Since forming in 1989 in Stockholm, Sweden, Opeth have carved out a distinctive niche for themselves in modern metal. Even by the time their first album dropped in 1995, they had most of their sound mapped out: the juxtaposition between delicate acoustic soundscapes and crushing death metal riffs, supremely expressive guitar solos and leads, gothic atmosphere, brutal, growling vocals, and epic-length, labyrinthine song structures.
They were (and remain) an anomaly within both death metal and progressive metal circles, but they’re also widely accepted as one of the most restlessly creative groups in music, metal or not. Across 24 years and 13 albums, they’ve made some of the most challenging and fascinating music in the history of modern metal.
13. Orchid (1995)
Let’s be clear: There are no bad Opeth albums. There are only the unfocused and messy ones and the undisputed masterpieces. Orchid falls into the former category. There are enough elements of the sound they’d later perfect on Still Life and Blackwater Park to keep fans of their later, more polished material happy. But they still sound like a band that’s working on figuring out how to write these grand, winding, epic pieces of music. Orchid is not for the faint of heart, though. Not even Opeth’s later forays into straight-ahead progressive rock and jazz fusion could be classified as easy listening. But it’s a mesmerizing look at the commencement of one of the most singular bands in metal.
12. Watershed (2008)
A clear sign that the band and their leader, Mikael Åkerfeldt, had perfected and pushed their unique, progressive death metal sound about as far as they could, Watershed is the only Opeth record that could be described as sounding tired. Their keyboard player, Per Wiberg, who was only credited as a full-time band member on their previous record, Ghost Reveries, is given more to do on Watershed than he was previously (he was only a touring member before Ghost Reveries). The songs are boundary-pushing and contain many jaw-dropping moments: one that stands out is the breakdown of “The Lotus Eater”. A spare and tension-packed build-up leads to one of the most unexpected left turns in a discography packed full of them. It truly needs to be heard to be believed.
11. Heritage (2011)
After Watershed, Opeth dove headfirst into straight-up progressive rock, with Åkerfeldt abandoning his characteristic death-growls for his equally distinctive, smooth baritone for the follow-up, Heritage. The songs are packed with enough gnarled, spidery riffs to remind us that we’re listening to an Opeth record, but the distortion on the guitars is considerably toned down and Wiberg’s keyboard takes over on many of the tracks. At times, Heritage comes off as a harder-edged version of a Camel record. Heritage provides further proof that Opeth is a band that transcends the tag of “metal”, which has always been a reductive way of describing their sound, anyway.
10. Morningrise (1996)
Opeth’s second album found them really leaning into their ambitious songcraft. There are only five songs on Morningrise, but they each exceed ten minutes (including their longest track to date, the 20-minute onslaught of “Black Rose Immortal”). Each track is crammed full of acoustic interludes, whiplash rhythmic changes, and contrapuntal guitar lines.
By this time, Åkerfeldt hadn’t quite settled into his clean singing voice. Between that, the echo-y production, and the impenetrable song lengths, it’s an exhausting listen, but it eventually reveals itself to be full of exhilarating moments. The key track here is “The Night and the Silent Water”. which has a coda that anticipates future classics like “Master’s Apprentices” and “Deliverance”.
9. Damnation (2003)
Though Heritage would be a demarcation between the two halves of their career (or, depending on how you look at it, the middle third and the latter third), it wasn’t the first time Opeth recorded an album without death-growls and distortion. Damnation was recorded simultaneously with Deliverance, with the albums signifying the two sides of their musical personality. It may be a quieter affair, but it is by no means any less challenging or satisfying.
The album kicks off with a twisted, time-signature-destroying guitar figure of “Windowpane”, while “In My Time of Need” has an odd, staccato vocal style during the verses. There’s also the polyrhythmic groove underlying “Closure” and the spare mellotron-and-vocals arrangement of “Weakness”. The clean vocals provide the added enjoyment of actually hearing Åkerfeldt’s lyrics – which is a treat, as he is and always has been the best lyricist in heavy metal. Period.