4. Ghost Reveries (2005)
It’s difficult to describe the hot streak Opeth were on when they released Ghost Reveries. They were in the middle of the most creatively fruitful periods in their history, releasing at least three undeniable classics (Still Life, Blackwater Park, Deliverance) in four years. For a band whose albums regularly stretch out to lengths of over 60-minutes, that’s no small feat.
In short, to say expectations were high for whatever came next is an extreme understatement. Much like My Arms, Your Hearse, Ghost Reveries is less a reinvention and more a refinement of the prior three albums (Damnation excluded).
What’s most amazing about Ghost Reveries is that it sounds so effortless. Opeth are clearly masters of the form and this is their victory lap. While it’s no secret that Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson’s production helped them refine their sound for Blackwater Park and Deliverance, they also pretty much nailed it before he entered the picture with Still Life, the furious zenith of their early years.
Ghost Reveries saw the band experimenting with alternate guitar tunings (they refused to play fan-favourite “Reverie/Harlequin Forest” live for years because of its bizarre tuning), triumphant chord changes (the ending of “The Baying of the Hounds”), and Indian percussion (“Atonement”). “Atonement” also contains some of their best Eastern-influenced melodies to date, coming off as a gothic Led Zeppelin at their worldliest.
It all leads to the album’s electrifying climax, “The Grand Conjuration”, which has all the skittering, syncopated rhythms, gothic atmosphere, folky acoustic picking, and soulful leads of Opeth’s best work. It’s a disquieting lull one bar and a destructive roar the next.
It’s also clear listening to Ghost Reveries that they’d taken their sound as far as it could go. It makes sense that they’d want to shake things up two albums later.
3. Still Life (1999)
There’s a moment at the beginning of Still Life when a moody, clean electric guitar figure gives way to an almost flamenco-inspired acoustic piece when suddenly, in the middle of a bar, BOOM! The full band kicks in, and the results are truly frightening, even for the most jaded metal fan.
Still Life was the moment Opeth’s sound truly crystallized into what they would do for the next decade. The only real change between Still Life and Blackwater Park is an increase in production values, but this is no mere dry run.
The spacy textures in the middle of “Moonlapse Vertigo” and the tremolo guitars at the end of “The Moor” are unlike anything the band would ever attempt again. Even the slower ballads, “Benighted” and “Face of Melinda”, are enthralling, proof positive that it was the songwriting, not the screams or in-the-red guitars, that was truly captivating about them. On “Face of Melinda” in particular, the clean guitars, elastic bass, and harmonized guitars make for something truly exceptional.
Åkerfeldt’s clean singing is more confident than ever and, even by the standard of top-notch musicianship the band is known for, these riffs are nimbler and the solos more melodic and expressive than even some of their later work. Still Life is not to be ignored.
2. Deliverance (2002)
Opeth fans and music journalists were still picking their jaws up off the floor from Blackwater Park by the time Deliverance dropped a short 20 months later. How do you follow up an instant classic of the magnitude of Blackwater Park?
Well, if you’re lucky (or just Opeth), you release another impossibly great album. Deliverance has fewer overdubs than Blackwater Park, fewer production tricks, and less studio manipulation. It’s an unrivaled combination of cerebral and visceral.
The opening riff of the title track is one such example, a seemingly lunkheaded riff with a rhythm that anyone can pick up, but upon closer inspection is in 7/8 time. That 2-2-3 rhythm becomes a motif throughout the rest of the first part of the song. It’s present in the gentle acoustic soundscape of the verses and the riffage the song erupts into later on. The song is so seamlessly put together that by the time it gets to the end of the coda, with it’s simple but brutally effective guitar lead and equally brutal syncopated rhythm, it’s easy to forget that 13 minutes have gone by.
While Opeth has never really been “accessible” in the mainstream sense of the word, “A Fair Judgement”, with its two-chord vamp, easy but graceful melody, and emotive guitar lead, comes closer than any other song in their catalog, despite being a ten-minute-long slow jam. The inhumanly heavy riff that opens “Master’s Apprentices” evolves into rich, major-key vocal harmonies, which eventually drop out in favour of equally rich guitar harmonies and hypnotic octaves while the song fades out. Even the instrumental interlude, “For Absent Friends”, is worthy of inclusion of the album, as it’s a continuation of the previous track and a welcome respite from the rest of the heaviness it’s surrounded by.
While the opening “Wreath” lacks the melodic heft to be a classic track, Opeth’s B-material is better than most other bands bringing their A-game. On top of that, the three main setpieces for this album (“Deliverance”, “A Fair Judgement”, “Master’s Apprentices”) could easily make up a top three list of best individual Opeth songs. All three are at least comparable in quality to anything from Blackwater Park.
So why isn’t Deliverance number one on this list?
It’s mostly because of the dang final track. “By the Pain I See in Others” sounds like it was made from scraps of the other, better songs. It’s one of the few times when the song sounds like random bits thrown together. There’s a reason Åkerfeldt has called it his least favourite Opeth song. If they had replaced it with one of the songs from companion album Damnation (recorded at the same time as Deliverance) instead, this would definitely be the best album of their career, bar-none. Alas, that’s not the case.
1. Blackwater Park (2001)
The shadow of Blackwater Park looms large and not just for Opeth, but for metal in general. Does anyone dare attempt the creation of something with this breadth and scope? Nearly every song contains indelible riffs, haunting melodies (both vocal and instrumental), and expressive solos (Åkerfeldt and fellow guitarist Peter Lindgren have always been more David Gilmour than Yngwie Malmsteen in their approach to soloing).
Listening all these years later, Blackwater Park is a reminder of everything Opeth does best: uncompromising brutality balanced with boundless beauty and imagination, a suffocating, gothic atmosphere, with the music taking turns being smoothly melodic and carefully dissonant. It’s the sound of a cold, rainy day in winter. It’s a lush, impeccably composed symphony of guitars and drums. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.
If that sounds like hyperbole, take a listen to the serpentine, Eastern-influenced main riff of “Bleak” and how the song morphs into a dramatic chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on the darkest Cure record. You want beauty? How about the unsettlingly gothic “Harvest” or the melancholic vocals and aching guitar melody of “Dirge for November”? Take the piano ending of “The Leper Affinity” or the entirety of “Patterns in the Ivy”.
You want brutality? Try opener “The Leper Affinity” for some particularly harsh and dissonant riffs, as well as “The Funeral Portrait”. Special mention has to go to the title track, with its acoustic introduction to the main riff being one of the most whiplash-inducing and mind-bending moments in Opeth’s discography.
This was the beginning of a new phase for the band. If they broke up or died immediately after this album was released, they’d still be remembered for this monumental piece of work. Throughout their career, Opeth would never replicate or top Blackwater Park, but to their credit, they never really tried to, opting instead to stretch their creative muscles in other ways. No other group has a discography quite like Opeth.