pale Communion is proof that heaviness is more about suffocating atmosphere than riffs.
Luckily, Opeth has always had both in spades. Plus, the band has always had progressive music running through their veins. On Pale Communion, the riffs are more angular, the vocal melodies are more well-constructed and immaculately performed, the rhythms are busy but never distractingly so, and the keyboards either contribute to the atmosphere or play many of the creepiest riffs on the record. It’s also possibly the most cinematic Opeth release to date, with string arrangements, Eastern melodies, and rich, layered vocal harmonies.
5. Sorceress (2016)
When “Will o the Wisp” was released as a single ahead of Sorceress’ release, it raised eyebrows even for fans accustomed to the new, prog-rock direction Opeth had taken on their previous two outings. The insistent acoustic guitars set up a gorgeous, Jethro Tull-esque vocal melody, and instead of blasting off into weirdness, they just let the beauty hang there, leaving time for an expressive solo before fading out. For Opeth and their fans, such a straight-ahead move qualified as a left turn.
The rest of Sorceress isn’t as straightforward as “Will o the Wisp”, but it does sound like the band is settling into a comfortable groove within their stylistic makeover. Luckily, a “comfortable groove” for a band as perpetually boundary-shattering as Opeth means that it’s just as (if not, more) exciting as any previous release.
Many parts of the album – such as the way the guitar and keyboard trade off solos in “Chrysalis” – come off like mid-period Deep Purple. Hell, the opening of the title track sounds like a warped version of “Maybe I’m a Leo” before it breaks into doomy, impossibly heavy riffage. It’s just one example of the band continuing to take risks with their sound.
The ending of “The Wilde Flowers” takes on an almost polka-like rhythm. The sad, weird chords underlying the opening “Strange Brew” give it a flavour unlike other melancholic numbers in their oeuvre, before a knotty, insidious keyboard line takes over and Åkerfeldt sings with an uncharacteristic, soulful grit. So far, Sorceress is the pinnacle of Opeth’s new direction.