Sweden's Opeth is a hard band to put a label on. For more than 25 years, the metal act has moved from an almost exclusively progressive death metal unit featuring primarily growled vocals to a hybrid of growled and clean vocals, to a progressive rock band with influences ranging from jazz to blues. But one thing that has been consistent throughout their career is thought-provoking lyrics and lengthy, moody instrumental pieces. These ten songs pull from across Opeth's varied career to give a broad picture of their best work.
From their 1995 debut album, Orchid, “In the Mist She Was Standing” is the song that is most representative of what was to come from lyricist Mikael Akerfeldt on future albums. At a sprawling 14:09, this album opener about doomed lovers separated by death gave listeners their first look at the complex and often enigmatic lyrics the band would become known for.
By the time of 2014's Pale Communion album, Opeth had transitioned almost completely away from their death metal vocal roots and into a more experimental progressive rock band in the mold of King Crimson. Nowhere is this more evident than the instrumental track “Goblin;” itself named for the influential Italian progressive rock band. The song bounces between progressive rock and jazz fusion, making for a wild, but satisfying ride.
Opeth's 2003 album, Damnation, was a true change of direction moment for the band. Featuring only clean vocals and ramping up the moody atmospheric lyrics and melodies, it brought Opeth a whole new generation of fans and was their first album to crack the American charts. “Death Whispered a Lullaby” was a rare Opeth song not written by Akerfeldt, but by their producer, Steven Wilson.
Opeth's third album, My Arms, Your Hearse, was also the band's first concept album. The story is of a man who dies and comes back as a ghost, and in his reincarnation, finds his wife has taken another lover. The album's climax is “Demons of the Fall,” where the enraged spirit tries to kill his wife, only to fail and realize he is doomed to be alone for eternity.
Blackwater Park, from 2001, is considered by most critics to be Opeth's breakthrough album. It was the first of their collaborations with producer Steven Wilson, who helped shift their sound. Blackwater Park also produced the first ever single from Opeth, “The Drapery Falls.” The song, detailing a toxic relationship, has remained a favorite among Opeth fans at concerts for years.
As Opeth began to incorporate more clean vocals into their style, their fan base was divided. Some loved the new direction and embraced the more progressive rock sounds while others lamented the reduction in death metal influences. Opeth answered this by recording their next two albums together and dividing them. Damnation contained all of the clean vocals and atmospheric melodies while Deliverance focused on the band's death metal roots. While Damnation wound up being the much more popular album, many fans loved the heavier focus of Deliverance live. This was evidenced by “The Master's Apprentices” being released as a single, not from the album, but from their 2003 live album, Lamentations.
Few Opeth songs make the jarring switches between death metal and progressive rock feel as cinematic as “Ghost of Perdition.” The song from the band's 2005 album, Ghost Reveries, cuts between throat-shredding growls, acoustic interludes and jazz-influenced progressive metal solos as the narrator's turmoil over killing his mother careens between anger, remorse and confusion.
Opeth's eighth album, Watershed, came at a time of great change for the band. Two long running members had departed the group while vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt had welcomed his first child into the world. The results of this upheaval were seen best in “Porcelain Heart,” with its darkly cinematic music video and lyrics like “kept inside our idle race, ghost of an idol's false embrace” that show off Akerfeldt's enigmatic songwriting style.
The fourth album in Opeth's catalog, Still Life, was like its predecessor, My Arms, Your Hearse. The story is of a man banished from his home for his lack of religious faith and the album's most brilliant track is “Face of Melinda.” After the narrator resolves to return to his home for his love Melinda, he discovers she is being forced into an arranged wedding. The song doesn't deliver a happy ending, with its final words being the heartbreaking “my promise is made, but my heart is thine.”
At its best, Opeth can deliver a hauntingly beautiful lyrical gut punch with the best of them. The best example of this comes from their 2003 album, Damnation, in the form of “In My Time of Need.” Long a fan favorite, the song is a frank and frightening portrayal of near suicidal depression. Not only are lyrics like “At times the dark's slowly fading, but it never sustains” wrenching, but delivered perfectly by Mikael Akerfeldt's baritone lament.