Sunday, 29 November 2020

Log #218 - Moving Through The Prog Metal Gears With Opeth

Eddy Bamyasi

My recent listening to King Crimson and Tool (and a facebook post extolling their virtues) has led me to Opeth. They are a Swedish metal band. Sounds unpromising doesn't it, and this initial reaction was confirmed as I listened to the opening track of their 2001 Blackwater Park album (as recommended by some Twitter fans as possibly their best) but bear with me as Opeth just could be my greatest discovery of the year! 

~

Opeth - Blackwater Park
Opeth - Heritage
Opeth - Watershed
The Enid - Invicta
Manu Chao - Clandestino
Cornershop - When I Was Born for the 7th Time

~

The first impression from opening track The Leper Affinity is off putting to my ear due to the frankly scary thrash/death metal growl vocals. But... I'm so pleased I persevered as the vocals are not exclusively "growl" aka "cookie monster". Some tracks are part "cookie" part "clean" and some are fully "clean". Apparently this was a gradual change for the band that started out firmly in the death metal camp and have gradually over the course of a long career (they were formed in 1989) moved more into prog rock. Of course many of the legacy fans remain perturbed by the change and won't entertain the later albums accusing the band of selling out. 

For a new fan like me it's the other way round: What I've heard of the newer stuff I really like. What I've heard of the old stuff I'm not so sure about on account of the singing (the music sounds great throughout however) - I can't imagine there is a better exponent of metal in terms of musicianship and melody. These boys can certainly play, even if their music isn't your "tea" (as Damo Suzuki once said).  

The Leper Affinity is powerful chugging riff metal, follow up Bleak contains Rush like guitar passages, and the attractive Harvest showcases their frequent use of acoustic guitar strumming with a gorgeous slow distorted guitar lead over the top. The Drapery Falls is simply epic reminding me of the entire Journey To The Centre Of The Eye album by Nektar. It also fits in some Jethro Tull acoustics and latter day Frippertronics on distorted guitar.

Full of gorgeous melodies but still thunderously heavy, Opeth’s breakthrough album is widely and rightly revered as both a classic and a progressive metal benchmark.

Dom Lawson (Classic Rock) 

However it is fairly misleading to single out individual tracks as most contain multiple dynamic changes across a generous length (many tracks are in the 10 minute range). In fact most of the songs could be defined as epic and almost any one of them would be a centrepiece on most rock albums.

Jump forward ten years and we have Heritage which I gather is a real marmite record in the Opeth catalogue. Apparently this is the first album where Opeth went full on prog leaving behind their heavy metal roots (and more pertinently the cookie monster vocals, entirely). 

I love it. I think it's a superb record. Subtle expressive brilliant prog rock employing many of the traits of classic '70s rock (organs - damn, hammond and mellotron no less!, acoustic guitars, banked vocals, jazzy guitar) but with a very modern sound. I can hear many bands in this music (King Crimson (especially in Famine), Camel, Rush, Nektar, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull etc) but probably the one that comes through the most is Radiohead.

I've always seen Opeth as a band without boundaries.

Mikael Åkerfeldt

The whole record sounds like a concept album - more so in the musical themes than any lyrical content which I haven't paid much attention to (aside from his growling roots singer Mikael Åkerfeldt is actually a very nice singer).

For my third forage into Opeth I listened to Watershed, the band's 9th studio album from 2008, and the one before Heritage

Goodness there is so much to take in from these records. The first two tracks on Watershed alone practically cover the whole spectrum of prog and/or death metal. Opener Coil is a gentle acoustic guitar piece with female vocals (the acoustic guitar is very good throughout the Opeth records I've heard). Are the band going to serve up a mellow album? Not at all, second song Heir Apparent is full on heavy metal with that growl... but not always, there's clean singing and classical guitar and flute too. It shouldn't work, but it does. It's amazing what this band pack into 8 minutes. They do it immediately again on the identically lengthed The Lotus Eater.

Indeed the band have been accused of a lack of continuity in a lot of their song writing with seemingly unrelated parts being randomly strung together to form a whole. But isn't that what a lot of prog was like back in the day anyway? I'm sure Foxtrot or Close To The Edge could have gone off in any number of different directions on a whim.

Akerfeldt's clean vocals soar on this record never more than on fourth track Burden which is an epic stadium filling ballad. He so reminds me of another singer but I can't figure who that might be [It could be Tim Smith from Midlake, or Roye Albrighton from Nektar, or is it one of the old King Crimson singers Greg Lake or John Wetton? Ed]. These sorts of more restrained one paced songs are easier to take in, stripped of the trademark sudden structural changes. But even this one finishes on a bizarrely unusual detuned acoustic guitar passage (there is lots of acoustic guitar on this album too).

More acoustic guitar (and strings) drives the first half of the 11 minute Hessian Peel. Then there's some electric guitar, then a quiet piano passage, and then death metal growls and heavy riffing. Just a typical Opeth number then, although this could be the last ever Opeth song with death metal cookie monster singing? Is that actually the case? - I don't know yet.

The final track is perhaps the best of all. It's a little different from the rest of the album. The pace is understated, the guitar is jazzy, with a rising Fripp like scale chorus, and the whole piece is framed by mellotron keys. I've said it before but, again, this multi part track is like a whole album all of its own, yet it's "only" 7 minutes long. There aren't many bands that can create such "efficient" prog, perhaps Rush in their mid period around the time of Permanent Waves were one. Sadly most of the prog pioneers of the '70s floundered after that decade. If they had been able to adapt to making music like Opeth they may have survived longer (perhaps King Crimson have bucked that trend remaining relevant for longer than other contemporaries with two significant shifts in style in the '80s and '90s). Similarly what's particularly impressive about Opeth is they aren't afraid to experiment or change, even at the risk of alienating existing fans (who have generally stayed loyal to be fair). Each album sounds different and a progression from what came before. 

So lots of future listening sorted for the blog there with Opeth having produced at least a dozen albums themselves and having opened the door to more "prog-metal" bands I've never heard like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Mastodon, and Isis (and maybe even old skoolers like Metallica and Iron Maiden?). 

The Enid record is very different. Not only from the previous Enid album I played last week, but pretty different from almost anything I've heard. I can't quite decide if it's a non entity or brilliant. 

Much of the character is given by the vocalist. Originally I thought the vocals were female and/or a choir but it's actually (for the most part) singer Joe Payne. His high falsetto voice makes some of the music sound like Queen or Sparks.

There are passages of outright beauty on this record. Unfortunately it's not consistently maintained across the whole 9 tracks and 53 minutes. But there's enough there to provide a fascinating album which could become a major grower at Bamyasi Towers.

The stunning opening track The One And The Many provides an almost religious experience with some gorgeous chord changes over its ten minutes of orchestral opera. Actually you know what its like - that famous (and much used in adverts and the like) song from the Dido and Aeneas opera.

Heaven's Gate is the sort of track I don't really get. It's just a pure classical piece, quite bombastic. Classical pop really. Villain Of Science is a bit stageshow - Andrew Lloyd Webber, albeit with some rare electric guitar.

But these are the weaker moments only. Overall it's a curious, yet ultimately satisfying mix of classical and rock. Symphonic pop if you like but in this edition with much more depth and gravitas than I found on that Aerie Faerie Nonsense from last week.

Finally two fillers in the back end of the magazine this week (which someone else slipped in there without me noticing) with the Cornershop album (this was briefly of interest to me when they had that hit Spoonful of Asha or something which is on this album), and the Manu Chao album (this was briefly of interest to me when he had that hit King Of The Bongo or something which is on this album). 


About The Author

Eddy Bamyasi

Eddy is a music writer from Brighton, England, named after a Can record. Each Sunday he logs and reviews the albums that happen to be in his vintage Pioneer 6-CD magazine changer, amongst other things.

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